[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 major outpouring of praise and reflection. Yet very little of The Band’s renown ever 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 elements — 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 , 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 legacy-building facility.
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, 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.