Personal recollections and observations of a former music writer whose life has been filled with the music and stories of Bob Dylan, The Band and now living in a world without Robbie Robertson.
Photo: Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson of The Band pose for a group portrait in London in 1971. Gijsbert Han
13 August 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
The Band (left to right): Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson in Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band. Photo by Elliott Landy courtesy Magnolia Picturesijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Remembering: Robbie Robertson
Update: I cannot add to Table of Contents (of course) but I have added two very interesting items.
The Train is in the Station
An overview of what you will find here.
As you will notice, these remembrances are largely just that – my recollections of The Band. Not one person or one viewpoint, but The Band.
As noted below, many ‘revisionist’ pieces have been published over the years, with many more appearing recently.
Pitchfork ran a ‘look back‘ at The Brown album that includes the now-obligatory ‘these were different times’ updates, and there was also a like-minded look at the ‘problems’ behind the scenes at The Last Waltz.
That is fine. There are links to many of these, and there are many others ‘out there’ that concentrate on other ‘issues’ in the group, in particular, the so-called feud between Robertson and Helm.
While I don’t mean to suggest there were no disagreements (we are talking about a rock band), we don’t know what happened. All parties have shared their views, and all of those views seem plausible. So asked and answered, as they say on TV.
But it is worth bearing in mind that The Band shot from The Hawks to Manchester to Big Pink in a heartbeat, and no one outside their tight circle really knew who they were. They did not tour Big Pink or announce they were recording the Brown Album or fill the gossip pages of The New Yorker. They were quietly, diligently working behind the scenes, just as they had done since they first joined forces.
But there was something else at play here, too. The Band, to its true believers, perhaps without even thinking or realizing it, held this rock ‘n’ roll group to an invisible higher standard. They were the embodiment of their songs, of their tantalizing shows, of their almost secret lives behind the scenes. They could do no wrong.
But as I say, this was not a church group. They were a rock band, and they were touring and making money and soon found themselves walking on the tightrope that feeds the popular music business. Robertson knew. He had seen how many ‘stars’ fell victim to this machine. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, the jazz greats…
The list is endless. And continues to this day. The ‘music business’ is more about the latter than the former. It is a train that rides free and clear for a short time, but when that time is done, it sails off the tracks. Just like a record company advance to record the next album, the bills eventually become due.
Robertson knew this. Hell, the rest of The Band knew this as well. And some, to one degree or another, became part of those statistics.
We don’t know. We see what we want to see in our ‘heroes,’ and that allows us to ignore the fact that the multi-millionaire that is Springsteen still appears in public wearing jean jackets or that Kris Kristofferson’s Sprawling Northern California Ranch Hits the Market for $17.2 Million.
Fine. It is none of our business, and in the case of Robertson and The Band, we got more out of the deal than we could reasonably have expected.
I think that is enough. There is not a great deal that could be said or done that can sully my memory of taking the GO bus from my home in the suburbs of Toronto and walking to Sam the Record Man to buy The Band and walking back to the bus terminal and cracking the seal and realizing that my copy had two side one labels and thinking I don’t give a shit – this is mine now and taking it home and rushing to my basement ‘stereo’ and ‘playing it fucking loud’ and all the while wondering just what the fuck I was hearing and feeling like I had been given the keys to a secret vault that opened the doors to today and yesterday with it’s mass of voices and instruments and stories that were so far removed from my life that it gave me chills to realize that this – these feelings!- could be repeated again and again and again, whenever the hell I felt like it. And I felt like. So many times. Even now. The keys to so many highways and avenues and dirt roads and swamplands and rocking chairs and the distant promises of tomorrow.
That should be enough. And it was. And still is.
So this will not be a complete version of any one aspect of The Band or indeed Robinson, but I think it provides a nice overview of some of the standout parts, from The Hawks to Robinson’s solo career. And of course, Dylan. No one knew at the time how instrumental this pairing would be, for everyone concerned, but looking back, it was one hell of a great ride.
The Weight – Playing for Change Video
The Weight | Featuring Ringo Starr and Robbie Robertson | Playing For Change | Song Around The World
“The Weight,” features Ringo Starr and The Band’s original member Robbie Robertson, along with musicians across 5 continents. Great songs can travel everywhere bridging what divides us and inspiring us to see how easily we all get along when the music plays. Special thanks to our partner Cambria® for helping to make this possible and to Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr and all the musicians for joining us in celebrating 50 years of this classic song.
The Last Record Album: A Fictional Biography by James Porteous
Music fans and aspiring songwriters will enjoy The Last Record Album, a fictional biography of Bo Carter.
The story follows Carter’s experiences with writer’s block, his lack of confidence, and competition in the music industry
Join him as he struggles to record a new song for Robert Altman’s latest movie at New York’s renowned Record Plant studio and his do-or-die efforts to be remembered as something other than a one-hit-wonder. And Bob Dylan might record one of his songs.
The book also includes songs written by the author, with links to Bandcamp versions featuring the author playing and singing many of the songs.
And so it begins…
My first “real” concert was pretty special. The group was The Band, and the venue was Massey Hall in Toronto. Over the next few decades, both as a music reviewer and a plain music fan, I would see many more shows at Massey, but none would (or could) match this first one.
The Brown Album had been released some time prior to the show, and after the buzz and lack of touring for Big Pink, there was true electricity in the air. This was a “home” show for a band that once played clubs on Yonge Street and were now one of the most talked-about bands in the world.
The stage told everyone what to expect. A huge carpet was placed in the middle of the stage, and all around were instruments of every description.
They sauntered on the stage, as calm as calm could be. But there was a bounce, all right. Smiles all around as the crowd cheered in unison. They took their places and -in a flash- The Band was playing Massey Hall.
I have no recollection of the order of the setlist. I am sure they played almost all of The Brown Album and most of Big Pink.
They rocked and rolled and were so tight and happy and energetic. And finally, we were able to put faces to the music and the vocals. And everyone, save for (then) Jamie Robertson, changed instruments on a regular basis, moving from drums to fiddle and piano to drums and…
I should have been too young to know this at the time, but you could tell they had paid their dues, as we used to say. Everything was solid. Each note, chorus, beat. Again and again, one word came into my head: Tight. They simply could not be any tighter.
In time, it all ended. Many people, like me, stayed in our seats for a time, looking at the stage and the hall and the music that still seemed to be lingering in the air all around us.
As I say, I saw hundreds of concerts after this one, and many were very, very good, and I treasured each one, but this was The One.
Nothing else to say after that statement of fact. Ha.
James Porteous | Clipper Media News
The Band on the cover of Time Magazine, Jan 12 1970. Painting by Bob Peak.
Some new additions to the Life and Times of Robbie Robertson (21 August 2023)
In a never-before-posted interview with Rolling Stone, the late leader of the Band looked back on his life in music, from The Basement Tapes to The Last Waltz and beyond
Note: Much has been made of the ‘in-fighting’ within the group and much of it is speculation, but here Robertson specifically and directly addresses some of the issues. It is a very long and very interesting read.
(Image credit: Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images)
An interesting update on writing The Weight.
Some Key Obituaries
I had just gone to bed around midnight on August 9, 2023 when a notification appeared on my phone: “Robbie Robertson dead at 80.”
“Fuck,” I thought. “I didn’t see that coming. You plan for some deaths but not this one.”
I got out of bed and switched my computer back on to search for an obituary. I didn’t think there would be very many of them. It was early on and while Robertson was respected, he was not really a household name.
I was stunned to see obituaries all over the place. The newspapers, unlike me, had anticipated this event.
I would read many obituaries over the next few days but the first one I read, posted below, was by far the best. Once you read this, you will feel like you knew this guy. It is a nice feeling, really, to know that he appeared to be just who I thought he had been.
And yes, there is sadness, but man the music really does live on.
That first obituary is posted in full. I have also included links to others.
Chris Morris Additional reporting by Jem Aswad and Chris Willman.
Variety 09 August 2023
Guitarist-songwriter-singer Robbie Robertson, who led the Canadian-American group the Band to rock prominence in the 1970s and worked extensively with Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese, has died. He was 80.
According to an announcement from his management, Robertson died Wednesday in Los Angeles after a long illness.
In a statement, Robertson’s manager of 34 years, Jared Levine, said, “Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny.
He is also survived by his grandchildren Angelica, Donovan, Dominic, Gabriel and Seraphina. Robertson recently completed his fourteenth film music project with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’ In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Six Nations of the Grand River to support a new Woodland Cultural Center.”
After the Band’s 1976 farewell concert “The Last Waltz” was captured on film by Scorsese, Robertson worked with the director as composer, music supervisor, and music producer starting in 1980 on films including “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed,” “Shutter Island,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Silence,” “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
However, he is best known for the classic songs he wrote for the Band, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Shape I’m In” and “It Makes No Difference.” His story with The Band was captured in the 2019 documentary “Once Were Brothers.“
Robertson did what turned out to be his final interview just two weeks ago with Variety, talking about his 55 years of collaborating with Scorsese, on up through “Flower Moon,” which is set to come out later this year. “We’re in awe ourselves that our brotherhood has outlasted everything,” he said of his work with the director. “We’ve been through it; we’ve been there and back. I am so proud of our friendship and our work. It’s been just a gift in life.” (The interview will run in full at a later date.)
The singer-songwriter-guitarist was just 16 when he joined the Hawks and the group began apprenticing as American rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ backup unit. Robertson and his bandmates – drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson – struck out on their own in 1964.
The Hawks served as Bob Dylan’s forceful touring band (minus Helm for most dates) during the singer-songwriter’s tumultuous first electric tour of 1965-66; they reunited with their dissident percussionist during famed, much-bootlegged informal recording sessions with Dylan, known as the “basement tapes,” in 1967.
Signed to Capitol Records in 1968, the rechristened Band shot to fame with its first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” which drew from a heady stream of American music tributaries and would influence both contemporaries like Eric Clapton and George Harrison and succeeding generations of American roots musicians.
Speaking of the bedrock of the Band’s sound with journalist Paul Zollo, Robertson said, “I always thought, from the very beginning, that this music was born of the blues and country music, Southern stuff. The Mississippi Delta area, and the music came down from the river and from up the river and met, and it made something new. I always looked at that as kind of the source of the whole thing.”
He wrote sensitively for the distinctive, often layered voices of the musically versatile multi-instrumentalists Helm, Danko and Manuel, and by the group’s third album he became its principal songwriter.
The act rose to superstardom in the early ‘70s, in part thanks to renewed collaborative work with Dylan (including a sold-out 1974 tour and the No. 1 album “Planet Waves”) and appearances at the storied Woodstock, Isle of Wight and Watkins Glen festivals.
However, the Band began to flag creatively in the mid-‘70s due to its members’ escalating substance abuse problems, and Robertson effectively disbanded the group with an extravagant, all-star Thanksgiving 1976 concert at San Francisco’s Winterland, “The Last Waltz”; Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary about the event effectively became the group’s epitaph, though they reunited without Robertson during the ‘90s.
Robertson went on to a sporadic solo career; dabbled in acting and screenwriting (on the 1980 feature “Carny”); took a record company A&R job; and enjoyed a long creative relationship with Scorsese on many of the director’s subsequent dramatic features.
He was inducted with his band mates into the Canadian Juno Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters in 1997.
He was born Jaime (pronounced “Jamie”) Royal Robertson in Toronto on July 5, 1943. His mother was a member of the Mohawk Indian tribe. His biological father, Jewish gambler Alexander Klegerman, was killed in a highway accident before he was born; Robertson only learned belatedly that James Robertson, whom his mother had married when she was pregnant, was not his real father.
Robertson became interested in playing music as a child on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, and heard American music on U.S. clear-channel stations. As a teenager, he briefly worked in touring carnivals; the experience would serve as the basis for “Carny.”
He began playing guitar in high school bands in his early teens; one of his band mates in the combo the Suedes joined Ronnie Hawkins’ popular American combo the Hawks as a keyboardist, and 15-year-old Robertson was soon drafted as a replacement bassist. In time he would supersede guitarist Fred Carter, Jr., in the lineup, which also included drummer and musical director Helm.
In time, Hawkins’ shifting lineup was filled out with other Canadian musicians – Danko, Manuel and Hudson, the latter of whom was paid to give his colleagues music lessons. The group toured Canada and the U.S. heavily in 1961-63 and recorded for Roulette Records; during that time, they cut a forceful cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” that featured a blow-out guitar solo by Robertson, who had come heavily under the sway of American blues players.
Feeling increasingly constricted by Hawkins, Robertson and the other Hawks defected in early 1964. They waxed independent singles, as Levon and the Hawks and the Canadian Squires, and toured on their own; Robertson, Helm and Hudson also appeared on “So Many Roads,” a 1965 LP by blues artist John Hammond (son of the like-named A&R man, who had signed Bob Dylan to Columbia Records).
In August 1965, Robertson was approached by manager Albert Grossman, who, on the advice of his Canada-born employee Mary Martin, sought to employ the guitarist on Bob Dylan’s first tour following the folk star’s controversial and riotous electric bow at the Newport Folk Festival that summer.
After Robertson and Helm joined the electric band for initial dates in Forest Hills, N.Y., and Hollywood, the Hawks – who backed Dylan on his flop 1965 single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” — were engaged to support Dylan on his 1965-66 world tour. (After other abortive sessions with the Hawks, Robertson had traveled with Dylan to Nashville, where he took part in studio dates for his next album, the two-LP 1966 set “Blonde On Blonde.”)
Following stormily received early shows, Helm quit the band, and was ultimately replaced by Mickey Jones, formerly of Johnny Rivers’ and Trini Lopez’s groups. The Hawks weathered a string of confrontational concerts behind Dylan in the U.S., Australia and Europe; the trek found Robertson taking a deepening role as Dylan’s musical sounding board.
The legendary clashes between the Dylan band and hostile audiences on the tour were subsequently heard on bootleg recordings; Columbia released an official 36-CD collection of the shows in 2016.
Following the tour, Dylan suffered serious neck injuries in a motorcycle crash and went into seclusion with his family in Woodstock, a rustic community in upstate New York where Grossman also made his home. In early 1967, the members of the Hawks, still minus Helm, rented a pink ranch house in Woodstock where they worked on music for the counterculture feature “You Are What You Eat” and began informal recording sessions with Dylan in a jerry-built basement studio at “Big Pink” and at Dylan’s nearby home.
Covers of American folk, blues and country tunes gave way to recordings of new Dylan originals (and some penned with Danko and Manuel) intended as publishing demos. The latter numbers later took on legendary status after a handful appeared on the illicit 1969 set “The Great White Wonder.” (Columbia issued an official two-LP collection of some of the material, with new overdubs overseen by Robertson, and unissued Band studio sides as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975; the label issued the original sessions complete in 2014.)
Helm relocated from Arkansas before the end of the Woodstock sessions, and joined Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson behind Dylan at a January 1968 tribute to Woody Guthrie at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Now under Grossman’s managerial wing, the reconstituted Hawks secured a contract of their own with Capitol Records in ’68. Assuming the deliberately affectless name the Band, they issued their debut album “Music From Big Pink” that August.
