Guitarist-songwriter-singer Robbie Robertson, who died Wednesday at age 80 after a long illness, could have retired years ago — his legacy very much intact as both the leader of highly influential country-rockers the Band and the accoladed composer for much of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. But more than a half-century into his career, Robertson was busier than ever.
At the time of his extensive sit-down interview with Yahoo Entertainment in February 2020, Robertson had just released what would turn out to be his final solo studio album, the noirish Sinematic — with some of its tracks, including the Van Morrison collaboration “I Hear You Paint Houses,” tied to his score for Scorsese’s 2020 mob epic The Irishman. Additionally, the Scorsese-executive-produced documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band had just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, and Robertson was excited about his next film-scoring project for Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon, which is now set to come out in October 2023.
“It is one of those ‘when it rains, it pours’ times, in such a good way, right now,” Robertson said happily. “And it wasn’t planned, because I was working on all these different projects at the same time, and usually you try to keep this one over here and that one over there. In this case, I just opened my arms and I invited them all in.”
Robbie Robertson was a stoic and imposing figure, but as he discussed Once Were Brothers, he couldn’t help but get a little choked-up. At the very top of the documentary, he described the “brotherhood” between his former Band-mates — Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, only the latter of whom is still alive now — musing, “It was so beautiful, it went up in flames.” It was a quote that resonated with both the viewer and the subject. A song on Sinematic, also titled “Once Were Brothers,” bittersweetly chronicled the unraveling of the Band.
“We had one of the most unusual and extraordinary stories of any group in music history. There is nothing comparable to it. … We were so locked in, in a musicality, and in a personal way, that we invented something that had a big effect on the course of music,” said Robertson. “We weren’t trendy, because we didn’t know what the trend was — and didn’t want to. We were going into our own world, our own dimension, and discovering a musicality, a sound, everything.”
Once Were Brothers traced Robertson’s story from his childhood growing up on a Native American reservation; to his then-little-known Hawks (who later evolved into the Band) backing Bob Dylan on tour during Dylan’s “Judas” period; to the creation of the Band’s landmark albums Music From Big Pink and The Band; to their Scorsese-directed farewell concert film, The Last Waltz. The documentary was a welcome reminder of the Band’s influence, which extended to their A-list peers of the day.
“When we came to make our first record, Music From Big Pink, when it came out, people were like, ‘Oh my God, where did this come from? What’s going on?’” Robertson chuckled. “Because it had nothing to do with what was happening in music. It completely separated itself from the pack. … It had such a strong identity, it had such a strong look, it changed the way people were dressing! We were like, ‘What’s going on here?’ Eric Clapton said, ‘I heard this record, and I’m leaving Cream.’ I was like, ‘I don’t want that responsibility!’ It sent ripples through music, and through the culture.”
Robertson continued: “So, then, we did this next record [The Band], and it was unheard-of at this time, that we were like, ‘Well, we’re not doing this in a studio. We’re making our own world, our own atmosphere.’ It was really just to cut off the world, go in and do what we needed to do. The music that came out of that cemented the deal, this group that was so non-‘we want to be pop stars.’ … It was the opposite of everything, and somehow, again, the honesty in this music and the depth of it had, you could hear the sound coming from everybody after that. It was a wonderful feeling, but it had nothing to do with it being a plan. It wasn’t a plan at all. … It didn’t sound like other records. The songs weren’t about anything else that anybody was writing about. I wrote a song about the Civil War from the Southern point of view, and people were like, ‘What made you think of that?’ And I thought, ‘It’s all I thought of at the time.’ I don’t know the answer to any of those things, except that what seemed like a good idea in that moment.”
The Band went on to grace the cover of Time magazine (a rare honor for rock groups at that time), play Woodstock, and release 10 acclaimed albums, but they couldn’t last forever. “Success and everything [was] having its effect on what we had been, on the brotherhood and everything. It wasn’t the same brotherhood as it was,” Robertson explained wistfully. “Now, all this was happening in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, and what was happening in music in that period, it became a very dark cloud that came over us. There was a lot of drug experimenting going on, and there was a lot of ‘let’s see how close to the edge we can drive without going over.’ And nobody is immune to this. It ended up having a big effect on our brotherhood, and it started to break away. There was a deep sadness to that, but it was part of growing and the whole thing going to a destiny that you’d never imagined. And some of that was really harmful.”
Robertson, who usually preferred to look forward than backward when it came to his career, confessed to Yahoo Entertainment that he didn’t expect to be so touched by Once Were Brothers. “One of the things about this film that I didn’t know that this is where it was going to go is. It is extremely moving. It’s extremely emotional,” he said. “When you work on something you get lost in the work and everything, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this is pretty good,’ right? Then when they showed it at the opening, the audience was overwhelmed with emotion. Oh my, the reaction to it was extraordinary. And it affected me.”
In 2020, Robertson was looking ahead to working on Killers of the Flower Moon, a Native American epic that he promised would be “unlike anything that you’ve ever seen or heard before.” It’s a project that no doubt held special resonance for him, since he had spent much of his childhood on Toronto’s Six Nations Reserve, where his mother had grown up. At the time he said he was “still trying to figure out” his approach to the Killers of the Flower Moon score, but he did discuss his magical dynamic with Scorsese in general, saying, “It’s a bit mysterious, in that there is something in my imagination, and in understanding something deeply about him and his working process, that he kind of thinks, ‘Oh, he gets it. He understands something about what I’m trying to do.’ And likewise.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s extended Robbie Robertson interview below, in which he discussed his film-scoring work over the past 40-plus years with Martin Scorsese and took us on a visual track-by-track tour of his artwork for Sinematic.
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