Robbie Robertson died today. Here's some thoughts, Larry King USA Today column style
It shocked me that he was 80. The part that is personally shocking is that Robbie Robertson was only 25 years older than me; so the shocking part is how old I AM. In my head, Robertson is perennially that cool-as-fuck 35-yead old with the scarf in The Last Waltz.
Of course, he had to be 80. He was the lead guitarist for "Dylan going electric" which freaking people out so much in 1965, like the were a shocked audience experience dadaesque theater in the 1920's.
Robbie first came to fame with his band The Band - which gives you all of the ingredients you need to start doing a musical band version of the "Who's On First?" comedy routine. If you aren't at all familiar with The Band, I don't know what to tell you. Why would you even be reading this. On this site. When I was in college, I was fascinated by them. There was a 5-piece with no single lead singer. Their sound blended so well that when they were really cooking, you really couldn't quite tell who was playing which part. They started with such a unique egalitarian purity that was something for every band to strive for.
Robbie Robertson was a writer or co-writer on maybe 10 of my favorite 250 songs. I'm insisting on writing these from memory without looking anything up. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", "Unfaithful Servant", "The Weight", "Sign Of The Rainbow", "The Shape I'm In", "Up On Cripple Creek", "Life Is A Carnival", "Somewhere Down The Crazy River", "Stage Fright" and "Resurrection".
When it comes to running a band, on my own tiny level I can relate a lot to Robbie Robertson. I'm sure everybody else in the band - as they burnt out after 10+ years together - thought that Robbie was an egotistical control freak. If you're watched a documentary on the band, or just charted their course over the years it became clear that the band (aka The Band) became victims of Pat Riley's "Disease Of More" syndrome. Other Band members wanted individual credit and got sidetracked by their own projects; whereas Robbie's efforts to keep the band going and doing more good work got perceived as controlling. Watch the Beatles "Get Back" documentary and watch Paul running around spinning plates trying to keep dissatisfied or on-heroin band members being productive for something similar. Every band has a slightly fucked-up power-dynamic or role-dynamic. It's the ones like Mick Jaggar who get vilified for being the motivated one. My two cents, at least.
Robbie Robertson was always at the nexus of things. Big Pink was their rental house with Bob Dylan in Woodstock in upstate New York. If you're a rock fan with a time machine, that might be your destination. On Robbie Robertson's house in Malibu in the 70s was another musical and cultural ground zero.
There's an instrumental song called "Madame X" on his 2011 album that I find fascinating. It's not particularly ground-breaking, special or even dynamic. But the expressiveness of his playing is remarkable to me. Take a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCGqJCW5kWI
Enviable career, at least for me. My ultimate goal as a musician is not to be on the road for 200 dates a year - though I'd love to have that problem to reject. You want a creative life with a variety of artistic opportunities. For me, as a guy who loves music and movies more than anything - being a film music supervisor in a true collaboration seems like the best way to get paid to be involved in music. He had a great career as a music supervisor - a longtime film collaborator with Martin Scorcese. Together they wrote out insanely detailed plan for The Last Waltz - The Band's legendary swan song concert and film. On a related note, he and Scorcese famously went down a rabbit hole of doing a LOT of cocaine. Look at the photo of them above - it's a pretty damn cokey picture.
Perhaps he was not the household name that he peers and friends were; but Robertson co-write Clapton's "It's In The Way That You Use It" (a comeback hit for Clapton) for the movie The Color Of Money (on which he was music supervisor AND did the score.) He did a LOT with Van Morrison, not the easiest or most emotionally stable legend in music.
Robertson's first solo album in 1987 had a cool song that he talk-sang through, "Somewhere Down The Crazy River." His phrasing of "Why do you always end up down at Nick's cafe? I don't know, the wind just kinda pushed me that way" is one of the oddly-coolest phrasings I've ever heard on a record. My friend Susie in college (and even now) will trot that impression out.
But the main thing I want to lay down here is that his 1991 album, Storyville, is perhaps my #1 choice for most underrated album of all time. It was not a hit but the production value was perfect. It's a New Orleans album but it's so much more than that. The songs seems to alternate through big catchy songs and moody downbeat classics through the whole album. In the 1990's this album was the only thing that cured me when I used to be prone to headaches. I don't think there's a bad song on the album. But if you want spirituality in music, then the 1-2 punch at the end of "Resurrection" into "Sign Of The Rainbow" should be everything you could desire. Please listen to this album.