A machine of five pieces

ROBBIE ROBERTSON - PART 2


You mentioned in our previous conversation that The Band was very much a machine of five pieces, that “everybody in that group played a pivotal part in it”. I wanted to paint a fuller picture of what everybody in The Band brought to the table, as we never really mentioned the others much. What do you think each member’s strengths were and why do you think it wouldn’t have been the same without them?

“Pivotal” is absolutely the word. I mean everybody just had a unique talent and a unique character as well. I mean all of these things kind of add up to a whole, but just talking about the talent I could go on about this forever. But Garth, there’s never been anything like this in rock ‘n’ roll before or since. Just his whole approach to music and his background and what he brought to the table, the certain sophistication musically above and beyond the rest of us. And the fact that he chose to play a Lowry organ in the beginning was really unusual. And his technique on the piano, he could pull anything out of the woodwork. He played horns, tenor and soprano, the accordion and any keyboard… He was one of the first musicians to really be painting soundscapes, which back then there wasn’t a lot of people doing that. Musicians know there is no other Garth out there. And also, just who Garth is and everything, he’s just an extraordinary character. Rick was one of these people who could pick up any instrument and in ten minutes he had something going on it. He just had that ability. And nobody played bass like Rick. It was just something that he invented completely; his approach to the instrument, and of course there’s his beautiful vocal sound, which was heartbreaking. Levon had a lot of ‘feel’ in his musicality if you know what I mean. He was somebody that when he would play something, right away you could just feel it so good. It was just like, “Oh, I see where the groove is here.” He was really, really gifted in that way and an amazing vocal sound as well and the fact that he was also a good guitar player, mandolin player and all that kinda stuff. Richard was always, you know, he was considered the guy with the most legitimate voice in the group, like really a ‘singer’ singer.

The band called him the lead singer, didn’t you?

I haven’t retired from music; I’ve just retired from touring.

He hated that, you know. But just for lack of a better way to refer to it. He was the one that had the biggest range and the fullest voice. And needless to say, besides Richard’s playing piano and organ and everything, his approach to the drums is… unchallenged! (Laughs) He was just… He would play drums and it would just crack us all up. And I don’t even know where it came from, his drumming. Just one day he sat down at the drums and it was like, “That’s pretty good”, you know? (Laughs) So we loved it on certain things, it was just right for Richard to play on. And because of the songwriting, a lot of my intention went to the piano, you know, writing things on the piano or on various guitars and stuff like that, but in the early days, like on ‘The Basement Tapes’, I played drums on some things and I played harmonica different times… We were all just… We really enjoyed just passing instruments around and seeing if it would give us something different. That was part of that whole sitting in a circle and playing music approach. Everyone facing one another, everybody seeing what the other guy’s doing, so you connect with everybody musically like in an immediate situation. As soon as you hear something, you’re able to react to it because it’s right there in front of you.

Why did you choose not to sing on too many tracks?

Because what I’m describing to you, it made up a complete picture to me, and if I’d been playing the solos, writing the songs, it would take away that balance to me. But also, I’d always really enjoyed being able to sit there and say, “Okay, now let’s try it with Rick singing the high part there. And why don’t you come in and sing a lower part underneath”. It gave me an opportunity to really sit back and imagine the different possibilities in using these voices like as characters. If I was singing and everything, I don’t know, the whole thing would have been a little bit unbalanced to me. There would have been too much going on from my corner.

Of your time with Bob Dylan, legend has it that you were soaking up his genius like a sponge; watching, learning and changing. You developed a real strong bond with Bob, bouncing ideas off each other at 100mph. What did working with him teach you? Was he inspirational to your own developing song and lyric writing?

It was a very inspirational period all the way around. When we first hooked up with Bob, I mean there was a whole process there of just him learning to really sing with a band. I mean he’d been so used to singing with just a guitar and harmonica where you don’t even have to play in time; the time is all your own. But when you have a bunch of people and you’re all trying to be in the same place at the same time, it’s a whole other process. And phrasing, and the way you feel and the music and trying to make it rhythmically have a great motion to it. So there was that, and obviously Bob being a great wordsmith and everything, he opened the gates for allowing lyrics to be more interesting, writing about other things than just the usual. So all the way around it was just a very inspired period, and we were all learning.

