“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Stage Fright,” “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “It Makes No Difference,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “The Shape I’m In” are among the jewels written by Robbie Robertson, guitarist/songwriter for The Band.
Emerging onto the music scene in the late ’60s with a throwback sound and traditional style that separated themselves from their contemporaries (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison were among their champions), Robertson fashioned spectacular cinemascope-sized songs with a filmmaker’s flair, vivid character studies imbued with the mythology and imagery of the South.
A master storyteller, it’s no surprise that Robertson’s new autobiography, Testimony, resounds with his immeasurable gift for weaving a tale that evokes a robust sense of time and place.
Beautifully written, Testimony‘s gripping narrative puts you in the center of the action.
The book chronicles Robertson’s childhood, his formative years with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks treading the Chitlin’ Circuit and dive bars and clubs across the States and Canada working alongside future Band mates Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, as well as touring and recording with Bob Dylan (The Basement Tapes, Planet Waves) and of course, The Band’s musical journey.
It’s one filled with tales of triumph and heartbreak, from their acclaimed debut Music From Big Pink to their legendary farewell show at San Francisco’s Winterland, dubbed “The Last Waltz.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Where do you think your gift for storytelling originated?
Robbie Robertson: Well, it comes from a couple of different angles. I had a big epiphany at the Six Nations Indian Reserve when I heard this from an elder. I was told, “We’re gonna go to this place and this guy is gonna tell a story” and I was like, oh geez, please!
By then I was about nine years old and I didn’t want to hear stories (laughs). I felt I was too old for that. When we went and this elder told this story about Hiawatha and the Peacemaker something happened, electricity ran through me. I was so moved by the way that he told the story and the story itself.
I said to my mother, “When I grow up I wanna be able to do that. I want to be able to tell stories like that.” That’s my earliest connection to thinking, “Wouldn’t that be a great thing to be able to do?” Early on, I was drawn to story songs like “Long Black Veil,” which The Band would go on to record. It has a story to it. I remembered those songs with a deeper meaning than I did with songs that had a cool melody and words that would be fun rolling off your tongue. It touched me in a different place, so that was something I wanted to connect to as well.
The jump in your songwriting from your early compositions like “Someone Like You” and “Hey Boba Lu” in the ’60s, which were recorded by Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, to the songs you penned for Music From Big Pink is extraordinary. Discuss that evolution.
Robbie Robertson: I had this dream that I could find this imaginary place in the back of my mind that I couldn’t find anywhere because we were on the road all of the time leading up to Music From Big Pink. I talked to the guys about this thing for ages; like what Les Paul had. His records didn’t sound like anyone else’s in the world.
He had this workshop, this place that he could go, and it was his atmosphere and his environment. It was the place he could create things unlike anybody else. When we were recording as The Hawks I felt very frustrated that I never had the moment to gather what I wanted to gather to put into the songs. We were always on the move. We would meet somebody and they’d say, “Oh, do you want to go in and do some recording?” It seemed to me like the other guys in the Hawks were like, “Yeah, we just wanna get in there!” I was the only one saying, “I know, but what are we gonna do when we get in there? We’ve gotta have material.”
People were trying to convince us to record things, but the clothes didn’t fit. I was the only one drawn to songwriting and I had to think of something in the eleventh hour to be able to go in the next day and have something to record. I thought, “God, if there is ever an opportunity to have this sanctuary where we can get together and we can create something, we can make out own thing that we’ve been gathering all these years.”
After I did convince Ronnie Hawkins that even though I was 16 years old and inexperienced, I was gonna get good real quick and he would be proud to have a Canadian in a rockabilly band from the South. As quickly as I could do that, at the same time I was absorbing and absorbing. And then with The Hawks after we left Ronnie and we were playing the Chitlin’ Circuit, everybody in The Hawks were gathering; we were gathering musicalities, we were gathering sounds. We were able to go to Sun Records where this magic came out of and we were taking it all in.
So by the time we got to Big Pink we had this place of rest where we could unleash these things. For me, all of this gathering, all of these images and all of these characters, all of this Southern exposure affected me so deeply. When we got to Big Pink I unlocked that sanctuary and all of that stuff came pouring out.
There seemed to exist a creative purity of expression in The Band’s work, all its members working toward serving the song as well as eschewing worries about commerce and commercial appeal.
