FINDING THE BAND WITH ROBBIE ROBERTSON

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By: Andy Tennille

The smiling elephant.

It was the ivory-tusked elephant inexplicably standing among the musicians on the cover of Music from the Big Pink that likely first drew my attention to the dusty copy of The Band‘s 1968 debut masterpiece among my father’s vinyl collection in the cabinet underneath his well-stocked liquor cabinet.

Pulling the well-worn record out from the gatefold and placing it on the turntable, I stared with bewildered amazement at the bizarre album cover as the first strained notes of Richard Manuel’s “Tears of Rage” piped over my parents’ hi-fi system. Why was the piano player being wrestled over the top of the upright piano, and what kind of band (other than perhaps the Village People) had a feather-sporting Indian playing the stand-up bass? And why exactly was a purple coffee cup perched precariously atop the seated sitar player’s head?


The Band by Elliot Landy
Like so much of the music found during one’s childhood, my discovery of The Band as a curious 12-year-old was based mainly on my adolescent attraction to Bob Dylan’s quirky folk art portrait on the album cover.

It’s funny how readily we remember those first landmark experiences discovering music that will forever affect our lives. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools was a 12-year-old kid living in Richmond, Virginia when the first wave of press hit for The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s concert movie of the group’s final performance at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1976.


Dave Schools by Aaron Williams
“I remember my friend Joey and I rode our bikes down to the Byrd Theater in Richmond to go see it, not because we had any appreciation for who The Band was or that we knew any of their songs or even that Scorsese was a cool director. We were excited mainly because Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Neil Young were going to be in it,” Schools recalls. “We were blown away by The Band and went back five or six times, every time riding our bikes down to the Byrd Theater to see it. Every time we went, we fell in love with The Band more and more. The songs were so disparate, from things like ‘Unfaithful Servant’ to ‘The Shape I’m In’ to ‘Life is a Carnival’ to ‘Genetic Method/Chest Fever’ to the rockabilly of ‘Don’t Want to Hang Up My Rock ‘n Roll Shoes.’ Look, any number of musicians in this day and age would kill to have written just one of those songs and have it be part of their catalogue. And they just flipped ’em out like biscuits out of an oven. The stories and their characters are these little passion plays. It’s not just some three minute and thirty-eight second piece of fuckin’ advertising – it’s great American music. That’s gonna stand the test of time over and over and over. So, like many people in my generation, seeing The Last Waltz was our introduction to The Band. It just sucked that this band that we now loved but had never heard of before was not going to be coming to a coliseum near you.”

Like so many other kids growing up, Warren Haynes‘ introduction to The Band came as a teenager listening to the music emanating from beneath his older siblings’ bedroom doors.


Warren Haynes by Dino Perrucci
“My oldest brother had a few of their records and I started hearing them in the background around the house. I remember wondering what it was because they sounded so different than anything else I was hearing,” says the Allman Brothers Band guitarist and Gov’t Mule frontman. “Lyrically, the songs were all stories, like little mini history lessons. The way The Band put the music and the lyrics together took you back in time as opposed to a lot of other music from that era that was more modern. The Band’s music always made me feel like I was time traveling, both lyrically and musically. They really took all forms of American music and combined it into this unique sound. They didn’t modernize it. They just came up with a unique hybrid that no one had ever discovered. I think that’s one of the things that makes that music so timeless now is that it fits into any decade. Even though most of the guys were Canadian, their music was a picture of Americana.”

“As a singer, as a player, as a songwriter and even as a listener, The Band’s music has been a constant source of inspiration,” Haynes continues. “It’s very grounding in a lot of ways. As a songwriter and a musician, you always want to find ways of pushing yourself and going further than you’ve ever been. And then you listen to The Band and you find that they achieved that by looking backwards. It’s something we all need to remind ourselves of.”


Trevor Garrod by Josh Miller
Haynes isn’t the only musician that considers The Band’s catalogue instructive. Tea Leaf Green keysman and chief songwriter Trevor Garrod first found The Band’s music through raiding his father’s vinyl collection in search of his old man’s Dylan records.