Swathed in an atmosphere of mystery and sporting off-kilter, surrealistic lyrics that tore a page from Dylan’s book, the Band’s bow, distinctly at odds with the commercial currents of the day, created massive ripples in the U.S. musical underground. Though he initially shared writing space with Dylan, Manuel and Danko, Robertson established himself as an important songwriting voice with compositions like “The Weight” (soon covered by Aretha Franklin, with Duane Allman on guitar), “Chest Fever” and “Caledonia Mission”; the album also included his lone lead vocal with the group, on his original “To Kingdom Come.” The collection peaked at No. 30.
A sophomore album, simply titled “The Band,” was recorded in 1969 in the pool house of Sammy Davis Jr.’s Hollywood Hills home. Robertson authored eight of the album’s 12 songs, most of them steeped in Americana. The rollicking Helm vehicle “Up On Cripple Creek” became a No. 25 hit, while the Civil War narrative “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was taken to No. 3 on the U.S. charts by Joan Baez in 1971. “The Band” climbed to No. 9 and solidified the group’s reputation. In January 1970, the group became the first American rock act to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
Beginning with “Stage Fright” (1970), Robertson took an ever-deepening role in writing for the Band.
In his 2016 book “Testimony,” while admitting his own dabbling with cocaine, he claimed that snowballing problems with alcohol and drug abuse by Helm, Danko and Manuel led to their decreasing song input.
The highly anticipated “Stage Fright” became the group’s highest-charting collection on its own, topping out at No. 5, but its 1971 successor “Cahoots” rose to a relatively disappointing No. 21. Even Robertson later admitted that his own weak writing led to the latter album’s failure. The blazing live set “Rock of Ages,” (1972), captured at New York’s Academy of Music and featuring a Dylan guest shot, was a commercial hit (No. 6) and critical success.
Two months after the release of a fall-back album of rock covers, “Moondog Matinee” (No. 19, 1973), the Band received a commercial rebirth with “Planet Waves,” a collaborative set with Dylan, whom they had last backed at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival. The album’s release coincided with a sold-out 1974 U.S. tour, commemorated on the two-LP set “Before the Flood” (No. 3 that year).
By 1975, Robertson had decamped to L.A.’s Malibu Colony, and was followed to Southern California by the rest of the Band. The group convened at Shangri-La, a onetime oceanside bordello converted into a studio, to record what essentially became their swan song, “Northern Lights – Southern Cross.” Comprising eight Robertson compositions, the elegiac album peaked at No. 27.
The following year, Robertson convinced his enervated band mates that a hiatus was in order. The Band’s elaborate farewell gig at Winterland, captured in a multi-camera 35mm shoot by Scorsese, featured such guests former employers Dylan and Hawkins, Canadian countrymen Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Woodstock cronies Van Morrison and Bobby Charles, bluesmen Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton, New Orleans professor Dr. John, and outlier Neil Diamond (whose 1976 LP “Beautiful Noise” had been produced by Robertson). The guitarist composed two new songs for the feature; Emmylou Harris and the Staples Singers performed in footage shot on a soundstage.
By the time Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” opened in 1978 (with an accompanying No. 16 soundtrack album), the Band had been history for more than a year; the group’s posthumously released, exhausted 1977 farewell studio set “Islands” peaked at a tepid No. 64.
Helm rancorously attacked Robertson for the ’76 dissolution of the band in his 1993 autobiography “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and refused to appear at the group’s 1994 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
The Band reunited for three albums without Robertson during the ‘90s. Manuel committed suicide during a 1986 tour; Danko died in 1999, and Helm died in 2012.
Though he had already established himself as a producer with projects for Diamond, Jesse Winchester and Hirth Martinez, Robertson, a longtime movie aficionado, took his exit from the band as an opportunity to entertain his film ambitions. He co-produced and wrote the original story for “Carny,” took a leading role in the picture opposite Gary Busey and Jodie Foster and played on the picture’s soundtrack. He also took a supporting role in Sean Penn’s directorial debut “The Crossing Guard” (1995).
He made a belated return to recording with his 1987 self-titled debut for Geffen Records (No. 38). He also issued the New Orleans-themed concept album “Storyville” (No. 69, 1991) and a nod to his Native American roots, “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy” (No. 119, 1998). The star-studded 2011 set “How to Become Clairvoyant” was his highest-charting release, rising to No. 13. He scored the TV film “The Native Americans” in 1994.
In 1998, Robertson joined DreamWorks Records – the label arm of DreamWorks SKG – as creative executive. Among his projects at the imprint was the double-platinum 2001 soundtrack to the studio’s animated hit “Shrek.” The record company folded in 2005.
However, the latter years of his career were largely dedicated to memoirs, lavish reissues of the Band’s catalog, painting and, primarily, film work, often with Scorsese, particularly on “Casino,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“For [the 2010 film] ‘Shutter Island,’ I read the script and looked at some footage and said, ‘I think we should use all modern classical music.’ For ‘The Color of Money,’ it was about hustlers and pool halls, so let’s do something sleazy, in the best sense of the word: Let’s collaborate with Willie Dixon, one of the greatest blues songwriters who’s ever lived, and ask [master arranger] Gil Evans to orchestrate it.
And in ‘Casino,’ there was one section where nothing was working, so I used the theme from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ as an homage. There are all these different ways of going at it, and Marty has an incredible instinct for things that are not obvious.”
The Native-themed “Killers of the Flower Moon” represented a kind of homecoming for Robertson, in that he grew up visiting reservations in Canada with his mother, who was Native American. When he recorded his first solo album, a self-titled release in 1987, he spent time at a reservation in New Mexico to reconnect with his heritage and develop Native themes that are heard on the record.
When Robertson did what turned out to be his last interview in late July with Variety’s Chris Willman, he spoke enthusiastically about his work on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” even though he acknowledged he was in weak health at the time of the conversation.
“When the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ idea was stirring around and it looked like it could happen,” Robertson said in the interview, “for Marty and me, every once in a while we would be like, ‘Isn’t this amazing, that it’s come to this, that we actually have a story and we have this thing that we’re both in our own way attached to somehow.’ Marty and I are both 80 years old, and we’re getting to do a Western, we’re getting to do a movie about Indians, in our own way.” (Robertson used the terms “Indian” and “Native” interchangeably, as he said his friends in the community did.) “There’s a particular enjoyment in that: ‘Let’s tackle this baby and try to do something magnificent.’ Whenever you’re going into a project, you want to shoot high and, and you want to do some really good work. But on something like this, where its soul is in Indian country — for me, you couldn’t have made something like this up.”
Robertson said during his final interview that he was in the formative stages of looking at doing archival projects centered around his songs or his film scoring work with Scorsese. He added that he was still at work writing a second memoir, one that would serve as a sequel to 2016’s “Testimony,” the narrative of which ended mid-career with his account of the “Last Waltz” concert.
The most recent tweet from his account was posted just a day before his death — a humorous photo of himself circa 1970 with Garth Hudson, now the last surviving member of the Band.
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling ‘bout half-past deadline.
Like the narrator in the Band’s classic song, The Weight, I had found myself not in the famous Nazareth of the eastern hemisphere but the one in eastern Pennsylvania, where I was reporting a Washington Post column about a month after Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration.
With my column due soon, I was still in search of people to interview about why so many American counties had flipped to Trump after voting for Barack Obama twice. So with Luzerne county in mind, I kept driving north-west from Nazareth for another hour or so and stopped into a bar in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.
It was dusk and the neon beer signs glowed eerily as I entered the bar full of working-class men. I found a stool, ordered a drink and considered how best to approach some of them to talk about their politics.
Almost immediately, I got lucky. A familiar guitar riff came over the sound system. It was the The Weight, featuring Robbie Robertson’s iconic opening lines: “I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling ‘bout half past dead. I just need a place where I can lay my head.”
Most of the guys, and the woman bartender, too, began singing along. They sang it loud and clear, with all the lyrics known by heart. Maybe they knew it so well because of the Nazareth, Pennsylvania, reference; surely they had all been there many times. Or maybe they were like me and they simply knew it as one of the finest songs of the rock era. I joined in, right up to the crescendo and resolution of the last line: “And, and, and … you put the load right on me.”
After that impromptu singalong, it was easier to start some conversations. These strangers and I had just shared a piece of our souls. I thought about that evening this week, when Robbie Robertson died at age 80, taking with him another little piece of my soul. I was far from alone in feeling that.
“My knees buckled at the news of Robbie Robertson’s passing,” wrote the singer-songwriter Elizabeth Nelson on social media where she posts as The Paranoid Style. “Like his songs, he seemed to me undefinable by age.”
These shocks are relentless. Two Beatles have been dead for decades. Amy Winehouse has been gone for 12 years. David Bowie and Prince died within months of each other in 2016.
David Crosby’s passing last January sent my mind reeling back to a 2015 Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater – one of the best shows I’ve seen in a lifetime packed with concertgoing. I remembered the thrill of hearing the first song, a soaring version of Carry On. Now, not only is Crosby gone, but so is the friend I went with. The flavors of these losses blend into each other, bittersweet and personal.
I haven’t met any rock stars, except on well-worn recordings and in films like The Last Waltz – a great collaboration, one of many to come, between Robertson and Martin Scorsese. Yet their departures hit hard.
I’ve heard this explained as a reminder of our own mortality, but that’s not the whole story. For me, at least, the pain comes because this music has been so central to my inner life. The songs are not just soundtrack; they are also emotional teacher and tether, putting notes and words to life’s mysteries, with the power to remind us how how it all felt. And the songs are central to life shared with friends and loved ones; they preserve our moments in musical amber. We live in constant conversation with the music, with our lives then and now, with the loss, betrayal, yearning and joy they tap into.
When my childhood best friend Susan died at the age of 20 in a car accident, along with five of her college classmates, her taste and sensibility were captured forever in the Bob Dylan lyrics she chose to accompany her high school yearbook portrait: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate, driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow.”
Thankfully, Dylan – so closely associated with Robertson and the Band – still tours at 82. Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Paul and Ringo live on into old age. Even Bruce Springsteen, who appears immortal, will turn 74 next month.
I know I will be stunned by the deaths of these greats when they arrive. But in the meantime, I recall Elton John’s Your Song with that beautiful line: “How wonderful life is, while you’re in the world.”
We had best appreciate what we have, and who we have, while that’s still possible. I like to think that the guys at the Pennsylvania bar – who might have just pulled in from Nazareth – would agree.
Link: The Band Live at Syria Mosque
A great set. This one is available on some torrent sites and well worth checking out.
Chris Iorfida · CBC News · Posted: Aug 09, 2023
Robbie Robertson, the string-bending guitarist and principal songwriter of The Band, has died at 80, a representative confirmed to CBC News.
Robertson died on Wednesday morning in Los Angeles after a long illness, according to the representative.
“Robbie was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, including his wife, Janet, his ex-wife, Dominique, her partner Nicholas, and his children Alexandra, Sebastian, Delphine, and Delphine’s partner Kenny,” Jared Levine, Robertson’s longtime manager, said in a statement.
With The Band, Robertson was credited with writing or co-writing the band’s signature songs, including The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up on Cripple Creek, The Shape I’m
WATCH | Robertson on The Band’s ‘timeless quality’:
Robbie Robertson reflects on the process of gathering music, sounds and rhythms during The Band’s early touring that contributed to their unique sound in a 2016 CBC interview.
The Band’s first two albums were especially hailed, each ranking in the top 100 of Rolling Stone’s updated compilation of the top 500 albums of all time in 2020. The same magazine rated Robertson at No. 59 on a list of the 100 greatest guitarists.
The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, five years after receiving a similar honour at Canada’s Juno Awards. Robertson won an additional five Junos in a solo recording career that began in the mid-1980s and included popular radio songs Showdown at Big Sky, Somewhere Down the Crazy River and What About Now?.
Robertson was also feted toward the end of his career with Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2011) and Canada’s Walk of Fame (2014) honours.
Robertson was one of the first Indigenous rock stars, though few in the white-dominated music press took much notice. He received a lifetime achievement award at the Native American Music Awards in 2017.
Scarborough, Cabbagetown beginnings
He was born Jaime Robertson in Toronto on July 5, 1943 to a mother with Mohawk and Cayuga blood, growing up in homes in Scarborough and Cabbagetown neighbourhoods. While visiting relatives on the Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ont., he became entranced by the music played by his uncles and older cousins and was given advice by elders he kept close to his heart as he progressed early in his career: “Be proud you are an Indian, but be careful who you tell.”
At 16, his first band opened for Ronnie Hawkins, the colourful Arkansan singer who regularly played Eastern Canadian bars with backup group the Hawks, featuring Levon Helm on drums.
In short order, Hawkins cut two early Robertson songwriting efforts for an album and asked him to join. After Helm and Robertson, the rest of the members of what became The Band were recruited in Ontario between 1961-62: bassist Rick Danko from Simcoe, pianist Richard Manuel from Stratford and the classically-trained organist Garth Hudson from London.
WATCH | Robertson’s emotional reaction to a doc about The Band:
The music was rustic, incorporating elements of blues, country and rhythm and blues, decades ahead of an Americana subgenre that came into vogue. Danko, Helm and Manuel, each with distinctive and powerful voices, took turns as lead singer.
“They had three of the greatest white singers in rock history. To have any one of those guys would be the foundation for a great band,” said Bruce Springsteen in the documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.
That documentary, directed by Canada’s Daniel Roher, was the opening film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.
Longtime collaborator to Scorsese
They settled on their new name before the July 1, 1968 release of their debut album, Music From Big Pink.
“The music didn’t sound anything like what we did with Ronnie Hawkins … like anything we did with Bob Dylan on the infamous tour, so having a new name felt natural as well,” said Robertson in Once Were Brothers.
George Harrison and Eric Clapton were among the early high-profile fans, and critics hailed September 1969’s The Band album as well. In a rarity of a rock group at the time, The Band made the cover of Time Magazine in January 1970, heralded as the “future of country rock.”
WATCH | Robertson, Scorsese talk their rock doc The Last Waltz on CBC in 1978
The musician and the director explain how they got together to make a film about the final 1976 performance by The Band.
The Band would be a staple at rock’s early major festivals like Woodstock and Isle of Wight, coming home to Canada for the Toronto Pop Festival and the cross-country Festival Express.
Four more albums followed, with popular songs including Ophelia, Life Is A Carnival and Stage Fright. But Danko, Helm and Manuel all struggled with substance use issues, and Robertson began to tire of touring.
The original lineup bowed out from live performances with an all-star 1976 concert in San Francisco captured on screen two years later in the iconic The Last Waltz, featuring Dylan, Van Morrison and Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.
Robertson said he too succumbed to a “period of decadence” with drugs, while consorting with pal and Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese in the late 1970s.
Robertson produced and appeared in 1980’s Carny with Jodie Foster, but soon realized acting wasn’t a passion, with a small role in Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard 15 years later his only other on-screen film credit of note.
More lasting was the relationship with Scorsese, as he worked as a music supervisor on several of the director’s films. Robertson had recently finished writing the musical score for the director’s upcoming film, Killers of the Flower Moon.
“Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work. I could always go to him as a confidant. A collaborator. An adviser. I tried to be the same for him,” Scorsese wrote in a statement that was shared with CBC News.
“Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life — me and millions and millions of other people all over this world. The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys.”
“It goes without saying that he was a giant, that his effect on the art form was profound and lasting. There’s never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie,” the director wrote.
WATCH | Robbie Robertson’s 2011 interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge
Later music inspired by Indigenous culture
Robertson released his first solo album in 1987, with help from friends old and new such as Danko, Hudson, Peter Gabriel and U2. Robbie Robertson included Fallen Angel, an emotional tribute to Manuel, who had died by suicide the previous year.
The collection would be named the Junos Album of the Year, during a ceremony in which The Band were inducted into the Juno Awards’ hall of fame. Robertson also took home the Juno for top male vocalist and shared top producer honours with his collaborator, Canadian Daniel Lanois.
By this point Danko, Helm and Hudson had continued on as The Band, releasing the well-received Jericho in 1993. But the following year Helm was a no-show when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the drummer angered in later years by what he saw as a lopsided split of the songwriting and publishing in Robertson’s favour from the group’s classic catalogue.
Robertson countered that all band members were clear-eyed when signing any contracts, while band associates like producer John Simon and road manager Jon Taplin supported his view that Robertson wrote most of the material.
Robertson’s next album Storyville followed in 1992. On his first two releases Robertson had delved into stories and themes inspired by Indigenous culture, but he pursued those threads more earnestly with subsequent albums Music for the Native Americans (1994) and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy (1998).
“It started seeping under the door like water in the most natural way,” he told an interviewer in 1998.
Robertson’s Native Roots
‘I might be one of the most acclaimed native sons proudly from the hood on the bush,’ Roberston once said
Candace Maracle · CBC News · @August 12, 2023 12:09 AM
Musicians from Six Nations, Ont. say Robbie Robertson’s impact was huge in the community, where he was embraced and celebrated — and now, fondly remembered.
Robertson, a world-renowned musician and storyteller, died Aug. 9. He was 80.
“I might be one of the most acclaimed native sons proudly from the ‘hood on the bush,” Robertson wrote in an email to friend Tim Johnson back in 2017. Locals know the reserve as “the bush.”
Six years earlier, despite his many accolades — including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Juno Awards and admission as an officer of the Order of Canada — it was important for Robertson to become an enrolled member of the Six Nations community where his mother was born.
It was also where he started playing music at 10 years old, inspired by relatives from the reserve who were all musicians, said Tim Johnson.
“He’s identified as being from this community, which was always completely legitimate. But to now finally have that formal recognition I think really for him brought it all home,” said Tim Johnson, Kanien’kehá:ka of Six Nations, who was with Robertson when he signed the papers for his status card.
He met Robertson in his office at the Village Recording Studios in Los Angeles when Johnson was curating an exhibit: Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture, for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., and New York City.
The same exhibit inspired the 2017 documentary Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World, on which Tim Johnson was executive producer.
The two hit it off because of their shared Mohawk identity.
Remembered as ‘friend and champion’ in community
Ava Hill considered Robertson a good friend.
The former Six Nations chief said she remembers seeing The Band’s The Last Waltz when it was in theaters in 1978. Robertson wrote songs and played guitar in the group.
Video: Robbie Robertson reflects on the process of gathering music, sounds and rhythms during The Band’s early touring that contributed to their unique sound in a 2016 CBC interview.
It was around that same time, Hill asked Robertson to be an honorary chairperson on a committee to build a new Woodland Cultural Centre on Six Nations land in Brantford, Ont.
In the wake of his death, the centre issued a memorial statement calling Robertson “our friend and champion.”
Elaine Bomberry, Cayuga/Anishinaabe of Six Nations, worked in the Indigenous performing arts starting in the 1980s.
Bomberry met Robertson in the 1990s and spent a week with him in Six Nations while he was filming the PBS documentary Making A Noise: A Native American Journey with Robbie Robertson.
In the 1998 film Robertson said he couldn’t tell people he was First Nations early in his career because there weren’t a lot of Indigenous musicians.
But Bomberry said once Robertson started telling people about his identity, it was empowering for musicians in Six Nations.
Bomberry recalled one powwow weekend in the summer and bringing Robertson to Six Nations musician Derek Miller’s garage where “he picked up a guitar and jammed.”
“Oh my God, we got this legend here in the garage on the side road,” she recalled thinking of that day.
Visits to community left impact
In presenting Roberston with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Tim Johnson said the musician’s visits with family in Six Nations as a kid opened “his mind to a fascinating world invisible to the dominant society,” and an “early education that what you’re being taught in school is hardly the complete story.”
It compelled Robertson to tell those stories, said Tim Johnson.
Hill recalled an interview with Robertson where he talked about wanting to tell stories like the ones he heard growing up about Peacemaker — an important figure in Haudenosaunee culture.
Eventually he’d write classics such as The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Up On Cripple Creek.
“He became this big international star and then in the later years I think he started digging more into his identity,” Hill said.
Robertson claimed his community before the media or government paid much attention to them, said Hill, and he started “doing more music that our people would appreciate.”
Musician recalls playing Robertson’s own song for him
Ryan Johnson, who is from Six Nations, plays bass with The Ollivanders. He was one of the musicians who honoured Robertson at the 2017 ceremony in the community.
Playing one of Robertson’s own songs for him was surreal, he said.
“I hope we did a good job and I’m sure he’s probably sick of hearing The Weight but it’s just great to see how nice of a person he was to cheer us on for playing one of his songs,” said Ryan Johnson.
Robertson gave the musicians a standing ovation that night, recalled Tim Johnson.
“Every now and then destiny shines upon a life to bestow particular gifts and talents and set that person on a journey of remarkable adventure and accomplishment,’ Tim Johnson said in his tribute.
“We can never really know in advance … whether the outcomes will be straight and good, or crooked and twisted.”
WATCH | Music legend Daniel Lanois reflects on his friend Robbie Robertson:
The producer of Robbie Robertson’s first solo album and Canadian music legend himself, Daniel Lanois, remembers his friend and collaborator’s creativity and ability to wander.
Watch: CBC Gem (Canada only)
Driving force of the Band, whose influential first album, Music from Big Pink, sent US rock music in new directions
All five had started playing early on, working their way through a string of ensembles bearing a wealth of evocative names. Helm (born May 26, 1940) had played guitar in a two-guitar, stand-up bass and drums ensemble called the Jungle Bush Beaters that wreaked havoc in the Marvell-Helena area before he hooked up with the would-be legend Ronnie Hawkins, Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman and Willard “Pop” Jones. It was with Hawkins that Helm first started beating the skins.
Put the Boot In: Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks – February 24, 1964 London, Ontario – ‘Bacon Fat’
Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is a 30 minute archival tape of 24k musical gold. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks captured live and in action on magnetic tape in London, Ontario, Canada, February 24, 1964. Three weeks removed from the arrival of the Beatles, music was on a spacecraft to the stars and the ‘Hawks’ were riding shotgun. Live performances by the ‘pre-Band’ Hawks are quite rare and range from acceptable to acceptable minus as far as audio quality goes. This capture finds the ‘Hawks’ ready to soar on their own as they would within a year leave the ‘Hawk’ on their way to becoming the ‘Band’ via Bob Dylan. The tape has circulated for a number of years and is a proper document of an evening with ‘Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks’
Martin Farrer and agencies | 30 May 2022 | The Guardian
Arkansas-born showman – known as ‘The Hawk’ – cut his teeth on the South’s tough 50s circuit but settled in Canada where he nurtured local talent
The Band & Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan World Tour 1966
Concert tour undertaken by American musician Bob Dylan
The Bob Dylan World Tour 1966 was a concert tour undertaken by American musician Bob Dylan, from February to May 1966. Dylan’s 1966 World Tour was notable as the first tour where Dylan employed an electric band backing him, following him “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The musicians Dylan employed as his backing band were known as the Hawks, who later became famous as the Band.
Finding The Band
As Dylan finished the sessions for his 1965 “Positively 4th Street” single, he wanted to reproduce on-stage the same sound that he had polished in the studio. He soon began to gather a backing band with several musicians, such as bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, whom he had played with during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited.
However, the bulk of the players came from Ronnie Hawkins‘ former backing group, Levon and the Hawks. They impressed Dylan when he saw them play in Toronto, at the direction of Albert Grossman‘s staffer, Mary Martin, who told him to visit the group at Le Coq d’Or Tavern, a Yonge Street club. (Robbie Robertson recalled that it was the Friar’s Tavern, a nearby establishment.)
An alternate version of the first meeting, put forward by Williamson, suggests that he saw them in a Jersey Shore club. Drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson were quickly invited to join Dylan’s backing group. After only two shows into the initial tour in North America, Kooper left the band due to stress and safety concerns, and he and Brooks were promptly replaced by the remaining Hawks (bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson). Drummer Levon Helm, too, disillusioned by the constantly hostile reception from audiences, jumped ship in November, getting replaced by session drummer Bobby Gregg. Gregg eventually left the band as the tour progressed, and Sandy Konikoff replaced him on drums, who left the tour when Dylan traveled to Australia. Former Johnny Rivers drummer Mickey Jones remained with the band throughout the rest of the tour.
Link: Live Concert – Roosevelt Stadium (1973)
This concert features the single-best-Band version of The Weight I have ever heard. Who knows why.
Bob Dylan & The Band – Like A Rolling Stone (1966 Manchester)
This is it. The one. Judas. Play it fucking loud. The rip-roaring ‘I don’t give a fuck whether you like the new sound or not’ song.
In truth, this really is the essence of both Bob Dylan and The Band.
By Chris Long
Arts and entertainment reporter
Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan was at the centre of a storm, with arguments raging on both sides of the Atlantic about whether his decision to play electric sets meant he had sold out his folk roots.
The controversy began at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in the US, where he was booed when he played electric and it came to a head, unexpectedly, towards the end of his 1966 world tour at a concert in Manchester on 17 May.
Frustrated by what he was hearing, one man decided to vent his fury as the sound ebbed before Dylan’s final song of the set with a heckle that has become one of the most famous in musical history.
He shouted a single word – “Judas”.
Musician and author Dr CP Lee was in the crowd that night and has since written a book about the world tour.
He says it has been “reckoned to be one of the pivotal moments in popular music in the 20th Century, on a par with the riot at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris“.
At the time, he was a 16-year-old schoolboy, eager to see Dylan after missing his concert in the city the year before.
He says from the start, the gig had a distinct atmosphere and – with no pun intended – it was “electric”.
“That night, standing outside, there were people arguing, lots of speculation and quite a sense of an impending event.
“We’d read in 1965 about booing at Newport and the impression we got was that Dylan had come back on with an acoustic guitar and everything was alright.
“The side door opened and in we went. We could see amplifiers and a drum kit on the stage and people were going ‘oh no’.
“Some of us had read Melody Maker that week, which said there had been booing in Dublin and people wondered what Dylan was going to do.”
Mark Makin, who “by chance” took the only known photographs of the show, remembers the sense of “trepidation” but adds that it “wasn’t as if people didn’t know what was about to happen”.
“We had all read that this was going to be electric. They were all just hopeful that it might not.”
The gig had two halves: the first saw Dylan taking the stage alone and acoustic, while in the second, he played with the backing of his band, The Hawks.
Makin, who was in the fourth row with his school friends, says the audience was “delighted” with the acoustic set.
“Everybody was whisper quiet. These days, everyone roars with the recognition of the first line. It never happened then. You didn’t dare miss a second of it.
“I suppose there was an expectation that he might not [play electric], he just might carry on – because we had such a good first half, he might just do more of the same.”
Lee remembers people in the intermission “breathing a sigh of relief and I heard somebody say ‘oh, he’s seen sense. He’s not going to use the band, he’s realised he’s wrong’.”
Little did they know what was to come. Returning for the second half, Lee says drummer Mickey Jones “blasted into Tell Me, Momma [and] it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard”.
He says that at the end of that first number, “people were bewildered, shell-shocked even”, but shortly after, the protests began.
“Throughout the second half, people started slow hand-clapping. Groups of people were standing up, facing the stage accusingly and then walking out.
“There were random shouts here, there and everywhere.”
And then there was a shout from the circle – “Judas”. Lee says the heckle stung Dylan “to the quick”.
“He lets the guy have it. You can really see that he has rankled Dylan.
“The look on his face… he turned around and said ‘I don’t believe you’. It was an incredibly antagonistic moment.”
Lee says Dylan then stepped away from the microphone, swore as he told the band to “play it loud” and they “lurched into Like A Rolling Stone, which was this giant juggernaut”.
Makin saw what happened in that second half differently.
“When he came on, he’d got a smirk on his face, because he knew what was going to happen.
“He’d had this elsewhere in the months prior to this and he had it completely under control and was not going to be dissuaded by anybody.
“He piled in with Tell Me, Momma, and it hit like a freight train, because it was a real rocker and screamer.
“People sat there stunned.”
‘I shouted Judas’
Makin points to a problem with the sound as the reason for the abuse Dylan received, an issue which it has also been claimed was behind the discord in Newport too.
“I think the problem was the Free Trade Hall’s total lack of musicality – it was a square-sided building and when the sound was projected from a PA like that, it hit the wall at the back and came straight back at you with an echo and a reverb.
“All you could hear was this mush of sound. I think that was what hurt people.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t expect him to be electric, but if if he had just come in at three quarters of the decibels, it might have worked.”
It is not known whether it was the electric set or the sound quality that vexed the famous heckler – in fact, as Lee explains, it is not even known for certain who shouted.
“Andy Kershaw and myself made a documentary for BBC Radio 1 in 1999 and were contacted by a guy who had emigrated to Canada called Keith Butler, who said ‘yes, I shouted Judas’.
“But there was always an element of doubt. He had shouted something but I think he was confused about whether he had shouted that.
“After the broadcast, we got a call from a very irate person who said ‘my husband shouted Judas and here he is now’.
“He was called John Cordwell. Andy and I met John and he had a lot of people who were with him who said ‘yes, he shouted it out and we all applauded and thought he was great for having done it’.
“Sadly, both of them have passed away now, but it’s funny – you wait 30-odd years for Judas to turn up and you get two at once.”
Image source, Mark MakinImage caption, Makin took an entire roll of film at the concert, managing to get ‘about nine usable shots’
Lee says Dylan reacted so viciously because of the word used in the heckle.
“I think being called Judas was the point. Betraying what? It’s quite ridiculous.
“That level of antagonism against an artist is unimaginable nowadays. It couldn’t happen now – people would just either like it or not.
“This was not a bad set, it was absolutely fantastic what they played.
“It was eye-opening and revolutionary. I’m so glad there is a record of it.”
The recording of the concert surfaced as a bootleg at the end of the 1960s and was officially released by Dylan in 1998.
Lee says it was an “incendiary” performance and that what happened that night – the heckle, Dylan’s response and the ferocity with which he played the second half – changed music forever.
“In essence, it’s the night that pop music became rock music.
