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Robbie Robertson at 70: An Appreciation

Robbie Robertson at 70: An Appreciation

To a generation of baby boomers, 1960s and 1970s rock and roll music will always stand as the soundtrack of our lives.

In our memories, the great songwriters, singers and performers will always be as young and dashing and heroic as they were when we first encountered them. Yet, as improbable  as it may seem, a gallery of our heroes has been turning 70 in recent years. The Band’s Robbie Robertson, my all-time favorite guitarist and one of the greatest storytellers in songwriting annals, reaches that milestone on July 5.

I’ve never understood why Robertson sometimes gets short shrift on those perennial lists denoting critics’ “100 Greatest…” rock and rollers. Robertson has had an impact on rock and roll like few others, only he did so quietly and unobtrusively — but brilliantly. 

Raised in Toronto, he left as a teenager to pursue a career in rock and roll music in the United States and started right at the source: the Arkansas region, which was where (or not far from it) so many of the greats learned their crafts. He ticks their names off with great affection in a scene in The Last Waltz, the movie of The Band’s final concert in 1976.

I always got the feeling that Robertson was much smarter and more practical than a lot of his peers. From the very beginning of his devotion to his craft — based on a few conversations I’ve had with him and interviews I read — he struck me as a careerist — in a field where the longevity of a “career” might stretch to releasing three singles before your creative well dried up and you had to learn how to dig ditches or sell insurance. 

He always seemed to know what he was doing and looked at the big picture, whether in songwriting, recording or performing. He held it together. It couldn’t have been easy to be the bandleader on stage during the wild 1965-66 initial Dylan electric concerts (when the folk-music hero’s “fans” booed the new sound violently) as well as at Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, Watkins Glen, the Dylan/Band Tour ’74 and The Last Waltz concert. Think about it — some of the biggest festivals and most scrutinized shows in rock and roll history! 

It must have been a cauldron inside his big brain to continue to come up with so many great, epic songs on all of those Band albums from 1968 to the final studio record, Islands, released in early 1977 (The Last Waltz came out in 1978). Robertson continually found ways to meet his high standards in song after song: The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Across the Great Divide, Jawbone, Rockin’ Chair, Get Up Jake, King Harvest (my favorite Band song of all), The Unfaithful Servant, The Shape I’m In, Daniel and the Sacred Harp (a hidden gem), Endless HIghway, Stage Fright (which critics wrote was about Bob Dylan, though it might have had more to do with The Band’s first concerts in 1969), The Rumor, All La Glory, The Moon Struck One, Life Is a Carnival, Last of the Blacksmiths, The River Hymn, Twilight, Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Rags & Bones (another hidden gem), Ophelia, Right as Rain and Out of the Blue.  

When The Band’s first album Music From Big Pink emerged 45 summers ago, it went against the grain of the fad of the day, psychedelia. It pulled the plug on the tedious light shows, made the pretentious lyrics of the day seem a little ridiculous and re-introduced the power of ensemble playing. The musicians and singers sounded serious but also playful, as if they were revealing a big secret that they had kept to themselves. The album was so powerful that Eric Clapton decided that he had to leave behind the extended soloing of his uber-successful group, Cream. He quit Cream a few months later.

The most popular and significant song on that Big Pink album was, of course, The Weight, which introduced the music world to Robbie Robertson’s key quality as a songwriter: storytelling. He rolled out a series of colorful characters based on people he’d met in Arkansas. The song remains beloved to this day.

The other great hallmark of Robertson’s work was his guitar-playing. He remains my favorite guitarist. He, like George Harrison and Keith Richards, was a highly skilled musician who doggedly performed as a team player, not a virtuoso, making the sum of the parts of his band really stand out. He always left room for the singers and the other players to shine.  

Bob Dylan, whether he or his fans want to acknowledge it, owes Robertson a tremendous debt. 

Robertson was the lead guitarist in Dylan’s touring band from 1965 to 1974. When you listen to the live albums documenting those periods, you hear Robertson’s wildly inventive leads on such gems as “Tell Me Momma,” “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat,” “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” “Lay Lady Lay” and “All Along the Watchtower.” I could listen to those songs everyday and never feel bored because I’ll find something new to appreciate in Robertson’s playing.

Robertson stood (literally) by Dylan’s side during Dylan’s most memorable on-stage burst of creativity and brilliance, the 1965-66 period. Then on The Basement Tapes, in 1967, Robertson again helped keep things together after Dylan had suffered a broken neck and needed some quiet time in Woodstock to escape the madness that had become being Bob Dylan.

Robertson stands out in The Last Waltz, the movie he conceived of The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving night in 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco. What has always impressed me over the years is the recognition of how Robertson, as usual, excelled under so much pressure! All of the five guys must have been very nervous that night, besides feeling great emotion at playing their farewell gig together. The Band got one crack at backing up all of the famous guest stars on the stage. They also had to be precise in the performances of their own iconic songs. 

There is a shot in The Last Waltz which tells it all: Robertson is caught anxiously peering over to make sure his Band-mate Garth Hudson had appeared at the front of the stage to play his sax solo on It Makes No Difference. The look on Robertson’s face for a fleeting second reveals pure tension and it shows a discerning viewer how much he had invested of himself in the concert. The pressure was on Robertson, before anyone else, and his work on Further On Up the Road, Ophelia, Mystery Train, Forever Young, Stage Fright and other songs provides the foundation for the excellent concert film — which holds up to this day.

I know, I know. I’m giving Robertson’s post-Band work short shrift here. It’s just that for this boomer, The Band’s music and influence has been so profound that it simply overshadows the solo work of all of the musicians in the group. It’s a blessing to have made such wonderful music but a curse because the public (I know, I know) prefers to live in the past, even as the musicians move on and continue to evolve. 

It’s not fair of me because Robertson has made some terrific albums and created beautiful soundtracks — for more information, see:

His last solo album, 2011’s How to Become Clairvoyant was a strong commercial and critical success, and Robertson wrote evocative lyrics about the tensons inside The Band before the break-up and of his own sense of wonderment about rock and roll music. Songs such as When the Night Was Young, This Is Where I Get Off and Won’t Be Back, among others, could fit very nicely on a later Band album. 

Robbie Robertson has a lot to be proud of. Rock and roll may, indeed, be a “goddamned impossible” way of life, as he said at the end of The Last Waltz film. But he has left a mark that will endure for as long as people play guitars and sing songs.

Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution,” which Penguin published in August 2012

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