“I’ve always kinda thought of The Band as teachers – they teach me as a songwriter how to pull off good songwriting and still keep it rockin’,” Garrod explains. “I’ve learned a lot about songwriting by listening to their music and seeing how they put their songs together. I’ve been trying to rip them off ever since I saw The Last Waltz. Creating music is all about imitation and then trying to mutate something you learned from someone else to make it your own. You have to choose who you want to imitate and then mutate it. The Band is definitely one of my favorite sources. They’re like an oil well for my engine.”


Jason Isbell by Dave Vann
The epitome of The Band’s influence on today’s generation of rock musicians may not be felt any stronger than with Jason Isbell, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Whether it’s his reverence for Southern lore and mythology in his songwriting or his fragile, Rick Danko-like vocal range, Isbell quite obviously has borrowed a thing or two from The Band over the years, culminating in his beautifully haunting tribute to the group “Danko/Manuel” off the Truckers’ fantastic 2004 album, The Dirty South.

“The Band has an influence on modern music that seems to be revealing itself more and more as time goes on,” Isbell says. “I wrote ‘Danko/Manuel’ after reading a book about The Band called This Wheel’s On Fire. Early on in the book, Levon Helm discusses finding Richard Manuel dead in his hotel room and the half-joking pact they’d made years before that if someone died on the road, they’d put him on ice and bring him home in a storage bay under the bus. That made me think a lot about the fragile nature of life on the road and the difference between the beautiful music Danko and Manuel made and the horrible ways they died.”

On April 24, a whole new generation of music fans will have the opportunity to meet Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson for the first time through The Band: The Best Of A Musical History, a two-disc compilation of both audio and video recordings culled from the critically acclaimed, career-spanning box set, A Musical History, released last year. To celebrate the occasion, Robbie Robertson sat down with JamBase to talk about the genesis of The Band, the promise Ronnie Hawkins made when he joined The Hawks, his first meeting with Bob Dylan, his favorite covers of The Band’s music and his thoughts about not reforming The Band one last time before Richard Manuel’s passing.

 
Helm discusses finding Richard Manuel dead in his hotel room and the half-joking pact they’d made years before that if someone died on the road, they’d put him on ice and bring him home in a storage bay under the bus. That made me think a lot about the fragile nature of life on the road and the difference between the beautiful music Danko and Manuel made and the horrible ways they died.
-Jason Isbell
 

JamBase: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me a little bit about the first time you met Ronnie Hawkins. I’d read somewhere that before he recorded a few of your songs or you joined the band that you were a roadie. Can you tell me a little bit about the first time that you met Ronnie?


Robbie Robertson by Joseph Sia
Robbie Robertson: The first time that I can remember meeting him, I was playing in another band and we were the opening act for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at a place just on the outskirts of Toronto. I remember being so impressed with them, just the way that they played and the whole thing. It was the most real thing I had ever seen at the time and Ronnie was, and is, just an amazing Americana character. God broke the mold when he created Ronnie Hawkins. He’s an amazing character and I picked that up right off the bat and was just drawn to the music. They were from the South, which is where his music really came from. The whole thing for me just had an authenticity that was really overpowering, especially since I was only 15 years old then. I wasn’t really a roadie. I was just someone who was trying to pick up as much as I possibly could musically and trying to learn the secrets of how you do something really well.

In that process, what kind of really got me in the graces of Ronnie Hawkins was that I wrote these couple of songs. When I played them for him, he liked ’em both and said he wanted to record them. I was shocked, you know? I tried to pretend that this kind of stuff happens all the time but if I could’ve jumped in the air, I would have. It’s funny, when those songs came out and I got a copy of the album, it had another name on there besides my name for some writer like Morris Levy. So, I said to Ronnie, “There was nobody there writing these songs when I wrote these songs. Who is Morris Levy?” Ronnie just kinda tapped me on the head and said, “There are certain things about this business that you just let go and you don’t question.” That was one of my early music industry lessons right there [laughs].

