Q&A; WITH ROBBIE ROBERTSON : Reflections on the Age of a ‘Real’ Rock Band
Even though such essential artists as David Bowie and the Velvet Underground have been bypassed by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame judges over the years, the Band’s election to the Hall in its first year of eligibility was a virtual certainty.
Few groups have ever enjoyed as much respect from critics and peers as this quintet, which came to national attention in the ‘60s as the backing group for Bob Dylan and then came into its own with a pair of remarkable ‘70s albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band.”
Although Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel made invaluable contributions to the Band’s music, it is guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson who remains most identified with the group. His leadership role, however, has led to strained feelings, especially with Helm, who criticizes Robertson in a recent autobiography, alleging that Robertson tried to control the group and eventually forced it to break up.
On the eve of the Hall of Fame ceremonies tonight in New York, Robertson , 50, spoke about the criticisms and the early magic of the Band.
Question: There was a lot of controversy last year at the Hall of Fame dinner because you and Bruce Springsteen played Creedence Clearwater Revival songs with John Fogerty while the other members of Creedence, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, had to sit in the audience. Can you see a similar thing happening again because of the tensions between you and Levon?
Answer: What happened last year certainly wasn’t meant to belittle anyone or step on anyone’s toes. I found out about the other two guys being upset after the fact. But when I thought about their reaction, I thought, “You know, they’re right.” That’s why I said to some of the people at the Hall of Fame that from now on in these situations, it should be all or nobody when it comes to playing at the induction dinner.
Q: Does that mean you’d get on stage with Levon?
A: Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. A couple of months ago, I called Levon and said maybe we should talk about this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing and the Band box set that is going to be coming out this year. But it didn’t get any further than that, and I’ve heard from the Hall of Fame that Levon has said he might prefer not to play, just to enjoy the evening. To me, whatever everybody wants to do is fine.
Q: What about Levon’s criticism about you trying to be the boss in the Band?
A: I never wanted to be the boss, and, in fact, I never thought I was the boss. I was just trying to organize things so we could do things like make records and go out and play a show somewhere. It was not a big controlling thing on my part, but you know what happens in these situations.
In a group, one guy is really good at this and one guy is good at that, and it kind of all settles. I just kind of found myself in the position of: “If I don’t do this, nobody’s going to do it. We’ll just be sitting here in a year saying, ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ ” So you have to try to get things moving.
Q: What was the strength of the Band?
A: The fact that it was a real band . . . five parts. Garth was the most accomplished musician in rock ‘n’ roll, bar none. Rick reinvented bass playing. Levon had a sound on his drums that no one else had. Other drummers used to kiss his hands. Plus Rick and Richard and Levon were all such great voices.
Q: Do you regret calling an end to it in 1976?
A: No, because I really felt that the circumstances dictated it. It wasn’t about me saying, “OK, 16 years, I’ve had enough.” Things had run their course. It became so difficult to do things that used to be so easy. . . . To get everybody together to come to the studio.
Q: What about halls of fame? Is the validation really meaningful after all these years of acclaim?
A: It’s certainly nice to be acknowledged along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and some of the other people who have been inducted. But the most important thing about the Hall of Fame to me is the chance it gives us to salute the people who came before us . . . the chance to acknowledge Muddy Waters or Carl Perkins or Mahalia Jackson . . . the people who were such a tremendous influence on us all. They’re the reason we got addicted to this whole music.
Q: Looking back, what was the most important validation--the time you sat back and were really proud of what you had done?
A: That was probably when the Band’s first album, “Music From Big Pink,” came out. We had made this record and were playing it for friends and other musicians, and everybody was saying, “You know, this is really different.”
It didn’t sound different to us because we were just playing what was inside us, but it wasn’t what was happening then in music. Music wasn’t going our direction, and the fact that people embraced it was like crossing a major bridge in our career.
Q: Let’s talk about Hall of Fame caliber musicians. As a guitarist, who is the best guitarist you ever heard?
A: I always think of it in terms of styles, rather than technique. For instance, you could ask, “Who is a better trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis?” Well, I don’t think one’s better than the other, but I might say that I like Miles’ sound more. It does more for me personally.
And in that sense, I could point to when I first heard Muddy Waters play bottleneck guitar. It had an influence on me that I still feel. I was doing some music for Barry Levinson’s new movie, “Jimmy Hollywood,” and I realized I was doing this guitar thing that goes back to when I was 15 and I heard Muddy Waters do it.
Q: What about the greatest singer?
A: There are so many, but I have to go back to the ones who first impressed me, and you have to say Elvis Presley. When you hear him sing something like “Blue Moon,” there’s a sound in his voice that is unparalleled. Yet I liked the sound of Howlin’ Wolf just as much.
Q: What about songs or songwriter?
A: If we are talking about the very beginning, there were things of Hank Williams’ that hooked me . . . that made me think I’d like to make up something as strong as that.
I think “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was probably the Williams song that had the biggest impact. It brought out a feeling in me that I didn’t even know music could bring out, because most of the music I had heard on the radio before that was such happy-go-lucky stuff. . . . “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” and things like that. Hank Williams was from another place, and that’s where I wanted to go.