You all followed him up to live in Woodstock. What was so special about the area that attracted you all as a group to live there?

Well, it was Albert Grossman. I mean he was the one that said, “Why don’t you come up to Woodstock?” He was the one that got Bob to move up there, I guess. He described it as this really charming art colony and we would have the freedom in a place to make music and nobody would bother us and we wouldn’t be bothering anybody and that all sounded really appealing. Just the idea, at that particular time, of getting out of the city, there was a certain sense of freedom in that because as exciting as it was in the city at that particular time, we tried but we just couldn’t find a situation where we were allowed to make our music in peace. So anyway, we moved up there and it was like, I don’t know, I guess there was a few artists living up there. When I moved up there, my next door neighbour was the Sci-Fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, and just up the road Lee Marvin lived and this comedian, Henny Youngman. It was like, ‘Okay, if it’s good enough for these guys, it’s good enough for us’. But after the Woodstock festival it was never the same. That kind of turned things around, never to return. But it was Albert leading the charge there.

After the critical success of ‘Music From Big Pink’, you could have been media darlings and yet you cultivated this mystique of hiding away, refusing to play live and not giving interviews. What did this freedom allow you and was it a reaction to your time with Dylan and the media frenzy that surrounded him?

We weren’t trying to do anything. When we were up in Woodstock and after we had finished ‘Music From Big Pink’, we weren’t hiding out or trying to be mysterious or anything. Rick Danko broke his neck in a car accident and he was like laid up in the hospital for months. We didn’t have any choice in the matter. It was one of those things too, once I saw what was happening out there, I just thought, ‘Okay, sometimes the less the words, the more you say’. It was one of those things.

The mood and the prevalent theme of the second album was typified in ‘King Harvest’ – the images of Fall and its busy farming season. What was your predominant inspiration in the lyrics of this album? What frame of mind were you in at that time?

After we had done our first album, it opened a door for me that I’d thought… The directions of what I was imagining in some of these songs and things, it made me feel fearless in really following my gut instincts at that time. After ‘…Big Pink’ I thought, ‘Okay, if that was alright with everybody, let me REALLY dig into this trunk of characters, of people and places that I’d gathered over all those years travelling throughout the South.’ And also, personally, just my connection to my relatives that lived on the Six Nation Indian reservation in Canada who lived close to the land, that was part of my growing up too, seeing that. So putting all of these things in its own world and writing about it like it was this true Americana mythology, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. But that’s how it came out, that I was just able then to tap into something that I had been storing up for years and I finally had a place where I could use it, that sense of freedom.

Having all band members able to play different instruments meant lots of creative avenues opened up. Richard’s drumming on ‘Rag Mama Rag’ is so loose and funky; Levon’s guitar is rocking on ‘Jemima Surrender’. This raises the subject of song ownership, which I realise may be a sore point after all the conflicting reports and subsequent focus, but at what point does a contribution to a song deserve a co-writing credit?

It’s very clear when people write songs or when they don’t write songs. We have a job that we have to do as a band, just playing the songs ands performing the songs and all of that. Then there’s that other part of it where somebody goes off and takes something out of the air that didn’t exist and makes it exist. You know, I wrote quite a few songs with Richard and I wrote them with Richard because we were writing the songs together, you know? (Chuckles) I did some things on a couple of things here and there with Rick, and Levon, he wrote a song once and I helped him finish it up. But, you know, it’s pretty cut and dry. I mean this whole thing of whatever Levon has said about the songwriting and everything, it’s just silly to me.

I know it’s quite a contentious subject…

“Pivotal” is absolutely the word.

It’s not really that contentious at all because I was there, I know what happened. And whenever I wrote a song with Richard, Richard and I wrote the song. There was nobody questioning it. Nobody ever questioned any of the songwriting. This thing came twenty years after the fact with Levon and it’s just kind of pathetic to me that at that point twenty years later, all of a sudden he’s saying – I don’t even know what he’s saying, that he wrote the songs or something, but it’s ridiculous.

Soon after the second album, The Band bowed to pressure and played their live debut at Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco in 1969, but things didn’t go too well from the start. You were struck down with severe stage fright. Can you tell me how you felt that day? How was it eventually conquered? Did it ever happen again?