Robbie Robertson: We came from a school where we were most intrigued by those instances when we found something obscure and it was beautiful. It was like, whoa, that’s a treasure! One of the things that the guys in The Band had in common was a certain discovery process and because we loved finding something and saying to the other guys, “Do you want to hear something that’s gonna blow your mind?” And then you put on this record that you found that they hadn’t heard before.
Things that we heard commonly on the radio were under an “ordinary” heading. Everything sounded a little ordinary compared to what we were drawn to. So there was that side of it. Then with me writing songs I wasn’t saying, “This is a song about me and you’re going to sing it.” To me, it was about, “What story can I tell? What characters can I find that Rick Danko can sing better than anybody?” We had been together and we had paid our dues. We had done our woodshedding and now at this point the idea was for me to have this workshop. This relates to the cinematic thing where I’m gonna write something that these actors can perform brilliantly.
While writing, would you also cast a song lyrically based on the character and life force of a band mate? For example, “It Makes No Difference,” which stands as one of the most heartbreaking songs you wrote. Did you always see that as a song for Rick to sing.
Robbie Robertson: Well, there was no question in my mind who was gonna sing “It Makes No Difference.” I wrote it and I cast it perfectly for Rick Danko. In writing the words to “Whispering Pines” I was writing something that I thought Richard could break your heart with if he sings these words. I wanted to write songs that Levon could sing better than anybody in the world.
One of the most beautiful songs by The Band is one you penned with Richard Manuel for the group’s second album, The Band called “Whispering Pines”; your heartfelt lyrics perfectly complement Richard’s music and aching vocal.
Robbie Robertson: Richard had this thing he was playing on the piano and he was hitting this same note over and over again and it almost echoed inside of itself. Right away there was this distant, lonely, beautiful sad feeling to it. Then we were messing around with the music and we finally found a structure in that. When I joined in with him on the guitar I would say, “Why don’t we try going here at this point and then when we come back to this thing it’ll feel good?”
So now that we’ve got the music sorted out I need to write the movie. I approached in in that kind of way. I thought, “What is the movie that we see to go with this sound?” It was kind of funny that you would write the music to the movie before you wrote the movie but it made me feel that way. That’s where those lonely words came from.
While the group’s debut album received its share of raves, many cite the group’s second album, The Band, as your masterpiece. Looking back, by your standards does that album serve as the group’s most powerful unified musical statement?
Robbie Robertson: For me, the way that is adds up, when The Band was really unified and completely back to back with one another was when we were able to do our best work and when it inspired me the most to write. So when we did Music From Big Pink and The Band album we were locked in. When we did Stage Fright things were starting to veer off the path but there are some songs on Stage Fright that I feel very very proud of.
In regards to the “Stage Fright” album, you remarked that it was “the first time when writing songs was painful for me.”
Robbie Robertson: Yeah it was. I had been storytelling up to this point and now when I was trying to write a song for Richard who was really in bad shape with drugs and alcohol, I wrote a song called “The Shape I’m In.” I just couldn’t help it.
I couldn’t find that other spirit of storytelling. On the first two albums there’s all these voices singing together and harmonies and this beautiful spread of the voices. On Stage Fright there were single voices, one at a time happening much more. It was just reflective of what was going on. But at the same time I love the song “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”
It was me trying to find that spirit from before. I was trying to find something great for Levon. But in as bad shape as he was in too, when we were recording that album, challenged him with the song that I wrote, “All La Glory.” I was putting him to a test and wanted to see if he could handle the emotions of this song. It was very experimental.
But for me at this point I was trying to write some great stuff but The Band was like legs on a table. If one of the legs was missing the table was really out of balance.
Lastly, what do you miss most about your days with The Band?
Robbie Robertson: The clubhouse. The clubhouse feeling where everybody gets up and we go to the clubhouse and we see what happens. And that collaboration and that unity, and whether it was music or life, everybody was contributing something.
It made this thing called The Band and it was particularly unique what everybody had to offer because it wasn’t a couple of guys in a group that do everything and the other guys show up when there’s a rehearsal. As Garth would say, whether you need to fix the screen door or make the coffee, there was this clubhouse feeling that just brought great joy.
It was like medicine for our soul and it played a big part in us doing the best work that we did.