“It was heavy metal, it was thrash metal, it was death metal, it was everything that’s come since then.
“I was totally aware, the moment it finished, I knew I had been present at something that was seismic.
“I knew, from that night on, that things would never quite be the same again.”
Electric 50, a celebration of the Free Trade Hall show by Manchester’s musical community, takes place at Manchester Academy 3 on 17 May. (2016)
Photos: Bob Dylan and The Band
Bob Dylan and The Band played some of the most controversial music in history, then laid the groundwork for Americana, leaving an insurmountable legacy.
Published on 04 September 2020 | Martin Chilton |UDiscoverMusic
The careers of Bob Dylan and The Band are gloriously and inextricably intertwined. Their collaborations had a creative energy that produced some of the finest popular music of the 20th Century. Though the original members of the latter – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel – were master musicians in their own right, it was hooking up with Dylan that brought them global attention.
All five had played together with The Hawks (the backing band for Canada-based singer Ronnie Hawkins), and Danko said they first met in unison when Dylan went to hear them play in Toronto, after drummer Helm had suggested they were a good fit for the new backing band Dylan wanted. Danko recalled: “We played a bunch of instrumentals that night and we started touring soon afterwards.”
At that stage, the members of The Band (as they later became known) did not know much about the 24-year-old who had already written “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” As Robertson admitted: “We weren’t folk music savvy.” But they were quickly won over by the quality of his songwriting; Robertson recalled them being particularly impressed by his protest song “Oxford Town.” More than four decades later, the guitarist was still extolling Dylan’s brilliance. When this writer interviewed him in 2013, he said simply: “Bob Dylan is as influential as any artist that there has ever been.”
Putting their heads in the lion’s mouth
What the guitarist could not have known back in 1965 was that, together, Bob Dylan and The Band were about to embark on one of the most controversial tours of the 20th Century. Dylan’s new electric sound angered the folk music purists, who shouted abuse at the singer, exemplified by the remarkable night in Manchester, in 1966, when Dylan was berated with the cry of “Judas!”
“It was so ugly and so bad every night,” Robertson said. Dylan seemed unfazed, telling the band on that night to just “play f__king loud”, before launching into a souped-up “Like A Rolling Stone.” Dylan, who was playing a new black Telecaster guitar suggested by Robertson, later said the tour felt like they had been “putting our heads in the lion’s mouth”.
The trip had been grueling and, by the end of it – no doubt exacerbated by a reported reliance on amphetamines – Dylan was drained. Despite his poor health, there was a feeling among the musicians that the partnership between Bob Dylan and The Band would continue. Robertson even remembers Dylan’s then manager, Albert Grossman, suggesting to them that they should “do a record of Bob Dylan’s songs as instrumentals” following the tour and Danko and Robertson’s studio work on Blonde On Blonde.
Though that instrumental album never got off the ground, what happened next cemented Bob Dylan and The Band’s place in music history. Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident in August 1966, when he retreated to Woodstock, The Band rented a small house in nearby West Saugerties and began making the sort of music they wanted to.
Danko said renting the house they dubbed “Big Pink” (after the color of the outside walls) cost them $250 a month, but the location guaranteed them privacy. They installed a two-track recording machine in the basement. “Before I noticed it, Bob Dylan was coming six, seven days a week,” said Danko. “If we were sleeping he would get us up and make some coffee and be in the living room, banging out hundreds of songs on the typewriter.”
It was a remarkably productive period. Bob Dylan and The Band (as the group was now officially known) recorded more than 100 songs, some of which were released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes, before the arrival, in 2014, of The Bootleg Series Vol.11: The Basement Tapes Complete.
The songs included “I Shall be Released” and the haunting “This Wheel’s On Fire,” which was co-written by Danko and Dylan. “I wrote the music on piano, and the phrasing, and Bob wrote the verses,” Danko recalled. “The more we got together, the more we put into it, the more we got back from it.” The Band would later record their own versions of both songs.
Dylan knew The Band was more than just his musical sounding board. During this period, he saw their own songwriting abilities emerge. Out of this time came much of the brilliant Americana music that ended up on The Band’s epochal debut album, Music From Big Pink, which was recorded early in 1968 and released on July 1 that year. The album, which featured guitarist Robertson’s masterpiece, “The Weight,” had a massive influence on musicians such as Eric Clapton and Roger Waters; its legacy has recently been cemented with the release of a 50th-anniversary super deluxe box set.
Though Dylan initially offered to sing on the Capitol Records album, in the end he decided it would deflect attention from The Band’s own musical statement. Instead, he contributed the co-written song “Tears Of Rage” (written with Manuel) and the cover artwork – a painting of the five musicians (and a woolly mammoth) on the Danko family chicken farm.
After the success of Music From Big Pink, The Band went on their own tour. Though Bob Dylan and The Band would continue to perform together on occasion – including in August 1969, at the Isle Of Wight Festival – the next few years saw The Band do their own thing. For Capitol they recorded The Band (1969), Stage Fright (1970), Cahoots (1971), and Moondog Matinee (1973) before embarking on another major collaboration with Dylan.
In the early 70s, Robertson had moved to Malibu and was hanging out with Dylan when talk returned to working together again. “It was a kind of a step into the past, but we quickly decided it was a good idea and a new day,” recalled Robertson. The first result was the album Planet Waves, which was recorded in under a week in November 1973.
“We didn’t get any bottles thrown at us”
Bob Dylan and The Band also embarked on a major reunion tour to promote the album. The 40-concert, 21-city expedition, across January and February 1974 (which was documented on the live album Before The Flood), was one of the most in-demand tours in rock history. More than five million postal orders were sent in for a total of 650,000 tickets. “The whole thing was a high. It was smooth and tasty and a lot of fun to do… and we didn’t get any bottles thrown at us,” said Robertson.
Despite being Dylan’s first tour for nearly eight years, the format also reflected The Band’s status as an attraction in their own right. In the middle of each set, Dylan took a break so that Helm and co could perform their own crowd-pleasing songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek.”
After two more albums for Capitol – Northern Lights – Southern Cross and Islands – The Band in its original incarnation folded, following their final show with Robertson, which was lovingly filmed by Martin Scorsese for The Last Waltz. The concert, held at Winterland Ballroom, in San Francisco, marked a high point in music-documentary filmmaking. It featured memorable performances by guest stars that included Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. Dylan also stepped on stage to sang six songs, including “Forever Young.”
After that film, The Band survived in various formats. Danko and Helm, along with newer members Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante, appeared at The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, in 1992, which celebrated Dylan’s three decades in the music business.
In July 1999, Danko played bass and sang “One Too Many Mornings” on the tribute album Tangled Up In Blues: Songs Of Bob Dylan. It was the last recording ever made by The Band; covering a song Bob Dylan and The Band had performed regularly on the 1966 tour seemed an appropriate way to sign off. A few months later, Danko was dead at the age of 55. The era of The Band collaborating with Bob Dylan was finally over.
But what a legacy they left. As Robertson put it: “It was great. We so enjoyed playing with Bob Dylan, and with him, there was no ego at all.”
Bob Dylan’s legendary basement tapes.
Bob Dylan’s legendary basement tapes.
@October 27, 2014 5:00 AM
On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan became distracted while riding his motorcycle. Nobody knows what caught his eye—he told Sam Shepard that it was the sun; he told the biographer Robert Shelton that he hit an oil slick—but he ended up at the bottom of a hill in Woodstock, New York, with his Triumph beside him. His thoughts could have been distraction enough. Two months earlier, his band had finished a four-month run of shows that had become, as the critic Greil Marcus described, “increasingly embattled and defiant.”
This was in keeping with the mood of Dylan’s live performances for the past year. When he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival the previous July, with an electric guitar and a rock band, he pushed his career into a sharp turn. It seemed like a betrayal to those fans who thought that Dylan was Dylan only when he was carrying an acoustic guitar and singing obliquely political songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Many of his followers thought that he was more than a musician. In Manchester, England, two months before the accident, someone cried out “Judas!” during Dylan’s set. It’s likely that Dylan knew how pop idolatry worked, but being roped into the Last Supper, even if you expected a few disciples, must have been unsettling. It’s not hard to imagine Dylan wanting to get off the road, where he’d lived more or less since 1961.
There is no official documentation of the accident, and it’s not clear what injuries Dylan incurred, though he said that he suffered a concussion and “busted” some “neck vertebrae.” It is also unclear how many people witnessed the accident—Dylan said that his wife, Sara Lowndes, was behind him, in a car. “It happened one morning, after I’d been up for three days,” he said. He told one interviewer, “I probably would have died, if I had kept on going the way I had been.”
After a short convalescence, Dylan tinkered with a tour documentary he was making, called “Eat the Document.” (It has never been commercially released, but bootleg copies have circulated for years.) In the spring of 1967, he began making music again. He worked in his house and in the basement of a house outside Saugerties, near Woodstock, with his touring band, a mostly Canadian group originally called the Hawks and later renamed The Band.
He performed no live dates in 1967, made a single appearance in 1968, and played only three shows in 1969. He removed himself from public view for all of 1970, and then, in 1971, he appeared at the Concert for Bangladesh, a benefit in New York organized by George Harrison. That year, he told Shelton, “Until the accident, I was living music twenty-four hours a day.” In the summer of 1967, he was recording music without living it, or living it differently from before. The recordings he made in Woodstock are a document of Dylan determining where he and his songs and his audience and his country and his past overlapped, or didn’t.
Next week, a six-CD set called “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11,” featuring a hundred and thirty-nine songs, will be released. It is not exactly an album, and was never intended to be.
Some of the songs began circulating in 1969, on an album that came to be called “The Great White Wonder,” and brought the word “bootleg” into the context of music. Six years later, sixteen songs from these sessions, plus eight written and recorded by The Band alone, were enhanced with overdubs and officially released as a two-LP set, under the name “The Basement Tapes.” Several months before the release, Dylan gave his first radio interview in nine years and said, “Somebody mentioned it was a good idea to put it out, you know, as a record, so people could hear it in its entirety and know exactly what we were doing up there in those years.”
Dylan eventually moved the project from arm’s length to an even more distant spot. In 1984, he told Rolling Stone, “I never really liked ‘The Basement Tapes.’ I mean, they were just songs we had done for the publishing company, as I remember. They were used only for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn’t have put ’em out.”
The public wasn’t quite as skeptical. In 1975, Robert Christgau gave the album one of his rare A-plus grades and wrote, “This is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too. And it’s sure to sound great in 1983.”
Dylan was woodshedding with musicians he had known mostly onstage—Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm. He was rummaging through American popular music to find sounds that might resonate and free him from whatever self he had created. Dylan had débuted as a thinly disguised Woody Guthrie imitator, turned into a folk-song writer of fearsome economy, and was moving into a third phase, which he described, in a 1978 interview, as “that thin, that wild-mercury sound,” referring to albums like “Blonde on Blonde” (1966) and the electric albums before it. (In the same interview, he also called this style “the sound of the streets with the sunrays” and “all pretty natural sounds,” a contradiction that works in a song but less well as an explanation.)
“The Basement Tapes Complete” reveals a reluctant prophet and his new friends looking for something. Their search was wide and lacked dogma. The Band was catching the new songs that Dylan was rapidly writing, and following along as he recalled a Halloween bowl’s worth of old American songs. Bob Nolan’s country standard “Cool Water” belonged to everybody; “People Get Ready” belonged mostly to Curtis Mayfield; and “Folsom Prison Blues” was, and still is, very much Johnny Cash’s song. “I Shall Be Released” could easily have emerged in the late eighteen-hundreds, from a factory or a farm or any part of America that wasn’t level with the rest of the country.
But Bob Dylan wrote it. No matter how many times he told the world to stop asking him questions, he kept writing songs that felt like answers, and not just for Americans. The Band recorded the song for its first album, “Music from Big Pink,” in 1968. My favorite version of “I Shall Be Released,” though, is the springy, ecstatic version released in 1976 by the Jamaican vocal trio the Heptones, who changed “my light” to “Jah’s light.”
If the motorcycle accident was perhaps not life threatening, the throwaway writing sessions were not so tossed off. “The Basement Tapes Complete” is proof that, after the accident, Dylan didn’t so much change his set list as his language, and the language of the American songbook. In October, 1979, Dylan and his band were playing “Gotta Serve Somebody” on “Saturday Night Live.”
He looked distracted—he was wearing a windbreaker and shuffling, as if he were about to bolt the studio to catch the Staten Island Ferry. The music was limp, like reggae played by people who had read about it but never heard it.
Dylan sang, or spoke, lyrics about “the heavyweight champion of the world,” someone with “women in a cage,” and “the head of some big TV network,” and about how, at the end of the day, these big cheeses all had to serve somebody. I was twelve, and even then I could tell that he was setting up straw men as some ridiculous proof that religious faith was universally necessary.
This was the revolutionary guy that people droned on about? I was becoming obsessed with music. My city, mostly limited to Brooklyn at that point, was roughed up and broken, and I needed a sound that matched that environment. Whatever I was looking for wasn’t in what Dylan was selling, a rough paste of obeisance and crabby lecturing. I was already tired of the dopey “everybody must get stoned” song—“Rainy Day Women #12 and 35”—that WNEW 102.7 still played, thirteen years after its release. Sixties nostalgia was in full swing before the seventies ended.
Less than two years later, a group called the Funky 4 Plus 1 More appeared on “S.N.L.” and played “That’s the Joint,” the first rap single I ever bought. The idea that a New York teen-ager in 1981 would turn to Bob Dylan—after Dylan had turned to Jesus—rather than to rap or hardcore punk, was illogical. The only Dylan song I liked was Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and even that was stuffed with clunky Biblical references to princes and thieves. Dylan seemed like a square or a failed hippie, and I found both equally hard to take.
During the next two decades, playing in bands and obsessing over records, I felt my ignorance of Dylan moving up to the front of my brain. I had, most likely, been put off by the idea of absorbing an enormous catalogue and interacting with an enormous fan base, any member of which would happily fill me in if I didn’t immediately offer up that, yes, he was born with the last name of Zimmerman and grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota. I suspect that this is how gaps in taste often work: even when we are old enough to know better, we dodge certain artists because we sense that engaging with them will be like signing up for a crash course. Where to start with Milton? Is this the year for Henry James?
In my early thirties, I bought a three-CD set of Dylan’s work called “The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.” I liked the idea of this epic figure being stripped back to demos, his songs freed of those wheezing organs. On disk two of “The Bootleg Series,” there’s a song called “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” an outtake from “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964).
Dylan is accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. His voice has merely a hint of imitation Okie at this point. He jumps right into the first of five verses, in a relaxed but forceful tone: “Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat and covering the crossroads I’m standing at, or maybe it’s the weather or something like that, but, mama, you been on my mind.”
I heard the punch of “sun cut flat” and, moments later, the conversational flop of “or something like that,” and I got it. Dylan goes on to assure his lover that he doesn’t even care where she’s “waking up tomorrow”—he’s just hung up on her. He ends the fifth and final verse with a question, which comes across as both gentle and sharp: “When you wake up in the morning, baby, look inside your mirror, you know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near. I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear as someone who has had you on his mind.” It was the thread I needed to pull on—Dylan could be as incisive as Wire’s vocalist, Colin Newman, or the rapper Rakim, or Lou Reed, my New York hero, whose Velvet Underground song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (1966) could be an elaboration of that last verse.
