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Robbie Robertson, musician, raconteur, RIP

Looking back on the Canadian musician's life, relentless songwriting skills, The Band, and their five best songs

A shot from 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band'.
A shot from 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band'.

More than a week has passed since the Canadian musician Robbie Robertson died at the age of 80 on 9 August, and you might have read all the obituaries and retrospective pieces on him and his iconic group, The Band, whose debut album came out in 1968 and changed the direction of rock music as few other bands have done.

Musicians who have said how The Band’s music, which drew from early R&B, folk, rock, and jazz, had indelibly influenced them include legends such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Elton John, and The Grateful Dead. Led by Robertson and comprising Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, The Band, which started as a backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, and, more famously, also for Bob Dylan, are the earliest proponents of the genre known as Americana.

While much of The Band’s success is due to the relentless songwriting talent of Robertson, who started writing at 15, it was the way all five members gelled together that made it what it was.

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Like his song lyrics, Robertson was a great storyteller. In one of his many interviews in recent years, he spoke of the time the director Martin Scorsese asked him to suggest music for his 2010 neo-noir film Shutter Island, Robertson took the blues singer Dina Washington’s song, Bitter Earth, clipped each vocal line and laid it against a piece by the modern US composer Max Richter. Scorsese was delighted and used it.

Robertson’s collaboration with Scorsese was legendary. The famous director made The Last Waltz, a 1976 film on The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and one that had a stellar list of musicians as guests. But a lesser-known fact is that Roberston either scored or selected music for at least a dozen of Scorsese’s films.

In his autobiography, Testimony, which had a considerable contribution to the biofilm on The Band, Once Were Brothers, Robertson has spoken about the Native American roots from his maternal side, and, from his father’s side, of links with the Toronto underworld of the 1950s. In his early teens, he had even run “errands” for it.

At 15, he dropped out of school, set up his own band and wrote songs for the then famous rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. He would go on to join his and meet his future mates in The Band.

Robertson liked to tell funny stories. In the mid-1960s, when he and Helm were in Los Angeles, they visited the famous blues harmonica player and singer Paul Butterfield, who produced two bags of marijuana and gave one to his visitors while he rolled a joint from the other bag for himself. When Robertson asked if there was a difference between the bags, Butterfield pointed to the one he had given them and said it was “shit”. The next day, when Roberston and Helm dropped by again, Butterfield wasn’t home but his landlady let them in and… they stole the other bag. Butterfield, a man given to bursts of violent rage, was livid when he found out and it took a few years for him to cool down.

Stories like these pepper Robertson’s interviews and the biofilm on the band, offering insights into a rock group that was unique for its time. In the 1960s-70s, when American rock music was becoming more psychedelic and jam-oriented music, The Band were exploring older legacies, like blues, R&B and jazz. Their sound stood out. The members—Robertson (lead guitar), Helm (drums), Hudson (multi-instrumentalist), Manuel (piano) and Danko (bass)—were incredibly talented. Four of them could sing lead but it was the gestalt of them together that transcended each one’s virtuosity.

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With the passing of Roberston, only one of the members of The Band, Hudson, 86, is alive. But The Band’s legacy and influence continue to survive.

It is impossible not to like any of the many songs Robertson wrote for The Band or during his solo career. It is difficult to choose, say, five favourites. But these are his very best, I think…

The Weight: I think this is The Band’s most iconic song. It is a series of vignettes about people a traveller encounters on a trip to Nazareth and is inspired by Robertson’s own trip from Toronto, Canada, to the southern US, where he would join the band backing Hawkins. The song has a strikingly famous chorus (“Take a load off, Fanny/ Take a load off for free”) in which Fanny is believed to be a reference to an infamous groupie who hung around with the band but was also imprisoned, charged with injecting the comedian John Belushi with a fatal drug cocktail. The song itself is a brilliant example of Robertson’s ability to write lyrics that told a story as well as of his distinctive guitar style, minimalistic yet profusely expressive.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: A ballad about a Confederate soldier’s last days during the American Civil War. Sung powerfully by Helm, it captures the emotional aspects of the conflict in the American South; the horn arrangement stands out.

Up On Cripple Creek: A fun song, it’s about a truck driver who visits his lover Bessie in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and their adventures. It’s a funky song with a clavinet solo by Garth Brooks and cheeky humour (“Now there’s one thing in the whole wide world I sure would like to see/ That’s when that little love of mine/ Dips her doughnut in my tea/He-he!").

Acadian Driftwood: This song has a historical reference to the Seven-Year War in North America in the 18th century between the British and French and in which the Acadians, descendants of the early French colonists, were driven from their land. The song showcases the vocal uniqueness of the band: Four of the five band members were singers and it features all four, Robertson, Helm, Danko and Manuel. It is also a tribute to Robertson’s ancestry—his mother was of Acadian origin.

Somewhere Down The Crazy River: This is a solo song by Robertson from his debut self-titled album, released in 1987 and co-produced by Peter Gabriel. Manuel had died the year earlier and the song is about a night in New Orleans where Roberts encounters a voodoo queen and has a vision of Manuel. Robertson’s vocals are deep and the story the lyrics tell is dark. The video of the song, directed by Scorsese, adds to the atmosphere.

Robbie Robertson, RIP.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Narayan posts @sanjoynarayan.

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