[August 12, 2023]

My parents, like so many elder Americans, loved The Band. And so it was no surprise the Aug. 8 passing lead guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson resulted in a widespread outpouring of praise and reflection. Yet very little of The Band’s renown never made obvious sense, including why its reputation has proved so very durable and Robertson himself so controversial.

It doesn’t follow, for example, that the group responsible for founding the Americana movement would feature a lineup that was 80 percent Canadian.

During the late Sixties and Seventies, when the rest of rock and roll grew increasingly psychedelic, star-driven and glam-orous, The Band emerged as a countrified ensemble whose oddly antiquated sound was driven by collaboration and the vocal abilities of not one but three superb lead singers.

Robertson wasn’t even one of these front men. Instead he played lead guitar and wrote songs about rusticated figures from the Civil War era. As he would later explain, The Band got famous by zigging when the rest of the rock world zagged.

When one picks over Robertson’s legacy, these signature zigs — and his role in them — come easily to mind. It was Robertson, along with pal Martin Scorsese, who organized and filmed The Last Waltz, the much-praised concert movie and easily the most effective, brand-building farewell in music history. Robertson went on to make a bunch of movie soundtracks for Scorsese, including one for the 2023 release, Killers of the Flower Moon. The two collaborated again on When We Were Brothers [2019], a classy rockumentary that framed The Band in a gauzy historical context of Robertson’s devising. Note the title tense: Before anyone else did, his former colleagues came to resent Robertson for his canny legacy-building skills.

This is not to underplay the man’s artistic gifts, or The Band’s. When Music from Big Pink was released in 1968, it was rightly billed as a transcendent debut from Bob Dylan’s O.G. electric backing band. Dylan himself contributed to the album — and to The Basement Tapes, recorded around the same time, bootlegged for years, but not formally released until 1975. These two works set The Band’s collaborative reputation in stone. Yet Robertson had started writing/arranging most of the songs on subsequent albums because, to hear him tell it, those three lead singers — pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko — had all started abusing a wide variety of drugs in unsustainable quantities. Eventually all three took issue with Robertson’s claims to sole authorship (to say nothing of the royalty money), right up until the day they all died.

I play in a couple bands that cover several Band standards: The Weight, Makes No Difference, Up On Cripple Creek, Rockin’ Chair… They never fail to elicit from Boomers and Gen X folk visceral, sing-along responses that often veer toward the ecstatic, and/or the weepy. In fact, folks of all ages, including country and bluegrass fans, tend to respond the same way. Their songs come from a curiously nostalgic place, one that Bruce Springsteen has remarked upon: “It’s like you’d never heard them before, and like they’d always been there.”

Robbie Robertson wasn’t solely responsible for this music. Yet, in large part, he did prove responsible for curating, over the course of decades, these ideas and feelings about The Band. He may have understood branding a bit too well, and many longtime fans of The Band reviled him for that, right up till the day Robertson died.

My Silent Generation parents started out as folkies. They were smitten by Dylan on their honeymoon, in the Berkshires, where Joan Baez pulled young Robert Zimmerman from an audience to perform alongside her. I had assumed they got into The Band on this account. Yet when I tried to confirm this origin story, my mom (an early Beatles adopter, as well) offered a different explanation: After reading a 1970 TIME Magazine cover story on The Band, she went out and bought their self-titled “brown” album, the one with Rag Mama Rag, Across the Great Divide and The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down. It didn’t hurt that this woman, who turned 30 in 1969, had also developed a massive crush on Robbie Robertson, for whom (along with Alan Bates), she may have thrown over my dad in an instant, if given half the chance.

As a 14 year old, I was taken to see The Last Waltz (filmed in 1976 and released two years later). Another band in my personal pantheon, Steely Dan, called it quits soon thereafter. This is what music groups did back in the day: They broke up. They earned no artistic credit or meaningful remuneration for staying together into middle age. The Beatles created the templates for so much about modern pop music: write your own songs; burn out before you rust; maybe punctuate your legacy with a film. By the time I went off to college, in 1982, the 40something Rolling Stones were still touring and putting out albums. In this respect they, too, had innovated. Yet, in the post-punk moment, this behavior was not judged to be in any way laudatory or cool. We found it unorthodox and sort of pathetic frankly.

The ensuing decades have changed the way we view this dynamic — thanks, Boomers, for mainstreaming yet another tawdry, revenue-driven social convention. In the same way the Beatles get credit for breaking up before they got old, The Band’s legacy has also been burnished — even if The Last Waltz, in all its glory, obscured a miasma of self-congratulation, infighting and drug use. Manual, Danko and Helm all died before their times. They all went to their respective graves carping about royalty money out of which Robertson had cheated them. Allegedly.

Helm, the pride of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, voiced these complaints most comprehensively and entertainingly in his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire. It remains fashionable today, among some fans of The Band, to toe the Helm line and deride Robertson for all his self-serving deportments. Perhaps he did understand the band-branding exercise a bit too well.

But Robertson proved an undeniably superb and distinctive guitarist. The songs he is credited for writing/producing, rightly or wrongly, are indeed the stuff of genius. I didn’t necessarily think so growing up; there’s a lot of music from that era I value for the nostalgia alone. Yet today, when I look out into an audience and spy some 60something singing along to The Weight, gently wiping the tears from her eyes, I think The Boss might be onto something.