Once I knew that Dylan could hit hard, the Church of Bob made sense. His immersion in American folk music was part of establishing an authenticity that meant nothing to me in 1981, but it allowed him a huge audience, and a certain stature, in 1963. Within that tradition, he was running wild in ways I had never known. His sense of poetic freedom was chained to a deep intuitive sense of all the songs already there in the world, a chemical interaction that it took me years to recognize. Dylan operates in some future while being steeped in the past, a combination that leads to a great deal of material, when it works.
After “The Bootleg Series,” I watched “Dont Look Back,” the D. A. Pennebaker vérité documentary. The footage is of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, often of encounters with the press, which are all raised hackles and mutual skepticism. When a reporter asks Dylan if he cares what he sings about, he responds, “You’ve got a lot of nerve asking me a question like that—do you ask the Beatles that?” The man I thought was a party-line hippie was the punk of 1965, looking back into the camera and wondering why there was a camera at all and who was profiting from the footage. The film was released in 1967, and when asked by Jann Wenner if he liked it Dylan replied, “I’d like it better if I got paid for it.”
Heard in full, the basement tapes make Dylan’s ambivalence seem reasonable. This is a tremendous stretch of music of such varying quality that extracting anything as concrete as an album from it seems like a kind of reality-show challenge. Better to approach it as a toolbox than as a serial listening experience. Often, the music is exactly what my teen-age self feared Bob Dylan was: loose, wordy, not of the modern world.
It helps to remember that what looked from the outside like seclusion was a productive period for Dylan. He had been out of the songwriting business for only a few months, if that. Later in 1967, days after finishing the basement tapes, Dylan recorded “John Wesley Harding,” in Nashville, without any members of The Band. In December, it became his first post-accident release.
The version of “The Basement Tapes” that was released in 1975, which Robbie Robertson and the audio engineer Rob Fraboni helped assemble, made a coherent whole from a collection of demos and rehearsals—Dylan throwing out songs and The Band catching what they could—with overdubs and processing. But does any gainfully employed person need to hear Dylan sing “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” in sloppy country-blues style, as he does on “The Basement Tapes Complete”?
Was either take of “See You Later Allen Ginsberg”—the lyrics of which aren’t much more than the title—ever funny to anybody except the six people who recorded it, cracking up as they did so? But these hundred and thirty-nine tracks offer the opportunity to make your own double album, though that effort demands that you care a tremendous amount about Bob Dylan, especially the transition he went through as the sixties ended.
The proceedings were recorded by Garth Hudson, who borrowed a tape deck and two stereo mixers, in Dylan’s house, in The Band’s Big Pink, and in a Wittenberg Road house where Rick Danko and Levon Helm lived. Historically, these sessions have been treated with awe, as if something essential about both Dylan and popular song can be found on the tapes. That’s at best half true. The performances weren’t approached with any kind of gravity, and are best listened to with no reverence at all. For every moment of revelation and synthesis, there are five throwaways.
Elliott Landy’s The Band Photographs, 1968–69
Link: The Band Live At The Casino Arena 7/20/76 Complete Concert (restored)
The Band Live At The Casino Arena 7/20/76 Complete Concert (restored)
The Band Live At Casino Arena (Asbury Park, NJ) July 20, 1976
Good god this is a great set. Musically it is as tight (or perhaps tighter) than the Rock of Ages show and it is so nice to see the characters, Danko rocking back and forth, Levon reaching up to his mic, Robertson’s flourishes, the always beautifully plaintive Manuel and Garth?
Bo Carter’s Musical Influences (Excerpt)
Bo’s Musical Influences
Music Influences and Articles:
Bo has offered the following to shine a bit of light on the artists who have influenced his career. JP
From the book: The Last Record Album by James Porteous
When we recorded our first demos with Freak Zapper in Baltimore he was very excited to be using a five track recording board.
Only Sticks seemed to understand what he was talking about, but Zapper told us he could record on two tracks and then ‘bounce’ both to a third track, then start over with a ‘clean slate’ on the first two. In those days this was a big deal.
In 1967 The Beatles used four tracks to record ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Needless to say, there was a lot of ‘bouncing’ going on during that recording.
At the far end of that spectrum was the album recorded by Ronnie Hawkins’ and Bob Dylan’s one-time back up group, The Band. Otherwise known as ‘the brown album,’ The Band might sound like a bare bones recording but it is anything but.
The group is said to have set up a state-of-the-art recording studio in a pool house in Los Angeles, California that included an eight-track 3M tape machine, Altec 604 monitors and an EMT echo chamber for The Band’s own studio. (Credit: Sound on Sound)
Still, nothing was left to chance. Many of the songs were still being written during the first recording sessions and it is said they ran through the new songs on days one and two and then recorded those songs on days three.
The album could be said to have changed the future of popular folk-rock music in much the same way ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ did at the other end of the spectrum.
Although all but one of the members were Canadian, the cast of Southern ‘characters’ are as finely drawn as the words of William Faulkner or Shelby Foote.
From that first moment when we find ourselves standing in the window in pain, straight through to listening to the wind blow across the water, from our time spent hanging around with Willie boy and Virgil Caine and the unfaithful servant, the listener is transported, in both sound and word, creating mem’ries that linger on forever.
As a songwriter, this album set a watermark so high that few of us ever even contemplated trying to surpass it. It was, in short the album that changed the course of my music. And in many ways, my life. More than any other album The Band showed me what was possible.
As shown below, The Band were not only great singers, and songwriters, but exceptional multi-instrumentalists as well. Throughout the recording of The Band various members would switch from drums to mandolin to fiddle to piano to… The result, in the studio, was astounding. The result on concert stages was somewhat taxing for the audience and the group would eventually stick to their pre-ordained parts!
1. Across The Great Divide
Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Piano & Baritone Sax
Rick Danko: Bass & Trombone
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ & Tenor Sax
Levon Helm: Drums
John Simon: Tuba
2. Rag Mama Rag
Levon Helm: Lead Vocal & Mandolin
Rick Danko: Back Vocal & Violin
Richard Manuel: Drums
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Piano
John Simon: Tuba
3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Levon Helm: Lead Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Back Vocal & Bass & Violin
Richard Manuel: Back Vocal & Piano
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Melodica & Slide Trumpet
4. When You Awake
Rick Danko: Lead Vocal & Bass
Levon Helm: Back Vocal & Drums
Richard Manuel: Back Vocal (& Drums? Or is it Levon playing here?)
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
5. Up On Cripple Creek
Levon Helm: Lead Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Back Vocal & Bass
Richard Manuel: Back Vocal & Piano
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Clavinette (through a Wah-Wah Effect) & Lowrey Organ
6. Whispering Pines
Richard Manuel: 1st Lead Vocal & Piano (Bad tuning)
Levon Helm: 2nd Lead Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Bass
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
John Simon: Electric Piano
7. Jemima Surrender
Levon Helm: Lead Vocal & Rhythm Electric Guitar
Rick Danko: Back Vocal & 6 String Bass
Richard Manuel: Back Vocal & Drums
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Piano & Baritone Sax
John Simon: Tuba
8. Rockin’ Chair
Richard Manuel: 1st Lead Vocal
Levon Helm: 2nd Lead Vocal & Mandolin
Rick Danko: Bass & Back Vocal
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Accordion
9. Look Out Cleveland
Rick Danko: Lead Vocal & Bass
Levon Helm: Back Vocal & Drums
Richard Manuel: Piano & Back Vocal
Robbie Robertson: Lead Electric Guitar & Additional Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
Richard Manuel: Lead Vocal & Piano
Levon Helm: Back Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Bass & Back Vocal
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ
11. The Unfaithful Servant
Rick Danko: Lead Vocal & Bass & Trombone
Levon Helm: Back Vocal & Drums
Richard Manuel: Piano & Baritone Sax
Robbie Robertson: Acoustic Guitar
Garth Hudson: Soprano Sax
John Simon: Tuba
12. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
Richard Manuel: 1st Lead Vocal
Levon Helm: 2nd Lead Vocal & Drums
Rick Danko: Bass
Robbie Robertson: Electric Guitar
Garth Hudson: Lowrey Organ & Foot Pedal Bass Organ
John Simon: Electric Piano
The Band – Broad Discography
The Last Waltz
When the Band decided to stop touring, they asked a young director named Martin Scorsese to put their farewell concert on film. In an excerpt from his new memoir, Testimony, guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson recalls the night of Thanksgiving 1976, where electric performances by legends such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell created rock history.
By Robbie Robertson 2016
Our rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was passing the point of no return. The examples of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison—and more recently Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley—brought home the dangers of the road. We’d heard this story about so many musicians, it was almost part of the ritual. All around us, bands we knew were imploding, trying to live what they thought was the rock ’n’ roll high life. We saw them falling by the side of the road, but through a one-way mirror. We saw everything but ourselves.
One night in 1976, I spoke to the guys about the possibility of bringing this phase of our journey to a conclusion; that we needed to look out for one another and get out of the line of fire for a while. At every concert we played, packs of destructive influences showed up like they were in the business of helping you drown. Somewhere along the way we had lost our unity and our passion to reach higher. Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us.
Levon Helm had been my dearest friend in the world. My teacher. The closest thing I ever had to a brother. We had seen it all together and survived the world’s madness, but not our own. When Rick Danko joined us, we didn’t know if he would make the cut. He turned out to be a force—a dependable rock who was there for you night and day. How does a spirit like that get broken? I first met Richard Manuel when we were 17 years old. He had been drinking that night and was somewhere between pure joy and deep sadness. He still had that same yearning sound in his voice, which we loved. Garth Hudson was our in-house professor, and I felt the worst for him. All he wanted to do was make music, invent, and teach.
My instinct was to have a celebration of our music and then get out of the public eye. We’d been playing live and touring for 15 or 16 years, so it was a shocking proposition. But we couldn’t keep going out. On some nights we could hit our stride, but more and more it was becoming a painful chore. The best painkiller is opiates, and heroin had been creeping back under the door. I worried that Garth and I had three junkies in our group, plus our so-called manager. Finally I declared, “No more.”
We had a meeting and I suggested that we do a final concert at Winterland, in San Francisco, where we had played our first show as the Band, in 1969. No one was opposed to the idea. “I think we could all use a good time-out for health reasons,” Garth said.
“I Have to Do It”
It was still September, and I thought Thanksgiving would be an appropriate occasion for the show. We agreed that having Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan join us would be a respectful thing to do: they had both played an enormous part in our musical journey. When I called promoter Bill Graham to discuss the idea of doing our last show at Winterland, he was shocked to hear the news. But he agreed that it was the proper venue for this momentous occasion and that we needed to figure out a way to document the event.
We wanted to make it a musical celebration. We hoped to have not just artists who were close friends and influences but people who represented the many different musicalities we respected: Eric Clapton for the British blues; Dr. John for the sound of New Orleans; Joni Mitchell, the queen of women singer-songwriters; Muddy Waters, the king influencer of the Chicago blues; and harmonica master Paul Butterfield; then, representing the tradition of Tin Pan Alley, Neil Diamond; the Belfast Cowboy, Ireland’s greatest R&B voice, Van Morrison; Neil Young to represent our Canadian roots; and, of course, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Before long, it was becoming bigger than anything we had ever imagined.
I knew we would need someone special to capture this event on film. One name that stood out for me was Martin Scorsese, whom I had met briefly at a screening of Mean Streets in ’73. His use of music in that film showed he had a powerful connection to it, as did the fact that he’d worked on the Woodstock movie. I called Jon Taplin, who had produced Mean Streets, to see if he could set up a meeting between me and Martin Scorsese.
Jon made arrangements for us to gather a few days later at the Mandarin Restaurant, in Beverly Hills. Marty had a dark Vandyke beard that made his eyes quite piercing. He came with his wife, Julia, and Liza Minnelli, who was starring with Robert De Niro in a musical Marty was shooting called New York, New York. I took my wife, Dominique, and her friend Geneviève Bujold. When I told Marty about the Band’s final concert event, I could see the wheels turning in his head. He made no secret that music played an enormous part in his life. “We have one basic problem,” Marty said. “When you’re directing a movie for a studio, you’re not allowed to go off and shoot another film at the same time.” I mentioned that we were going to do the concert over the Thanksgiving holiday, if that would be helpful.
After dinner we decided to stop by the after-hours lounge On the Rox for a nightcap. Lots of friends were there, and the place was hopping. Marty and I talked about Van and Joni and Muddy and Bob, until he finally said, “The hell with it. These are my favorite artists, and the Band—oh my God. I have to do it, and that’s it. Fire me. They can fire me. I have to do it.”
I was over the moon. Marty was the right man for this—he had music under his skin. He also looked to be coming down with a cold. He seemed all stuffed up. “Do you think anybody would have any nose spray?” he asked me. “I can hardly breathe.”
I took a chance. “A friend just slipped me some coke. That can sometimes clear up your nasal passages.” Without skipping a beat, he answered, “No. I’ve got that,” showing me his own little bottle of coke. “I just need some Afrin or something.”
We had two months before Thanksgiving to put this whole thing together.
When I told Bob Dylan about the final concert, he said, “Is this going to be one of those Frank Sinatra retirements where you come back a year later?”
“No,” I told him. “The Band has to get off the road. It’s become a danger zone, and we’re afraid of what might happen.” Bob knew from all the car wrecks back in Woodstock and from his time with us on the road that it could be a delicate balance inside the Band keeping things from steaming off the tracks.
Sitting up at night putting together pieces of the puzzle for Bill Graham’s concert production and for Marty’s filming became my calling. One thing I needed to address was what to call this gathering. Rock Brynner—our road manager and the son of Yul Brynner—and I threw all kinds of ideas against the wall, and the one that stuck was “The Last Waltz.” It made me want to write a movie theme for the show in the tradition of some of the great Johann Strauss waltzes or “The Third Man Theme.”
Whenever he had a break, Marty would come out to Malibu, where I lived, and we would go over ideas for the show. He said that as soon as we chose which songs we would play he’d need a copy of the lyrics to turn into a shooting script for camera moves and lighting cues. László Kovács was the director of photography on New York, New York, and Marty said he was going to ask him to be the D.P. on The Last Waltz too.
We had a meeting with László at Marty’s office. “If you’re going to do this movie, don’t shoot it in 16-millimeter—do it in 35,” László declared. “It will look so much better.” Marty immediately liked the idea. “It’s never been done for a concert before. Can the cameras even shoot that long?”
“You won’t know unless you try,” said László. “But you have to do it in 35, or it won’t live up to these performers.”
Marty agreed. “If the cameras melt, the hell with it. We’ll know we gave it our best.”
Meanwhile, Bill Graham was insisting on serving a full Thanksgiving turkey dinner to the audience before the show. “But that’s hundreds of gallons of gravy!” I said. “Don’t worry—I’ll handle it,” said Bill. “We’ll have tables with white tablecloths and serve dinner for 5,000. Then the tables will magically disappear and the show will begin.”
