A walking contradiction
MUSIC | Rock guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson was comfortable in the background
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The guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, who succumbed to prostate cancer in August at the age of 80, was in the right place at the right time more than once.
In autumn 1965, he and his bandmate in the Hawks, the drummer Levon Helm, hooked up with Bob Dylan for three months of U.S. shows that established the template for Dylan’s confrontational world tour the following year—the tour that became famous for enraging fans of Dylan the folkie with a loud electric set that pinned their ears back. The band? The Hawks (minus Helm).
Then in 1967, the Hawks (this time with Helm) holed up with Dylan in Woodstock, N.Y., to record what would become known as the Basement Tapes, a sprawling collection of rootsy covers and weird but fascinating originals that sounded like the fermented contents of a long-forgotten time capsule. Columbia Records released some of them in 1975 and all of them in 2014.
Had those sessions never happened, it’s unlikely that the Hawks, now rechristened by themselves “the Band,” would have perfected the pining country soul that became their trademark. But, thanks in large part to Robertson’s songwriting, they did.
Their debut, Music From Big Pink, contained “The Weight.” Their follow-up, The Band, contained “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Written by Robertson with the distinct voices of the Band’s lead singers (Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko) in mind, the songs’ backwoods earthiness stood out in the Age of Aquarius. All three numbers were still in the group’s set list when Robertson took the stage at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Nov. 25, 1976, for his final performance with the Band. A star-studded affair, the concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1978 as The Last Waltz. It established Robertson as a legend.
He spent the next 45 years releasing the occasional solo album and contributing to, overseeing, and producing soundtracks. He also acted a little. In 2013, he co-authored Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World to acquaint young people with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Elvis, and, yes, Dylan. His memoir Testimony, a chronicle of the first half of his life, appeared in 2017.
Robertson could take himself too seriously. Testimony ran to 512 pages, and his interviews had the whiff of pontification. But, for a star, he also seemed unusually comfortable in the background. Even when tearing off solos, which he did less often than you’d expect, he made sure that his playing served the song.
Call him a walking contradiction. He was hardly rock’s first.
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