Well, this thing has been a little overly dramatised over the years! (Laughs) What happened, when we went up there to play, we had booked that earlier on and our plan was, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go and we’re gonna make this second album at Sammy Davis Junior’s house…’ I mean it had nothing to do with Sammy Davis Junior, it just happened to be a house that he owned. When we went and made that record, it was a great feeling making this record and the more we did, the more addicted I became to just the process of what was coming out. It was a very exciting time to me, but in the same token, my wife and I had a newborn baby. So I was writing these songs, we were recording and we had this baby that we had to look after, and after were done with the Sammy Davis Junior house thing, I was just exhausted. I mean I had spent every bit of energy I possibly had, and I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in what seemed like months. When we stopped recording, my guard, I just let everything down and just took that big sigh of relief, but I was pretty burned out and exhausted. And then we had to go and play this job. When we got there I was just run down and I just felt weak and I had like a bit of stomach flu or something, I just felt very sick. I’m not positive it was thing, but I’d been playing on the road since I was sixteen years old (chuckling). I was like, ‘All of a sudden stage fright is gonna show up one day?’ Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never really denied up, but it’s also hard for me to find the proof that that was a good excuse. More than anything I was just sick as a dog. Then we got this hypnotist to come in. We were desperate to try anything because there had been this whole build up that hadn’t played, and then we came and we played and the first night wasn’t very good. I was just out of it. I guess we played three nights and then the next couple of nights we got it together and it was fine. So I’m just trying not to over-romanticise something, that’s all.

The songs later to become ‘Cahoots’ suffered from you experiencing writer’s block. What do you think killed your creative spark and how did you re-ignite it?

It wasn’t writer’s block so much as the way that this had been built to work, like this whole machine worked, and if one of the cylinders didn’t work or something, it just made everything unbalanced. At that point, the spirit within The Band was just kinda dry at that time, and as we’re talking about this other period that seemed very inspired, it felt a little bit like pulling teeth. The blade was a bit dull. What happened was I ended up getting out of Woodstock and that staleness eventually faded away.

It’s around this time that you noticeably seemed to take the reins of the group to become its leader. Did you feel that this was necessary for its survival, and if so, what was happening that had to change?

It wasn’t tremendously different then than it ever was. I mean John Simon was there for a good part of the whole beginning. He knew how this machine was oiled. I just did what needed to be done and if I didn’t do it everything fell apart. So I didn’t really want this other responsibility but it was one of those things, you just see what ends you need to hold up. It was kind of like that. I wasn’t trying to be leader or anything else; I was just doing what I had to do.

Although The Band were notoriously a bit of a party band, Richard’s problems with alcohol must have ultimately proved a burden to the group. How did you overcome his liability or did it not even affect the creative process? Do you regret the innocence of youth that you couldn’t all have recognised the seriousness of his problem?

Yeah, I do wish I knew then what I know now. None of us understood the disease of alcohol and drugs. We didn’t understand it at the time. We didn’t deal with Richard in a very good way or the other guys either, I mean Richard wasn’t the only one that was bringing this imbalance to the whole thing, and it got pretty out of control. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that drugs and alcohol probably destroyed The Band, because you just don’t know what to do. You don’t know what to do so you end up just throwing your arms in the air and saying, ‘I give up because I don’t understand’. I tried everything known to man I felt like, but because I didn’t have the proper information at the time I didn’t handle it. You do all the things that you’re not supposed to do when you don’t know what’s going on.

Do you have any regrets at all about your time with The Band?

No. Outside of what we were talking about, not at all. The Band was its own truth and I just wish that Richard and Rick were with us, that’s all.

Have you ever considered writing your own memoirs/autobiography? Have you ever wanted to extend your songwriting into writing novels, or other forms of writing?

Yeah. I like storytelling, so I plan to write a book and I’m working on other things. I’m working on this musical right now that I’m very involved in. That’s a departure and that’s a story that I really want to tell.

You insinuated that you’d all but retired from playing music - will you ever come back and play the UK?

I don’t have any plans to do anything. I haven’t retired from music; I’ve just retired from touring. It just doesn’t interest me, I’ve already done that, so it’s very unlikely I would do anything like that but we like to keep an open mind!

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