When I got back to L.A. a couple of weeks later, after the Band had appeared on Saturday Night Live, Marty told me László had decided it was too much work for him to be D.P. on both New York, New York and The Last Waltz. He said he would be happy to be one of the cameramen, though. Marty asked Michael Chapman, his D.P. on Taxi Driver, to take over The Last Waltz. Michael was in, but he too was concerned that 35-millimeter Panavision cameras weren’t designed to run continuously for hours. Everything was up in the air, but we had to go for it to find out whether The Last Waltz was a disaster in the making.
We set up rehearsals with some of the guest artists at Shangri-La, our clubhouse, a strange ranch-type place off the Pacific Coast Highway, across from Zuma Beach.
Joni Mitchell stopped by and we took on the challenge of figuring out some of her chord changes. Neil Young decided he wanted to do a full-on Canadian connection with his song choices, so we ran over Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” and his “Helpless,” with its references to our homeland. Van Morrison was in and out of town, and we decided to do his song “Caravan.” I had an idea for another tune we could do with him, “Tura Lura Lural,” an Irish lullaby. When I told him, he laughed and thought I was crazy. “Sure,” he said, “and then we can go right into ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’ ”
When Bob came by Shangri-La, he said we should do something from Planet Waves, like “Forever Young,” or maybe one of the tracks we used to do when we first hooked up, like “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” or “I Don’t Believe You.” We played through a few songs once and left it at that. Afterward, Bob asked, “What’s this filming business everybody’s talking about for the concert?”
“We’re trying to figure out how to document this event,” I told him. “We’re talking about five or six 35-millimeter cameras with Martin Scorsese directing. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before.”
Bob stubbed out his cigarette and said he was already making a movie from his Rolling Thunder Revue tour and didn’t know if he wanted to be in two movies. I wasn’t surprised. He was never one to commit. I said, “Well, they’re just going to film the show, and if you don’t like your part, we won’t use it. Although how can we not have you be a part of the Band’s story?”
At the beginning of November, I took a quick trip up to San Francisco to look over the venue. Winterland had been an ice-skating rink (hence the name) and was looking pretty funky. Bill Graham was concerned about the appearance of the façade of the upper balcony and thought he would need $5,000 out of the budget to fix it. Michael Chapman and Steve Prince, Marty’s assistant, noted that the floor had “give” to it. With the audience moving around and dancing, this would make the cameras unsteady. Michael said, “It’s going to take some construction.”
As we were leaving the building, Bill cornered me: “I want my crew, all the people working on this event, to be in tune with your vision. Is there a movie we should watch to inspire us?”
I didn’t know how to respond. At first I thought maybe Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Then I opted for Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. I had no idea what his crew would get out of that bizarre film, but it sounded good.
With 10 days left to go, Marty found out that production on New York, New York was going to take a break the week of Thanksgiving. Phew! I had asked him at one of our earlier meetings if we could not have those red and green and blue lights you saw in every rock-concert documentary. “Could we do something much more theatrical with backlighting and amber footlights and spotlights, like in MGM musicals?”
Marty was already on that page. Boris Leven, our production designer, was a special man with a special talent. He said, “San Francisco. What do they have here? Of course! The San Francisco Opera.” He got access to their storage facility and came upon the set for Verdi’s La Traviata, and some elegant chandeliers. “This is what we need,” he said. Marty thought this completely original for a rock concert and especially fitting for one called The Last Waltz.
I talked with Levon, Garth, Richard, and Rick individually about this experiment we were embarking on. None of us truly understood where we were headed, but we knew change was inevitable. Levon said, in a quiet, brotherly tone, “Maybe if we can have one last stand, it will give us a good look at tomorrow. I’m ready to give it my best shot, so you can damn well count on me.”
At the beginning of the week of Thanksgiving, we got on an airplane to San Francisco and never looked back. For the occasion, I had my red ‘59 Stratocaster dipped in bronze, like baby shoes. I hadn’t taken into account how much heavier it would make the guitar, but it looked and sounded phenomenal.
Our rehearsal schedule looked nearly impossible to pull off. The guys and I congregated in the banquet room of the Miyako Hotel with Muddy Waters. Soon as we kicked into “Mannish Boy,” it felt like a powder keg ready to blow.
Van Morrison came directly to Winterland. We needed to learn “Caravan” and run it down with the horn section. Van was wearing a beige trench coat, like a private eye would wear in a 1940s movie. I had never seen a rock ’n’ roll singer dress like a private eye before and told Van it was a great look. “Really?” He smiled, considering whether he should wear it for the show.
For our Canadian sequence with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, we started by trying “Acadian Driftwood” with them joining in on the choruses. Then, when Neil sang “Helpless,” Joni did a high background vocal that sent shivers through the hall. In the show Joni wasn’t going to perform until after Neil, and I didn’t want to give away her appearance before that. I asked Marty if we could film Joni from behind the curtain while she sang her part on “Helpless.” “Definitely,” he said. “We’ll have a handheld camera back there.” With Bob, we ripped through three or four songs without hesitation—not a medley, though everything was interconnected.
We still felt a deep kinship with our old ringmaster, Ronnie Hawkins. He showed up looking spry in his new official uniform: black suit, white straw cowboy hat, red neck scarf, and a black T-shirt with a picture of a hawk on it. With all these big-name performers, Ron worried he wasn’t going to fit in. We immediately waved off his uncertainty and told him he was the first one we’d invited to this event; he deserved to be there as much as anybody. The Hawk was our beginning, and if we were going to throw a last waltz, he was going to have a dance.
We ran over Bobby “Blue” Bland’s song “Further On up the Road” with Eric Clapton. He also wanted to do a song he had recorded at Shangri-La with Rick and Richard. Every chance I got I would break away for a few minutes to finish writing “The Last Waltz Theme” and another new number, “Evangeline.”
© Neal Preston.
As I kept handing over song lyrics to Marty, I observed his method of turning each song’s words into a shooting script. He had a multitude of little boxes in the margins beside each verse and chorus, filled with drawings of directorial instructions. It looked masterful and precise. He went over this 200-page script meticulously with Michael Chapman, and for the actual show he would call out these instructions over headsets to all the cameramen and lighting people.
The big question, still way up in the air, was “Will these 35-millimeter cameras endure constant shooting for many hours?” We called Panavision and the various camera companies, but no one could guarantee anything because this had never been done before. Marty knew that we couldn’t shoot every song because they had to reload film and change batteries. Those breaks might save the cameras from burning out. We went over the song list for the whole show and decided what we would shoot and when they could reload. The decisions to not film certain songs were painful.
While going over these lists, it also weighed heavy on me whether the guys and I would be able to remember the arrangements for all our guests’ songs. With our limited rehearsal time, this was a challenge. “That’s like 20 new songs to remember, with nothing written out,” I said to Marty. “Holy shit! All you can do now is pray.”
“Oh yeah, there’ll be a lot of praying.” He smiled.
“Are We Ready?”
Thanksgiving. I couldn’t remember if I had slept since we had gotten to San Francisco. I lay down for a nap, but I couldn’t sleep—not even close. In two hours they would start serving Thanksgiving dinner. I sat up, unsteady and disoriented: pure exhaustion. I threw myself into the shower and turned it on, cold, telling myself, You’ve got to rise to the occasion.
When we got to Winterland, Bill Graham came dashing by in a white tuxedo and top hat. He had most of the staff in formalwear as well. He took Rick and me up a back way to the balcony. From there we looked down on hundreds—no, thousands—of people having Thanksgiving dinner. Some couples were waltzing on the open dance floor. Bill couldn’t have looked more proud of himself. He rattled off, “Six thousand pounds of turkey, 200 of them! Three hundred pounds of Nova Scotia salmon, a thousand pounds of potatoes, hundreds of gallons of gravy, and 400 pounds of pumpkin pie!”
I saw Marty backstage. He looked anxious but ready. In the dressing room, I got in a huddle with the other guys in the Band. Our spirits were soaring, but a focused calmness was most apparent. Richard held out his hand to show he wasn’t shaking too bad. When his hands trembled a lot, it meant he needed a drink. Rick seemed genuinely pumped—ready and raring. Levon reminded me to look over at him for certain breaks or endings. Garth appeared unfazed by the whole event.
Word had crept out that we might have a guest or two, but nothing concrete. How should I properly introduce everyone? Just then Bill Graham came over to us in the wings and said, “Gentlemen, are we ready?” We gave a thumbs-up and took the stage in complete darkness.
When the cameras were rolling, I signaled Levon, and he said over his mike through the darkness, “Good evening.” The crowd erupted, and we kicked into “Up on Cripple Creek.” The lights came up—warm, natural, and cinematic, nothing like a regular rock show. The sound on the stage felt powerful and clear. Levon’s vocal was strong and authentic. I looked over at Rick and Richard, and they were both in the zone. This was it. I glanced over at Marty in the wings, and he was in a flurry, talking into his headset and waving pages of the script.
We played for about an hour—I don’t know if I’d ever heard Levon sing and play “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” better than on this night—and headed off to take a little intermission. Our friends and guests gathered backstage, and everybody looked to be in great spirits. Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr were in the dressing room. I asked them to come out and join us for the finale. Bill Graham informed us that Governor Jerry Brown had been spotted in the audience.
When we went back on to kick off the sets with our guest artists, naturally our first performer had to be our original fearless leader, “The Hawk,” Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. He took the stage in blazing form, yelling toward Bill Graham, “Big time, Bill. Big time!” In the middle of one of my solos, Ronnie took off his hat and fanned my fingers like the guitar was going to catch fire, just as he had done back when I was 17.
Next I introduced our old friend Mac Rebennack, otherwise known as Dr. John. He sat down at the piano and played his “Such a Night” with pure New Orleans gumbo ya-ya, like it was the theme of the evening. We called out Paul Butterfield to join us on “Mystery Train.” When Muddy Waters performed “Mannish Boy,” Butterfield held a note through the whole song. He used circular breathing, and you couldn’t hear him take a breath. I had never seen or heard that before.
It took me a moment to gather myself as I stepped to the mike and said, “Play guitar? Eric Clapton.” Eric slid effortlessly into the beginning of “Further On up the Road.” As he was starting to turn up the heat on his Strat, the strap came off, and his guitar fell into the grip of his left hand. I had him covered and took over the solo. I stoked the fire for Eric while he shifted into second gear. He played another solo—and I played another solo. It was like raising the stakes in poker, higher and higher. Finally Eric wailed off into the cosmos like only he can. Touché.
As soon as Neil Young took the stage, I could tell no one at Winterland was feeling better than he was. His vocal was so moving on “Helpless,” his beautiful Canadian song of remembrance. When Joni’s high falsetto voice came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up, and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from. Then, when Joni came out and the lights hit her, she seemed to glow in the dark. I was slightly surprised when she walked over and kissed me. She looked thoroughly enchanting as she sang “Coyote,” and it sounded sexier than ever.
I had to smile when Neil Diamond joined us. In his blue suit and red shirt, he looked like he could have been a member of the Gambino family. He sang “Dry Your Eyes,” a tune he and I had written together—a track that not too many people were familiar with, although Frank Sinatra did cover it. Toward the end of the song I heard myself yelling, “Yeah!”
A spotlight shone down on the middle of the stage, and Van Morrison walked into it. This was the way I wanted to introduce him, to not say his name—let the crowd do that. I could see Van had abandoned the idea of wearing his private-eye overcoat. Instead he had chosen a snug-fitting maroon outfit with sequins—something like a trapeze artist might wear. He looked ready for action, but I didn’t know yet what he had in mind.
We slammed into “Caravan.” With his barrel chest stuck out like Caruso, Van poured on the steam. The place went berserk as Van sang out, “Turn up your raa-dio!” He moved across the stage, and each time he let out a “one more time,” he kicked his leg in the air or threw his arms over his head. Finally he dropped the mike to the floor and walked off, still hitting the accents with his hand above his head. Now I understood why he was dressed like an acrobat.
We were riding high, and we got through my new songs, “Evangeline” and “The Last Waltz Theme,” by a hairsbreadth. By then the show had been going on for close to four hours, but when I played the introduction to “The Weight,” the crowd let out a roar like they had just arrived. They were still whistling and cheering as I stepped to the mike and said, “We’d like to bring on one more very good friend of ours.” Bob Dylan walked out and the energy in the air turned electric.
It was after one in the morning, but Bob still had a bolt of energy. We hit “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” like we hadn’t missed a beat since our first tour together, back in 1965. Each of the guys had a jubilant smile on his face like we were living the bad old days all over again.
I noticed a scuffling over by the side of the stage, with Bill Graham pointing his finger and yelling at someone. I guessed Bob had told his road manager or somebody that he didn’t want to be filmed, or that only a portion of his set could be shot, and Bill was letting Bob’s guy know that if he went anywhere near the cameras he would break his neck.
When we finished our segment with Bob, almost all the guest performers were crowded in the wings. I told Bob we wanted to end the show with everybody coming out to join him and Richard singing “I Shall Be Released.” “O.K.,” he said. “When? Now?” I laughed. “Yeah, we’re going to do it now.” Everybody came out and gathered around the mikes. Ringo sat at our second drum kit. Ronnie Wood strapped on my other guitar. Bob took the first verse, and everybody came in on the chorus. As glorious as the moment was, there was a melancholy to all those voices that ran right through me, especially when Richard came in, singing the last verse in falsetto with Bob. The song took on another meaning in regard to this “last waltz.”
At the end of the tune, everybody looked a bit stunned that it was all over. The audience wasn’t going to accept it. As many of the performers left the stage, some just couldn’t do it. Levon and Ringo weren’t going anywhere yet. They kicked into a feel-good beat, and I put my guitar back on. Eric, Ronnie, Neil, and Butterfield all started trading licks. Dr. John took over at the piano. Rick, Garth, and I continued our duties as hosts and let the good times roll.
I looked over at the side of the stage and saw Stephen Stills standing there. I waved in his direction and offered him my guitar. I slipped backstage to change clothes and catch a breath. I was standing in the backstage shower, dressed, retrieving my clothes from the show, when I saw that somebody had stolen one of my shirts. Annie Leibovitz took a shot of me standing in the shower, looking dismayed.
“We Got One More”
Bill Graham came barging into the dressing room. “No one has left,” he said. “The audience is out there stomping and cheering. You have to go back out there. If this is the Band’s final concert, for God’s sake, give us one more!”
Hearing “final concert” got to me. “Shall we?” I asked the guys. “Maybe we should do ‘Don’t Do It,’ and then maybe they won’t ‘do it’ anymore.”
“Wait,” Marty told me, grabbing his headset. “O.K., everybody,” he said into the mike, “we got one more.”
When we came out again, the roar was deafening. Levon looked around the stage at all of us and went, “One. Two. Three. Uh!” He and Rick pounced like it was the first song of the night. Richard came in, with Garth adding sonic wonderment. This band—the Band—was a real band. No slack in the high wire. Everybody held up his end with plenty to spare.
