In the terrible year of 1968, with war raging in Vietnam, with MLK and RFK being assassinated, a sound emerged from a funky pink house in the Catskill mountains that some of us had been awaiting, whether we knew it or not.
“It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there,” Bruce Springsteen would say, several decades later.
This is true. I can attest to the feeling of desperation in the late ‘60s, and how it was tempered by the music from five troubadours – one from Arkansas and four from Canada. (Toronto was a melting pot for music that would be heard around the world.)
The five musicians brought their separate gifts, in a visual mishmash of floppy country thrift-shop clothes, indistinguishable in their very white slouches.
But gradually we sorted out Richard Manuel from Rick Danko from Levon Helm – the token southerner -- from Garth Hudson – now the last survivor, with his weird beard and instrumental sounds – and from Robbie Robertson, who died Aug. 9 at the age of 80.
Robertson’s life is captured in the excellent NY Times obituary by Jim Farber:
Robertson came off as the dominant Band member in the documentary, “The Last Waltz,” by Martin Scorsese, which was made as the Band broke up, with a glorious final concert cast, in San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Nov. 25, 1976.
Scorsese was obviously taken by Robbie Robertson’s charisma and intelligence and ambition, which helps explain why the boys were breaking up the band.
When the movie was released in 1978, Marianne and I took our youngest, David, to see it in The Village (Dave clarifies all in his comment, below) -- the start of a family tradition. Every year at Thanksgiving, David pops in a DVD of “The Last Waltz,” as we give thanks for life and also the music and point of view of the Band, including Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson.
I had a few glimpses of The Band. In 1974, as a news reporter, I was assigned to cover the Long Island and Manhattan stops of a national tour by Bob Dylan, and the five musicians who had melded as members of Dylan’s band.
The only Band member I actually met was Levon Helm, when he was cast by Michael Apted to portray Loretta Lynn’s father in the movie, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Another time, I saw Danko and a haggard Manuel perform at a Pete Fornatale fund-raiser for a food charity, in the Village, not long before Manuel committed suicide.
In 1980, there was a “grand opening” for the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in Nashville. Maybe a bit sloshed, Levon played backup to Loretta and Sissy Spacek as they sang some of Loretta’s greatest hits. He was so modest, did not need attention.
I never did meet or eyeball Robbie Robertson, but his mystique grew in his post-Band years. People came to know that his mother, Rosemary Dolly Chrysler, was a Mohawk, raised on the Six Nations Reserve near Toronto. His actual father (who died young in a car accident) was not named Robertson but rather was a gambler who was Jewish.
“You could say I’m an expert when it comes to persecution,” Robbie Robertson wrote in his memoir, “Testimony,” issued in 2016.
One of my favorite Robbie Robertson songs is “Stage Fright,” about a singer – maybe Bob Dylan himself, who comes off very nicely in Robertson’s book, offering a functional car to the young guitarist coming to play backup in Dylan’s band.
Others think the song is about young Robbie Robertson himself.
Still coalescing as a band, the five musicians made a pilgrimage to a soul-music center in Arkansas, and invited Sonny Boy Williamson for some soul-food in a Black neighborhood. Home-boy Levon tried speaking polite Arkansan to a couple of white cops, only to have the five run out of town.
Another of my favorite Robbie songs is “Acadian Driftwood,” about French settlers on the Canadian coast, some of whom later migrated southward to join relatives in Louisiana, only to realize they were still outsiders:
“Set my compass north, I’ve got winter in my blood.”
As the settler prepares to go “home” to Canada, the language shifts into French:
“Sais tu, Acadie j'ai le mal du pays”
(Do you know, Acadia, I'm homesick.)
In later decades, Robertson performed and wrote music that reflected his Mohawk genes:
In his later years, Robertson gravitated to Los Angeles, but he continued to write and perform songs that spoke for outsiders, including himself -- part shtetl, part rez.