JamBase: Is it true, like you said in one of the interview segments of The Last Waltz, that he promised you more pussy than Frank Sinatra to join the band?

Roberstson: Well, that wasn’t just a comedic line on his part. Ronnie was serious and so was I [laughs].

From everything I understand about Ronnie and those other chitlin circuit bandleaders, they all kind of ruled with an iron fist. They were very much antithetical to the hippie values that seemed to form so much of the scene in the late 60’s that you guys, rightly or wrongly, are so identified with. Did the band function better under that kind of strong leadership? Further, did you slide into that role after you left Hawkins? Was there any kind of “who died and made you king” resentment from the other guys in The Band if and when you assumed that role?


Ronnie and the Hawks
First of all, Ronnie Hawkins did that because that is what you did back then. It was the kind of thing that if you didn’t do something as a member of one of those bands, you got fined. Or if you were late, you got fined. That was just the way things operated. Most of those groups operated in that way because it needed it to be that way. There was a certain respect for discipline and Ronnie pushed really hard. He pushed us so hard to be really good at what we did that we got so good that we ultimately left him. We had outgrown him. You know, I have never said this to him over the years, but it’s kind of his own fault. We’d come to the point that what we were interested in playing was just more advanced than what we were doing with him. So we had to go. With the way things continued on years later with our own group, we’d already been in Ronnie’s boot camp of music, we didn’t need to go through boot camp again. We knew what the rules were and we operated by those rules. In The Band, whatever needed to be done, whoever could do it, that’s just the way it worked. As things became more and more responsible, I had to take the position of being more and more responsible and take the bull by the horns to just do what needed to be done.

It’s so interesting to me that that The Band’s music is inherently linked to the egalitarian values of the ’60s yet you guys came from this background of a strong leader where the bands were just super, super tight. It seems very antithetical to the looseness of the ’60s psychedelic aesthetic.


The Band
Oh, yeah. That’s very true and maybe so even with those English bands, too. When you think about The Who or The Rolling Stones, they had that old mentality but there was a rebellious spirit as well. You just evolved at that time with what was going on, just the way that the business worked. It was plenty loose at the same time as things being organized. Things got very loose later on in The Band’s existence.

I want to hit on one specific memory because I feel like it was a watershed moment for you as a musician. Can you tell me about your visit to The Home of Blues record shop on Beale Street in Memphis when you rode the train down from Toronto to join Ronnie and the Hawks. How influential was that experience?

For the music that we were into – the guys playing with Ronnie Hawkins at that time –having the opportunity to go to a record store that had that kind of selection was unbelievable. It seemed to me that the Home of Blues had everything. What they really had was everything that I was interested in at the time, which was like 1960-61, right in there. It was like being early to the party of how influential blues music would become on rock ‘n’ roll. We knew that delta blues music was the combination of mountain music and essentially black slave music and gospel coming together but the stuff we found at the Home of the Blues was different. This was Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters – people that would go on to have an incredible influence on music and what came out of England and ultimately what was going to happen in American music. Being early and being able to go to the Home of Blues, it was incredible. I went there and I spent every penny I had on records. Those records were really my musical schooling. Those were the only music lessons I’ve ever taken…

 
I don’t think you can ask for much more than Aretha Franklin with Duane Allman and King Curtis on one hand and The Staples Singers on the other doing one of your songs.

-Robbie Robertson on “The Weight”

 
Photo by ©Elliott Land

It sounds like you just devoured what you saw there.


Rick Danko by Joseph Sia
Oh, yeah. Well, it was the sound, you know? It was the thing you were looking for and the songwriting and the toughness and the music. By this time, I was 16 years old and it was highly impressive to me and the rest of the guys as well.

Why was it important for you and the other guys in The Band to create music that was an organic evolution of the tradition that acknowledged the roots of rock ‘n’ roll and the people that came before you? Especially in an era in which rock ‘n’ roll was seemingly rejecting tradition.