“The end of an era” was how many people referred to the close of 1976. The dreams of the 60s and early 70s had faded, and we were ready for a revelation, a revolt, a changing of the guard. Punk rock—and, later, hip-hop—wanted to give music and culture a good slap in the face. It felt like everyone wanted to break something. The Band had come to a crossroads. The feeling was: if we can’t break something else, we’ll break ourselves. None of us wanted to destroy the thing we loved, but we didn’t know how not to.
At the end of the last chorus, there were only the five of us in the world. No audience. No celebration. Nobody. Just the sound of the Band ringing in my ears. This can’t be the final anything. This cannot be the end. What we have can never die, never fade away. We all raised our arms in the air and thanked the crowd. I adjusted the hat on my head, stepped to the microphone with what little strength I had left, and said, “Good night—good-bye.”
Links: Various Band-related videos
Robbie Robertson: The Solo Years
Robbie Robertson’s first solo album, released eleven years after the Band called it quits at “The Last Waltz”, found the singer-guitarist mining radically new territory.
Hiring Daniel Lanois as coproducer, Robertson crafted an album that owed very little to the Band’s roots-Americana sound. Instead Robertson opted for a quirky, enigmatic modern approach, using drum programs, the stick, and guest musicians such as U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bill Dillon.
- Sammy Bo Deans, vocals
- Paul “Bono” Hewson, vocals/bass/guitar
- Eluriel Tinker Barfield, bass
- Terry Bozzio, drums
- Hans Christian, bass
- Adam Clayton, bass
- Rick Danko, vocals
- Bill Dillon, guitar
- The Edge, guitar
- Gil Evans, horns
- Peter Gabriel, keyboards/vocals
- Garth Hudson, keyboards
- Manu Katche, drums
- Larry Klein, bass
- Abraham Laboriel, bass
- Daniel Lanois, producer/guitar/percussion/bass/vocals
- Tony Levin, bass
- MariaMcKee, vocals
- Larry Mullen Jr., drums
- Ivan Neville, vocals
- Robbie Robertson, procucer
How Robbie Robertson Finally Stepped Out as a Solo Artist
Robbie Robertson took his time releasing his first solo album, waiting almost a decade after the Band‘s Last Waltz came out. Eventually the sessions grew to include multiple famous colleagues – some old friends, some new – but Robbie Robertson never failed to live up to its name: This was the most personal thing he’d ever done.
In an exclusive interview with UCR, Robertson admits that his songwriting is “an evolving process, and most of the time you don’t know how deep you’re going until you get there.” With Robbie Robertson, he got deep, indeed – and right from the start.
The album began with a First Nations-inspired cadence, heralding its first collaborative moment, a poignant tribute to a lost friend, and a striking new career path. The synth-washed “Fallen Angel” sounded at once like an archetypal Robertson song and like nothing he’d ever done before. The effect is unsettling for anyone expecting the homespun mythology of his earlier work, and it set a template for much of Robbie Robertson, which arrived on Oct. 27, 1987.
Robertson’s was a seldom-heard voice, featured only twice on lead vocals with the Band. But it fits perfectly within the gruffly whispered narrative on “Fallen Angel.” He’s a spectral presence, haunted and haunting on a song dedicated to his recently deceased former bandmate Richard Manuel. But Robbie Robertson was no frail flower. Elsewhere, Robertson howled back to life, taking on big ideas with a steely resolve and holding his own with some of the biggest stars of the day.
A loose theme emerged: Instead of pining for a world that would never be again, as he so often did with the Band, Robertson tended to speak forcefully here for dreams still to come. At the same time, however, he never let go of a deeply moving autobiographical thread – even when taking on the issues of war (“Hell’s Half Acre”) and the environment (“Showdown at Big Sky“). Both were seen through the lens of his own Onkwehonwe Mohawk heritage.
Robertson was still capable of skillfully illuminating all-but-forgotten mythical pathways, just as he had with the Band: “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” for instance, arose out of a familiar obsession with Southern gothic iconography. In this way, Robertson showed he’d lost none of his flair for detail, even as he suddenly began talking straight from the heart.
His transition into this more confessional approach hadn’t come easily — or cheaply. Robbie Robertson took years to complete, and ran up a huge bill for Geffen Records. Producer Daniel Lanois, a fellow Canadian, proved to be a steadying presence. He was then doing extensive work with Peter Gabriel and U2, and both ended up playing important roles in completing Robbie Robertson after Robertson followed Lanois back to Ireland, where tandem sessions continued for the album that would become U2’s The Joshua Tree.
Listen to Robbie Robertson’s ‘Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight’
Lanois’ most important attribute, it soon became clear, was his knack for capturing unplanned, note-perfect moments in the studio – some of which add incredible dimension to Robbie Robertson.
For instance, live jams with U2 produced “Sweet Fire of Love.” “We made up the structure of the song together, although I had a chord progression in mind,” Robertson says. “Bono and I improvised lyrics over the track, and then refined them after. Edge and I had a particularly good time with our back-and-forth talking guitars.”
They also completed the album-closing “Testimony,” which was built off a leftover Gil Evans arrangement from a soundtrack Robertson created for Martin Scorsese‘s The Color of Money. “The lyrics came to me while we were cutting it,” Robertson says, “and Bono did an answer vocal on the chorus on the spot without blinking an eye.”
While he was nearby, Robertson flew to Bath to visit Gabriel, who sang on “Fallen Angel” and provided keyboards and programming for “Broken Arrow.” The former was likewise shaped by a pair of coincidences, one desperately sad and the other utterly serendipitous.
“When I started writing ‘Fallen Angel,’ I didn’t know where it was going or what it was about,” Robertson admits. “When I was halfway into the process, I got the devastating news that Richard had died, and it was in that moment that I realized what the song was about. I finished the writing with that tremendous loss circling in my mind.”
During playback in the studio, Gabriel started humming along, and Lanois quickly set up a mic to capture what became the background vocal for “Fallen Angel.” “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” – sparked by Robertson’s first trip to the Mississippi Delta after joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks as a teenager – boasted the same kind of creative fission.
“I drank up the culture, the music and even ate at Nick’s Cafe,” Robertson recalls. “I wrote the music for this song on a strange instrument called an Omnichord. It presented a flavor unlike anything I had ever done before, and that helped inspire the storytelling nature of the verses. After recording the music, we were listening back in the control room and there was a microphone in front of me. While the track was playing, I was speaking this story into the mic and Daniel Lanois yelled out, ‘That’s it! That’s what we have to do on this, just like that.”
Watch Robbie Robertson Perform ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’
In keeping with the out-sized nature of this long-awaited project, it actually took three people to construct the melodic cadence that gives “Broken Arrow” its undulating sensuality. (Terry Bozzio from Frank Zappa‘s band was the principal drummer, while Lanois added percussion.) They created something that’s frankly audacious in its modernity, at least within the context of Robertson’s career. (The song eventually drew the attention of Rod Stewart, who fashioned a cover of far lesser interest.)
If, until this moment, Band fans were feeling a little unmoored, all was forgiven with the appearance of Rick Danko, his longtime collaborator in the Band. He arrived just in time for the chorus on “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight,” helping to craft a final moment of quiet resonance before U2 rejoin the proceedings for the riff-focused “Testimony.”
Finding some measure of strength through fragile times was always Danko’s strong point, and he’s perfectly cast by Robertson once again. “Any time Rick Danko appears on a track, he raises the spirit,” Robertson says. “This song had a strong cinematic quality for me, resembling many of the tracks that I did with the Band. I wasn’t trying to reach back, but sometimes you can’t help reflecting on where you’ve been.”
Even so, Robertson wasn’t content to play it safe: With “Sonny,” he paired this patented myth-making fable with a fresh aural soundscape marked by Manu Katche’s eruptive polyrhythms and Tony Levin’s limber bass.
Other key regular contributors on the sessions included Bill Dillon, a Lanois pal who – like Robertson – had a legacy connection back to the Ronnie Hawkins. Members of the BoDeans dropped by for a trio of songs, most notably on “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” Elsewhere, Robertson also got back together with former Band mate Garth Hudson on both “Fallen Angel” and “American Roulette.”
Yet the focus remained on Robertson, who roared back to the Billboard Top 40 for the first time since The Last Waltz reached No. 16 in 1978. Robbie Robertson remains the most individual of triumphs, despite the gaggle of featured guests and its lengthy gestation period. Robertson crafted a forward-looking album that referenced the lyrical phraseology that lifted his earliest work to greatness, while sharing something profoundly (and, to this point, quite surprisingly) intimate.
It reconnected him with fans. The gold-selling, Grammy-nominated album spun off a career-best pair of Top 10 hits on Billboard’s mainstream rock charts, while “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” became Robertson’s lone solo U.K. hit, reaching No. 15. The sessions also produced “What About Now,” which would find a featured home on Robertson’s second solo album, 1991’s Storyville.
CHRIS WILLMAN | 29 September 1991 | LA Times
It’s no surprise Robertson would name his second solo album after a historic section of New Orleans famed for sensual and ritualistic pursuits. Mixing the earthy and ethereal is the ex-Band leader’s stock in trade nowadays.
Though conceptual in nature, the album has more to do with Storyville as “a state of mind” than the actual locale–which is described only in one song, “Go Back to Your Woods,” a percolating number about New Orleans’ dens of sin (backed by local lights the Meters).
The 10 tracks traverse several states and decades in describing an on-again, off-again love affair, along with the protagonist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, climaxing far from Louisiana on the Hopi Indian reservation.
Or so Robertson says. This narrative seems to have stayed mostly in the artist’s head (and in the detailed press kit synopsis). “Storyville” is better appreciated as a strong but uneven collection of tunes than as the dramatic whole he envisioned.
Some cuts get surprisingly pedestrian in waxing romantic and wonderstruck, Robertson’s populist sense besting his poetic instincts. (Lines like “We’re all living in a street opera” veer mighty close to Bon Jovi territory.)
Other vignettes, though, are standouts–like “Soapbox Preacher” (in which Robertson’s husky whisper mixes prettily with a Neil Young harmony), “Resurrection” (where gospel’s Zion Harmonizers contribute to the funky chorus) and “What About Now,” a carpe diem anthem in which Robertson’s romanticism achieves the urgency intended.
Various Links: Robertson Talks Music
From his days as Bob Dylan’s guitarist to his triumphs with the Band and as a solo artist, he was a legend
“There is never enough time with anyone you love,” Scorsese wrote of the The Band frontman. “And I loved Robbie.”
Bria McNealPublished: Aug 10, 2023 | Esquire
Robbie Robertson, the famous composer, songwriter, and frontman for The Band, has died at 80 years old. In the wake of his passing, Robertson’s close friend and collaborator, Martin Scorsese, shared a touching tribute in his honor.
In a statement provided to Pitchfork, Scorsese said, “Robbie Robertson was one of my closest friends, a constant in my life and my work. I could always go to him as a confidante. A collaborator. An advisor. I tried to be the same for him.”
Over the years, Robertson and Scorsese worked together on a number of projects. Their journey began in 1978, when Scorsese directed the documentary The Last Waltz for Robertson. The film captured the Band’s farewell performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. After watching Mean Streets, Robertson reportedly asked Scorsese to helm the project. Four years later, Robertson returned the favor and composed Scorsese’s 1995 film The King of Comedy—which he both starred in and directed.
Throughout the rest of their careers, Robertson and Scorsese remained frequent collaborators. Robertson composed some of Scorsese’s most popular movies, such as Casino, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, andThe Irishman. Over the years, the men became great friends and creative partners. Robertson earned two Grammy nominations, for The Wolf of Wall Street and Gangs of New York soundtracks.
Scorsese’s tribute to Robertson celebrated his friend’s immense talent. “Long before we ever met, his music played a central role in my life,” he said. “Me and millions and millions of other people all over this world. The Band’s music, and Robbie’s own later solo music, seemed to come from the deepest place at the heart of this continent, its traditions and tragedies and joys. It goes without saying that he was a giant, that his effect on the artform was profound and lasting. There is never enough time with anyone you love. And I loved Robbie.”
Before Robertson’s death, he worked with Scorsese on the filmmaker’s next project, Killers of the Flower Moon. The film follows a string of murders in the 1920s Osage County, which initiated a historic FBI investigation. Scorsese directed the film and Robertson crafted the music. The film will premiere in theaters on October 20, 2023.
Tim Greiving | 10 August 2023 | LA Times
This article was not supposed to be an appreciation. I was literally hours away from interviewing Robbie Robertson for a celebratory feature about his most impressive film score, for the forthcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and his long and varied collaboration with its director, Martin Scorsese, who was also going to answer some of our questions. The gods had other plans.
Robertson, whose mother was born on the Six Nations Reserve near Lake Erie in Canada, breathes and strums a windstorm of personal expression into the film’s staggering score, which Scorsese cranks noticeably loud in the mix. It pounds along with the beat of drums and shakers, chords splashing on acoustic and electric guitars, accented with banjo twangs and the birdlike cries of various flutes.
Robertson’s contribution is an astonishing and lively musical ecosystem that gives immediate authenticity to Scorsese’s equally vivid presentation of Osage life and culture in 1920s Oklahoma. It’s music that proudly worships and dances with these people — and alternately weeps for their oppression, at times sounding almost sick at their treatment by the story’s white predators.
The movie was the pitch-perfect canvas for Robertson’s gifts — not just his Native ancestry but also his rootsy songwriting DNA and skills as a musical storyteller. When the movie comes out in October, it will be the last film he ever scored. Robertson died Wednesday at age 80.
Scorsese spotted that skill right away when he first locked arms with Robertson in 1976. In “The Last Waltz,” the director cinematically captured the star-studded farewell performance of the Band, Robertson’s virtuosic outfit that shared a constellation with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and a dozen other 1960s legends who joined them onstage that night.
Scorsese not only interviewed Robertson and his bandmates but also coordinated every lyric and shot with Robertson as though it were a choreographed musical. The songwriter also produced the picture, and in his onscreen chats with the director, he comes off like a scruffy, charismatic character out of one of Scorsese’s early movies, maybe “Mean Streets.”
“Each time we went out to do a number and a concert, it was like doing a round in a prize fight,” Robertson says in the film.
“Now, this automatically triggered something in me,” Scorsese told the Hollywood Reporter in 1978 about the line. “It’s like ‘Mean Streets.’ I began to understand the characters a little more. Because nobody ever knew the Band. They had this aura about them that you couldn’t go near. And I began to talk to them and I began to realize what kind of guys they are, and the pain they go through every time they sing a song. That’s what I wanted to capture.”
Hollywood came calling, and Robertson was cast as a lead in the 1980 film “Carny,” which he also produced. But he was much more at home in the studio and on the soundtrack, and he quickly became Scorsese’s wingman in all things music.
“It’s never been about traditional movie music,” Robertson told Headliner in 2019 about that role.
Scorsese has often used rock and pop songs in place of scoring throughout his prolific film career — it was the “soundtrack of his life,” he has said, the music that was pouring out of apartments and car windows in the background of his own story. After “The Last Waltz,” he deputized Robertson to be his music consultant and soundtrack supervisor.
