Robbie Robertson's Rock For The Ages
As guitarist and key songwriter for Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipients the Band, Robbie Robertson and his fellow bandmates, including the late GRAMMY winner Levon Helm, helped form the roots-rock genre now known as Americana. Following their start as rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' backing band, the Hawks, the Band performed as Bob Dylan's backing band before emerging as their own formidable entity, creating a body of work that secured their place in rock history. Two albums from the Band — 1968's Music From Big Pink and 1969's The Band — are in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
As a solo artist, Robertson has earned four GRAMMY nominations, including most recently in 2003 for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media for Gangs Of New York. His most recent studio album, 2011's How To Become Clairvoyant, peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Robertson discussed his latest projects: the Band's forthcoming five-disc box set, Live At The Academy Of Music 1971: The Rock Of Ages Concerts (due Sept. 17), chronicling the band's four iconic December 1971 performances at New York City's Academy Of Music; and Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed The World, a book collaboration with his son, Sebastian Robertson, Jim Guerinot and Jared Levine (due Oct. 8). Targeted at young readers, the publication features profiles of 27 legendary musicians, including the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and Joni Mitchell, along with two compilation CDs featuring songs from artists highlighted in the book.
The book is extraordinary, but I noticed the Band is not included. Did you leave yourself out because it would seem self-serving, or do you genuinely disagree that the Band's music changed the world?
I think that the Band's music made a big contribution, but I did think that it would be self-serving. It's not just the Band; there are so many people that really deserved to be in this. This was as much as we could do in volume one. I'm really hoping this is volume one, and in volume two, the Band will be in there, and all the other people that so deserve to be there.
It doesn't read like a children's book.
That was very important to me. We wanted it to be something that everybody would feel engaged [in].
Who did most of the writing?
The four of us. We all contributed to everything. We just became like a band.
Obviously, you did a great amount of research.
This took years.
Did you have a lot of help?
For the design and the illustrators, [book publisher] Tundra was absolutely brilliant. When they saw how inspired we were, they jumped on board and raised the ante. And you can see the results.
I take it the 12-by-12-inch format is no accident?
[Laughs] No accident.
Let's talk about the two compilation albums included with the book. There's one song by each artist; how did you choose which songs to use? And in the Beatles' case, what made you choose George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" instead of a Lennon/McCartney song?
Sometimes [we] wanted to choose something that was really comfortable and somewhat obvious. In other cases, [as] with the Beatles, [it was] how do we not go down the complete center of the highway? By not doing a Lennon/McCartney song, it worked out. And Paul McCartney was very supportive. This is a feat, too, because clearing the music for all these artists, it's impossible. There's so many people that just automatically say, "No." It doesn't matter what it is. We had to get [the idea] across to everybody — the artist making the decision or the families of these artists. They're not getting rich off this. It was really a decision on whether they want to be part of this or not. It helped a little bit that I was one of the ones asking, but for the most part, the project spoke for itself. And everybody said, "This is long overdue."
Did you get every song you wanted?
Let's talk about the forthcoming box set from the Band.
This was 1971, a period when we just hit a stride. We would go out and play, and Richard [Manuel] would sing a song, and the sound of his voice, it just tore your heart out. He just nailed it. And then Garth [Hudson] would play some stuff that no musician in the world plays. It is that unique; that extraordinary. And it was like, "Wow, what planet is this guy from?" So terrific.
Levon would sing a song, and he would sing it better than anybody in the world. And I'd be so proud that I was able to write something that I thought he could deliver like nobody else. Just because I thought I knew him better than anybody, right? And his ability. And Rick Danko, at this stage, his voice was so powerful. And the phenomenon was that while he was singing like that — and he's singing all kinds of background and harmonies weaving in and out — at the same time, he's playing a fretless bass. Now, people have no idea what that means, but you have to play in tune on a fretless bass. There's no frets. It was a feat. Every night I was like, "I don't know how you do that."
It was at that level that made me say, "You know what, we should capture this right now, because there's something going on here. We're just having a really good time playing for one another." When we would be performing, a lot of it had to do with a language that we were just speaking to one another. And this was a highlight of that.
When we did the record, it was a little bit by the seat of our pants. It was Christmastime; people were doing other stuff, so it was a bit tricky getting everybody to the church on time [laughs]. But we managed it. We had an extraordinary time doing it. I'd asked Bob [Dylan] if he wanted to come spend New Year's Eve with us and play a few tunes together. And he was like, "Yeah, sounds good to me." So he showed up.
We didn't rehearse with Bob. We didn't have time, and we'd played together so much over the years that we didn't think we needed to. In the performance, I can really hear that; I can hear where we're wingin' it, and havin' a good time doing it.
(Austin-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. Outlets also have included the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com and NPR affiliates. A contributing editor to the encyclopedia, The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)