Well, there was a difference between the Chicago blues musicians – like the people that I was talking about – and folks like Lightnin’ Hopkins. We weren’t talking about country blues. We weren’t talking about Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry. That was like folk music to us. We were talking about electric blues. There was a rebellious spirit in this new blues music that was about to affect a whole generation of musicians, like Eric Clapton and the Stones and everybody over in England a couple of years later. At this time, there was nobody saying that this was the direction where things were going to go. It was just there and we were playing in that area. We would go to the Cotton Club in West Memphis and Howlin’ Wolf would be playing there. This was what was around in that area that we were in down there. If you were cool, that was the kind of music you were into. It was before it became widely listened to and popular and although some of these recordings that we were listening to had been made a few years earlier, it was still an extraordinarily underground thing that was exclusive to the South.

Shortly thereafter, you met Dylan for the first time. Tell me about that first meeting.


Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson by Robert Bolton
The first time that I met him, we were playing in this place in Summers Point, New Jersey, near Atlantic City. I got this message from someone that worked in his office who I knew asking if I would come up and meet with Bob. I was going to New York anyway to visit with some friends, so I said yes. I went and met with him and he told me about what he was interested in doing, beyond playing folk music. Then we went off somewhere with a couple of guitars, just him and I, and played together a little bit. It was great fun and I remember thinking, “Well, that was a good day.” I wasn’t sure where anything was going with it but he was certainly an interesting character. I honestly didn’t know a lot about his music. At first, I didn’t really understand what he was looking to do but he described it really well.

How did he describe it?

He just told me about folk music, Woody Guthrie and the train that he came in to New York City on and everything. He said he had done all of that and wanted to explore other ways of expressing music and this and that. I thought it sounded interesting, but that was about it. When we started to play together, that’s when I discovered that there was a whole revolution going on with what he was trying to do. We didn’t look at it as that big of a deal until it was that big of a deal.

I know you’ve been asked a trillion and one times about the experience of backing Dylan in the fall of ’65 on that first electric tour. Because of my age – I’m 29 years old – it’s beyond my comprehension how abrasive that experience of Dylan going electric would have been for his audience to hear. By that point in time, Elvis was electric, the Beatles were electric, everyone was moving in that direction. Is there any way you can help me understand what a monumental change the decision for him to go electric was and your experience seeing it firsthand?


Bob Dylan & The Band
Thing is, I didn’t realize it was that monumental. None of us did. We all just thought, “So what?” I thought folk music was really nice and all but it was kind of boring, you know? I mean, that was my attitude towards it. I remember telling Bob more than once that I didn’t blame him, that I’d do the same thing, too. As a musician, I’d want to make things more interesting for myself too. When I understood what the whole thing was and why people were upset because of all this, it seemed a little bit silly at the time but people were so dead serious about it. It became this thing like, “Uh oh, my God, now you have gone and done it. Now you have gone and mixed two things together that are just unacceptable.” All of us in The Band didn’t get it. We thought that’s what this music has always been about – you mix the right things together to get something bigger, something better. When you combined those elements, that’s when the sparks fly and you create fire. So, I thought it was an exciting thing and I think the rest of the guys in The Band did, too. But, it turned out to be so dramatic and there were people that thought it was too abrasive, it was too much. People were really upset and it was interesting to do something that seemed to upset nearly everyone. But with time, people were like, “Oh, no, no, no, that was actually really cool and the right thing to do.” It became not only acceptable but overly acceptable.

Celebrated, even.

Yeah, exactly. Then, it turned into the revolution and the revolution was a good thing and it changed the course of music forever. I just couldn’t believe that everybody was pretending like they liked it all along ’cause I was there and saw their reactions [laughs].

It’s so interesting to me because it seems like no one is that emotionally attached to music today to be so offended.

Because I was there, I can compare the two things and it was just a whole different view at that time. Music was kind of like the voice of a whole generation back then. Everybody was unified to some degree in this music, not only in this country but it was a global thing that was happening. It was just a different time. Music is not supposed to have that purpose nowadays. It serves a different purpose, I guess.

