Robbie Robertson existed in his own world:
a bandleader who wasn’t at the forefront of his band, a songwriter who needed others’ voices to bring his compositions to life, a figure who transitioned from being an intimate presence first with Bob Dylan and then as part of The Band, reaching the pinnacle of his artistic prowess.
He helped reshape the possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll twice within three years, without ever quite achieving the fame as an individual artist that he so clearly embraced in the guise of his collaborators.
His lasting impact will primarily be that of a songwriter. Robertson was lucky to have Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson bring his songs to life for the band, particularly on their first three iconic albums: “The Band,” “Music from Big Pink,” and “Stage Fright.” Being Canadian, Robertson was able to expertly depict a fictitious version of the American South in both his musical compositions and lyrical choices—a South that was affected by complex historical factors but was instead created by Robertson’s imaginative vision.
Did any American individual dare to write “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Perhaps it was precisely Robertson’s position, straddling both non-American and counter-cultural facets, that allowed him to step away from writing as a chronicler of a defeated land, seen through the eyes of a Federal soldier, a vantage point potentially distant from the writing. It’s not that the songs were necessarily magnificent, but the music, the melody, and Helm’s voice were distinctively and entirely sympathetic, providing the group with a genuine Southern sensibility.
I recall that people used to make fun of me and say, ‘Yeah, the South’s gonna rise again!’ when I first arrived and discovered something I truly enjoyed. In 1991, Robertson spoke with Q magazine.They’ll also be making jokes, but you’ll notice a slight crack in their voice. Being of a mature age at the time, events like that offered me the chance to tell a narrative. His inability to compose “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was a result of it being too personal and close for him to see. However, once inside, you may sense those sensations.
Robertson’s second gift was one that is seldom celebrated in the annals of rock history, because they celebrate those who went far, who suffered for their art: he was excellent at fulfilling things. He was a young guitar player—born somewhere across the sea, heard playing rock ‘n’ roll records on the radio in Toronto, and was enthralled by both a nation and a man—Ronnie Hawkins, the rock ‘n’ roll singer who was backing the sixteen-year-old Robertson in 1959, first as a bass player before taking over Hawk’s guitar lead. Robertson didn’t learn his trade in the Village clubs or the ballrooms of Detroit and San Francisco, but in roadhouses and bars where tourists played—meaning there was a sense of inevitability that he couldn’t escape in due time.
Being on the road with Hawkins turned them into such a tight band that they excelled for him—a “crackerjack band,” Robertson would later note—and they split in 1963. Two years later, Dylan hired him to join his backing band as they embarked on his first electric tour. Rather than thinking about how people reacted, consider what made them react that way: The Beatles were a harder-edged band when they returned from Hamburg, which was adept at raising money and dealing with Dylan’s amphetamine abuse—it captures the explosion of a band in 1966, at the end of a live recording.
There was a limit to the upheaval. Robertson became the band’s leader not just because he composed the songs but also because he had the ability to get things done (the band struggled with heroin addiction, but Robertson managed to resist it). A person who gets things done, manages the group, and talks causes friction against it, much like Mick Jagger did with the Stones. Consider what led to their response rather than just brushing it off: Robertson made far more money than his bandmates since he was the songwriter, and the breaking point that never materialized was obvious, as Helm highlighted in 2012 when he didn’t make up with Robertson before his passing.
Robbie Robertson eventually let the band go, departing with a final piece of talent – “The Last Waltz,” an incredible live album and film that marked the beginning of his extensive collaboration as a high-end film score supplier with director Martin Scorsese. While it was traditional for a band leader to leave a beloved group for a solo career, this wasn’t Robertson’s path. A decade had passed since the band’s tumultuous end in 1977, before he released his first solo album. In Belgium, Holland, and the UK, he unexpectedly scored a hit single, including the haunting yet catchy “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” which stripped the band of its raspy synths and popping bass entirely.
Everyone had given up on Robertson crossing over at this point. When he did make solo albums, he followed his path; 1998’s “Contact From the Underworld of Redboy” incorporating Peyote Healing, a Canadian Indigenous chant, is something to be heard. After 1977, the most of his work was in movies, usually on the musical side.
However, as the years went by, there were signs that he wanted to resurrect parts of his past. Though his final recorded work was a soundtrack for Scorsese’s upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Robertson’s last solo album, 2019’s “Sinematic,” a cinematic portrait, was joined by “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” The film shared its title with the second track on Sinematic, making it clear which Robertson brother he was singing about. “When the light goes out/We’ll be on our way/There’s nothing here for us now/But darkness to stay,” he sang emotionlessly till the end.