Starting on “The King of Comedy,” the 1982 cringe-comedy classic starring Robert De Niro that was recently replicated in “Joker,” Robertson helped curate and produce songs for numerous Scorsese films. He would often contribute a song or two himself, and where an occasional instrumental score cue was needed, he would supply that as well.
On “The Color of Money,” Scorsese’s sequel to “The Hustler” starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise, Robertson conceived a fitting barroom jukebox soundtrack, teaming up with blues legend Willie Dixon and arranger Gil Evans. Robertson couldn’t read or write music, so he recorded tapes of himself humming for Evans to translate for an orchestra. He also sent the tapes to Scorsese, “and he put it in the movie,” Robertson recalled in 2019.
“I said, ‘No, that doesn’t go in the movie. That’s me just composing in my kind of way. We’re going to do that with the orchestra.’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, it works really well.
“From then on,” Robertson quipped, “I’ve been careful about what I send him.”
The anecdote is revealing of their playful, unorthodox partnership, which continued from “Casino” through 2019’s “The Irishman.” Scorsese would frequently work with conservatory-trained film composers to write more traditional scores: Howard Shore, also a Canadian, was a favorite. But for his sprawling, multi-era tale of an Irish American mobster, the director wanted some of Robertson’s distinct magic.
The musician went looking for a “haunting mood,” he told Headliner, and came up with an ambling death march for blues harmonica and ink-black bass. His score provided the glue between a needle drop soundtrack that featured Glenn Miller and Fats Domino. The picture ends with an original song, “I Hear You Paint Houses” — a nod to the Charles Brandt book that inspired the movie — with Van Morrison singing the phrase and Robertson repeating it. It would have been a fitting coda to the four-decade duet between Robertson and Scorsese, but then the filmmaker made a stunning late-career masterpiece based on the 2017 book “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann and gave Robertson his most prominent and poetic role in any scoring assignment he’d ever taken on.
The resulting music, so rich in mood and melody — teeming with the terroir of Turtle Island and the first ill-fated Americans who sang and danced with spirits — is the best music Robertson ever wrote for the screen. It’s not fair that he didn’t live to experience its reception, but it couldn’t be a finer eulogy for a chief American musician.
In Closing… The Weight
Written by: J.R. Robertson
I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead;
I just need some place where I can lay my head.
“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!”, was all he said.
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.
I picked up my bag, I went lookin’ for a place to hide;
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side.
I said, “Hey, Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown.”
She said, “I gotta go, but m’friend can stick around.”
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.
Go down, Miss Moses, there’s nothin’ you can say
It’s just ol’ Luke, and Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgement Day.
“Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?”
He said, “Do me a favor, son, woncha stay an’ keep Anna Lee company?”
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.
Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog.
He said, “I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog.”
I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man.”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can.”
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.
Catch a cannon ball now, t’take me down the line
My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time.
To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one.
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone.
Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me.
“The Weight” is a song by the Canadian-American group the Band that was released as a single in 1968 and on the group’s debut album Music from Big Pink. It was their first release under this name, after their previous releases as Canadian Squires and Levon and the Hawks.
Written by Band member Robbie Robertson, the song is about a visitor’s experiences in a town mentioned in the lyric’s first line as Nazareth. “
The Weight” has significantly influenced American popular music, having been listed as No. 41 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time published in 2004. Pitchfork Media named it the 13th best song of the 1960s, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. PBS, which broadcast performances of the song on Ramble at the Ryman (2011), Austin City Limits (2012), and Quick Hits (2012), describes it as “a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters” and notes its enduring popularity as “an essential part of the American songbook.”
“The Weight” is one of the Band’s best known songs, gaining considerable album-oriented rock airplay even though it was not a significant hit single for the group in the US, peaking at only No. 63.
After it was released, the record debuted just six days later on KHJ‘s “‘Boss 30’ records” and peaked at No. 3 there three weeks later. The Band’s recording also fared well in Canada and the UK, peaking at No. 35 in Canada and No. 21 in the UK in 1968.
Cash Box called it a “powerhouse performance.” American Songwriter and Stereogum both ranked the song number three on their lists of the Band’s greatest songs. In 1968 and 1969, three cover versions were released; their arrangements appealed to a wide diversity of music audiences.
The 1969 movie Easy Rider used the song as recorded by The Band, but it was not licensed for the Easy Rider (soundtrack) album. To deal with this, ABC-Dunhill commissioned Smith, who recorded for the label at the time, to record a cover version of the song for the soundtrack album.
“The Weight” was written by Robbie Robertson, who found the tune by strumming idly on his guitar, when he noticed that the interior included a stamp noting that it was manufactured in Nazareth, Pennsylvania (C. F. Martin & Company is situated there) and he started crafting the lyrics as he played.
The inspiration for and influences affecting the composition of “The Weight” came from the music of the American South, the life experiences of band members, particularly Levon Helm, and movies of filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel.
The original members of the Band performed “The Weight” as an American Southern folk song with country music (vocals, guitars and drums) and gospel music (piano and organ) elements. The lyrics, written in the first person, are about a traveler’s arrival, visit, and departure from a town called Nazareth, in which the traveler’s friend, Fanny, has asked him to look up some of her friends.
According to Robertson, Fanny is based on Frances “Fanny” Steloff, the founder of a New York City bookstore where he explored scripts by Buñuel. The town is related to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, because it was the home of Martin Guitars. (Robertson wrote the guitar parts on a 1951 Martin D-28). The singers, led by Helm, vocalize the traveler’s encounters with people in the town from the perspective of a Bible Belt American Southerner, like Helm himself, a native of rural Arkansas.
The characters in “The Weight” were based on real people that members of the Band knew, as Helm explained in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. In particular, “young Anna Lee” mentioned in the third verse is Helm’s longtime friend Anna Lee Amsden, and, according to her, “Carmen” was from Helm’s hometown, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. “Crazy Chester” was an eccentric resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who carried a cap gun. Ronnie Hawkins would tell him to “keep the peace” at his Rockwood Club when Chester arrived.
According to Robertson, “The Weight” was inspired by the movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, whose films are known for their surreal imagery and criticism of organized religion, particularly Catholicism. The song’s lyrics and music invoke vivid imagery, the main character’s perspective is influenced by the Bible, and the episodic story was inspired by the predicaments Buñuel’s film characters faced that undermined their goals for maintaining or improving their moral character. Of this, Robertson once stated:
(Buñuel) did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. People trying to be good in Viridiana and Nazarín, people trying to do their thing. In “The Weight” it’s the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn’t necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it’s impossible to be good. In “The Weight” it was this very simple thing. Someone says, “Listen, would you do me this favour? When you get there will you say ‘hello’ to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me? Oh? You’re going to Nazareth, that’s where the Martin guitar factory is. Do me a favour when you’re there.” This is what it’s all about. So the guy goes and one thing leads to another and it’s like “Holy shit, what’s this turned into? I’ve only come here to say ‘hello’ for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.” It was very Buñuelish to me at the time.
Credits are adapted from the liner notes of A Musical History.
- Levon Helm – lead and harmony vocals, drums
- Rick Danko – co-lead and harmony vocals, bass guitar
- Richard Manuel – Hammond organ, harmony vocals
- Garth Hudson – piano
- Robbie Robertson – acoustic guitar
- This tells the story of a guy who visits Nazareth, and is asked by his friend Fanny to visit several of her friends. “The Weight” that is his load are all these strange people he promised he would check on. The song was never a big hit, but it endures as a classic rock staple.
- The Band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, claims this was influenced by the work of Luis Buñuel, a Spanish director who made some of the first movies dealing with surrealism. Robertson was intrigued by the characters in his films, who were often good people who did bad things.
- Robbie Robertson got the only writing credit for this song, although other members of the group claimed that they contributed to this as well as many of their other songs and were not credited. Since only the writer receives royalties for a song, this created a great deal of tension in The Band.
- The vocals are shared by Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm, who harmonize on the choruses. Helm takes lead on the first three verses; Danko takes the fourth (“Crazy Chester followed me…); Helm and Danko share the last verse (“Catch the cannonball…).
- One of the distinctive characteristics of The Band was their three lead vocalists. Helm had the added challenge of singing from behind his drum kit when they played live.
- Nazareth, where the story takes place, refers to the town in Pennsylvania about 70 miles north of Philadelphia. The rock group Nazareth got their name from this line (“Went down to Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead…”).
- In the liner notes for the Across the Great Divide box set, Robbie Robertson is quoted as saying he chose that place because they make legendary Martin guitars there, so he was aware of the town and been there once or twice. Citizens of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, were thrilled when Robertson acknowledged it as the setting in this famous song. >>
- The characters in the song – Crazy Chester, Luke, Anna Lee, are based on friends of the band. In Levon Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm And The Story Of The Band, he explained:
- “We had two or three tunes, or pieces of tunes, and ‘The Weight’ was one I would work on. Robbie had that bit about going down to Nazareth – Pennsylvania, where the Martin guitar factory is at. The song was full of our favorite characters. ‘Luke’ was Jimmy Ray Paulman. ‘Young Anna Lee’ was Anna Lee Williams from Turkey Scratch. ‘Crazy Chester’ was a guy we all knew from Fayetteville who came into town on Saturdays wearing a full set of cap guns on his hips and kinda walked around town to help keep the peace,if you follow me. He was like Hopalong Cassidy, and he was a friend of the Hawks. Ronnie would always check with Crazy Chester to make sure there wasn’t any trouble around town. And Chester would reassure him that everything was peaceable and not to worry, because he was on the case. Two big cap guns, he wore, plus a toupee! There were also ‘Carmen and the Devil’, ‘Miss Moses’ and ‘Fanny,’ a name that just seemed to fit the picture. (I believe she looked a lot like Caladonia.) We recorded the song maybe four times. We weren’t really sure it was going to be on the album, but people really liked it. Rick, Richard, and I would switch the verses around among us, and we all sang the chorus: Put the load right on me!”
- There has been more than a little debate among classic rock DJs and enthusiasts over the real meaning of this song. Yes, Robertson has insisted time and again there is no biblical subtext, but many people think he may be deflecting. Consider the following:
- The narrator can’t find a bed in Nazareth, and the guy to whom he makes an inquiry just smiles and says “no.”
- Carmen and the devil were walking side by side, Carmen can go but her friend the devil has to stick around – an allusion to ever-present temptations.
- “Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fall” – possible allusion to Paul on the road to Damascus.
- The most glaring one: “I do believe it’s time to get back to Miss Fanny, you know she’s the only one who sent me here with her regards for everyone” – Miss Fanny is the one who sent him to Nazareth, but now it’s time for him to go back to her; Miss Fanny is God, the “time” in question is the crucifixion, and “regards for everyone” is Jesus dying for all of man’s sins. >>
- In the 2020 documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, Robertson discusses how he wrote this song one day while “noodling” with his guitar and trying to come up with songs for Music From Big Pink. When he looked inside his Martin guitar he saw the standard Martin imprint saying that the instrument was crafted in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The name of the town spurred memories of a journey he made from his native Canada down to the Mississippi Delta when he was 16 years old. He thought of all the characters he met on that trip, and in his mind heard voices singing what would become the song’s chorus.
- This was used in the movie Easy Rider. The Band performed the version heard in the movie, but on the soundtrack, a different group was used because of legal issues.
- On September 28, 1968, this song reached its peak US chart position of #63. That same day, Jackie DeShannon’s cover reached its peak of #55 US. DeShannon’s release wasn’t what she had in mind. She explained in her Songfacts interview: “I absolutely said, ‘No way I’m going to do it, it’s The Band’s record, goodbye.’ But the label kept calling me, so I finally said, ‘Well, if you can get confirmation from The Band that they’re not putting it out as a single and I can do it with their permission, then okay.’ So, I recorded it. The record’s going up the chart and all of a sudden, here comes The Band’s single. Then Aretha Franklin’s version comes out. So I was at a radio station talking to the program director, and there were two other people promoting the same record outside the door.”
- Aretha Franklin’s version was the biggest hit, reaching #19 in March 1969. Many other acts have since covered the song. A version by Diana Ross and the Supremes with The Temptations reached #46 in October 1969, which was the last time it charted in America. The song was also recorded by: A Group Called Smith, The Black Crowes, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Joan Osborne, Keller Williams, King Curtis & Duane Allman, Otis & Travis, Rotary Connection, Spooky Tooth, and The Ventures.
- The album title came from the big pink house in upstate New York they rented and used as a recording studio. The Band was Bob Dylan’s backup band, and they moved there to be near Dylan while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident. Dylan offered to help with this album, but The Band refused because they wanted to make a mark on their own.
- Robbie Robertson described this song as being about “the impossibility of sainthood.”
- The Staple Singers sing on this in The Band’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. “Being in The Last Waltz was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to the Staple Singers,” Mavis Staples told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I still can’t get offstage without doing ‘The Weight.'”
- While most of The Last Waltz was taken from The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco, this performance was shot on a sound stage. >>
- The line, “Catch a Cannonball now, to take me down the line,” refers to a train. There was no real Cannonball except in legend: It was popularized in the song from the 1800s called “The Wabash Cannonball,” and mentioned in some blues songs of the early 1900s, including the original version of “C.C. Rider.”
- In 2007, this was used in a commercial for Cingular Wireless. Levon Helm took issue with it and sued BBDO, the advertising agency that came up with the campaign. Said Helm: “It was just a complete, damn sellout of The Band – its reputation, its music; just as much disrespect as you could pour on Richard and Rick’s tombstones.”
- The Band played this at Woodstock in 1969. The festival fit in well with their schedule, as they were touring to promote their first album, Music From Big Pink. Their performance stands out as a highlight from the festival, and earned The Band a great deal of exposure. >>
- Scottish rock band Nazareth, who are best known for their transatlantic hit “Love Hurts,” took their name from a lyric in this song – “I pulled into Nazareth, Was feelin’ about half past dead.”
- This song was featured in the 1978 documentary of The Band, The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese. Most of the film was shot at their Thanksgiving Day, 1976 concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, but their performance of “The Weight” was done in a studio with The Band joined by The Staple Singers, a gospel group who wrung out the spirituality of the song.
- In celebration of Band drummer Levon Helm, who died in 2012, “The Weight” was performed at the Grammy Awards the next year with Mavis Staples joining Elton John, Mumford & Sons, the Zac Brown Band and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Unlike many star-packed performances that get messy fast, this one worked. The song is a great showcase for multiple performers and served as a fitting tribute to Helm.
- Aretha Franklin’s version featured Duane Allman playing slide guitar using an empty bottle of decongestant pills.
- Joe Cocker also covered this song. It was included on the 2005 deluxe edition of his 1970 live album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.
- Weezer covered this in 2008 and released it as a bonus track on The Red Album.
- More songs from The Band
- More songs covered by Aretha Franklin
- More songs that were hits for more than one artist
- More songs covered by The Supremes
- More songs used in movies
- More songs performed at Woodstock
- More songs that musical performers are named after
- More songs performed at The Grammys
- More songs about pressure or burdens
- More songs from 1968
- Lyrics to The Weight