 
The songs were so disparate, from things like ‘Unfaithful Servant’ to ‘The Shape I’m In’ to ‘Life is a Carnival’ to ‘Genetic Method/Chest Fever’ to the rockabilly of ‘Don’t Want to Hang Up My Rock ‘n Roll Shoes.’ Look, any number of musicians in this day and age would kill to have written just one of those songs and have it be part of their catalogue. And they just flipped ’em out like biscuits out of an oven.

-Dave Schools

 
Photo of Robertson at The Last Waltz

I’d like to understand Dylan’s influence on what would be come The Band’s first record, Music from Big Pink. If you listen to the Hawk’s music and then you listen to The Basement Tapes, there’s an obvious evolution of The Band’s sound, from the very gritty blues and R&B stuff to a more lyrically focused music. Is that where Dylan’s influence on The Band is felt?


The Band by Normann Seeff
Well, it was like we were right there on our own, right there when this whole revolution was happening, and it was happening with a lot of other bands too. I think Dylan’s music and his songwriting opened up a door of possibilities that you didn’t have to write about the same things over and over and over again. Now you could express it in other ways. We always had a strong appreciation for the song having known some of the greatest songwriters back then, from the Brill Building and everyone that we met early on like Mort Schuman and Otis Blackwell and on and on. Ronnie Hawkins had a very strong appreciation of songs. A lot of those people out of the rockabilly world did, like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty. There were a lot of people that were really sensitive to that. The idea that it was evolving and opening up to be expressed in a much more interesting way was a very welcome feeling at the time. There was great enthusiasm and encouragement for that growth and the expansion of the music and we couldn’t help but be influenced by it.

One of the things that I’ve read a lot about is the influence of gospel music on you as well as the various members in The Band. When you wrote the lyrics to the “The Weight” did you envision someone akin to The Staples Singers singing on it?


The Band by Elliot Landy
Well, maybe in the back of my mind subconsciously because I was a real appreciator of The Staple Singers when all they sang was gospel music. When they became popular after that, it was really surprising to me but so deserved because I just loved their harmonies, I loved the sound of Roebuck Staples’ voice. It just so happened that after we recorded Music From Big Pink, The Staples Singers were the first group to cover the “The Weight.” I was completely overwhelmed and just thought how terrific how things go around like that. It was a complete surprise to me and didn’t expect it in the least. I didn’t have a crystal ball or even the audacity to imagine it as a possibility, you know? Then after that, Aretha Franklin covered it with Duane Allman playing lead guitar on it and I thought, “Well, maybe that song does work after all [laughs].”

Not only Duane Allman, but King Curtis played sax on it as well. That’s one of my favorite Aretha tracks because it’s got both of those guys on there.

That’s right.


Garth Hudson
Is it safe to say that those two covers are among your two favorite instances of artists covering your songs?

They’re definitely right up there. I don’t think you can ask for much more than Aretha Franklin with Duane Allman and King Curtis on one hand and The Staples Singers on the other doing one of your songs.

“The Night They Drove Dixie Down” is widely considered to be among the best songwriting of your career, and it’s a great example of your ability to write from the point of view of the disenfranchised. Be it the poor, the defeated Southerner, the struggling unionizers or Native Americans, you’ve always had this unique ability to write from the disenfranchised perspective. I’m not sure if that’s the best way to characterize it but…


Levon Helm
You know, I think you are absolutely right about that, and I don’t know if I’ve ever even looked at it that way. I wrote this song, “Acadian Driftwood,” that’s about when the French lost the war in Canada. These people no longer had a home there any more, so they went down to Louisiana. There was this whole colony there of people that had left Canada in defeat. I guess the same thing is true of the “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as well, and probably so with some of the Native American things. Maybe it’s just the way that I always thought of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was just what a profound impact that it had on me going from Canada to the Mississippi Delta and hearing all these stories in the South. I was just gathering stuff that I appreciated and thought was interesting. I didn’t know I was gathering stuff for songs. I was just lapping this stuff up. I remember in the early years of being down there and hearing the expression, “Don’t worry, the South’s going to rise again,” and it had this effect on me. It wasn’t just a funny expression. There was a real truth and conviction in it and there was a sound in this person’s voice that really touched me. I became such an admirer of the South and southern culture and the writers that came out of the South and the music that came out of the South and the food that came out of the South. All of these elements – the rhythm of life down there, the sound of the crickets and the thickness of the air down South – it was all just so different to me. I understood why people had an appreciation for music down there, more so than anywhere else I had ever experienced. It was like everybody was in on the joke somehow. When Elvis hit, people everywhere else went crazy but people down in the South just understood somehow. Those experiences on my first trips to the South impacted me in a way that years later, when I was sitting down to write that song, this stuff just came out. It was like all the things that I had stored in my trunk – stories and characters and stuff that I remembered from the South – came spilling out.

Is that how it often happened? Your songwriting stemmed from the fact that you were constantly on the road for so many years and absorbed all of these different characters and different stories and tales along the way?


Richard Manual
You sit down and you’re wondering what you’re going to write about that somebody hasn’t already written about a thousand times. So, you just reach into your trunk and see what you’ve got in there. Because I was so young at the time – still in my teens – things made an impression upon me. When I reached in there, that’s what I pulled out.

One of your other strengths as a songwriter had been your success writing for a lot of different people and different voices. From a songwriter’s perspective, how does writing for you and writing for someone else differ? Within The Band specifically, did each of the vocalists represent a specific role or voice?

A lot of times, when I was writing songs, I really enjoyed the opportunity to be able to cast the person in the role of the song that I was writing. I’d be writing a song and then I would start to think what a good song it would be for Rick to sing. As I was going along, the song sounded really true to Rick’s sound and what he could express vocally. The same could be said for Richard or for Levon. The song took shape and began to have a life of its own. That’s when it started to make more sense to me who would sing it.

It sounds almost cinematic in the sense that it’s like a director and an actor.

I remember watching those early Ingmar Bergman movies where he would use a lot of the same people playing different roles and actually relating to some of those directors like John Ford, directors that used the same people in all of his movies, where they just figured out who could play this part and who can play that part. I did relate to that because I was kind of a movie buff back then.

It’s been said that your songwriting for Stage Fright shifted from the storytelling approach found on the first couple of albums to a more personal, almost autobiographical approach. I wanted to ask you if you agreed with that and what precipitated that change?


The Band by Elliot Landy
I didn’t think about it that much at the time but when I look at it now, I can see that – to a certain degree – that’s true. Back then, there was something that embarrassed me when songwriters wrote these songs about getting up in morning and having a glass of orange juice. It just annoyed me. I much more appreciated the storytelling of songwriting than somebody actually thinking that what they saw while walking down the street was all that interesting. It took me some doing before I felt comfortable with peeking behind that curtain to write about personal things. At the point when we did Stage Fright, what was happening within the band was becoming more personal. There were issues entering into things and they started to kind of overwhelm the music. Stage Fright is kind of an appropriate expression for what was going on with The Band at that time.

You guys were now the center of attention rather than being the backing band. I read somewhere that it was kind of the end of the ensemble era of The Band.


The Band by Barrie Wentzel
Yeah and probably by this time a certain innocence that had been there that was slipping away. Things were becoming more personally complicated for the guys in the group. At some point, there were other issues. It was no longer just about the music. There are all kinds of distractions that entered into it and things were kind of ricocheting back at us. That comes with the problems of popularity sometimes. It can spoil a good party.

Was there ever a moment after Richard Manuel’s passing in 1986 that you looked back with regret for not playing with all those guys again?

No, it never struck me like that. I was just simply devastated that Richard had died. I didn’t think too much about regrets because I really believe that we had done what we were supposed to do. I didn’t have any feelings of regret and still don’t. That’s why we were able to make the decision that we drove this train all the way to the end of the line and that was it. It was time to get out and walk on our own. I was just sorry that Richard walked over the side of a bluff.

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