There’s a great moment in the new The Band documentary Once Were Brothers that captures Bob Dylan at his most bemused. The year is 1966 and Dylan and his backing group – then known as The Hawks, later simply as The Band – have once again endured a sold-out European show where they’d been angrily booed as punishment for Dylan’s crime of “going electric”.
In archive footage we see a frustrated Bob in the back of a car leaving a gig, posing a reasonable question to lead guitarist Robbie Robertson. “You know, I don’t understand…” says the baffled king, gesticulating with a cigarette. “How could they buy the tickets up so fast?”
54 years later, I’m sat with Robertson in his private studio at The Village in Los Angeles asking him the same question: did he ever figure out why so many people bought tickets to see them just to come and boo? “It became a ritual, I guess,” replies the 77 year-old.
Robertson’s dressed in electric blue plaid, his eyes shaded behind tinted glasses. He takes a pull from a bottle of green tea before pointing out that fans knew in advance what they’d be getting. “A lot of people felt he was their folk king and he was abusing the music, but if you don’t want it, don’t come! I’ve never heard of anybody of that calibre touring the world playing big halls and everywhere they play, they get booed. It took a while to understand that we were part of a musical revolution. We just didn’t know it yet.”
Robertson was only 23 at the time, but it was already far from his first taste of musical revolution. Born in Toronto in 1943, he first picked up the guitar while visiting his mother’s Mohawk family on the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. He grew into a young rock’n’roll obsessive whose life changed forever one night when rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins came to town with his band The Hawks.
The show was spectacular, thanks in particular to a firecracker drummer named Levon Helm, but even more thrilling to Robertson was the revelation after the show that Hawkins was looking for new material. Aged just 15, Robertson sold his first professional song: ‘Hey Boba Lou.’
“When I hear it now, it sounds like a kid did it,” says Robertson with a self-deprecating laugh. “But it served a purpose. It got me in the door, and going through that door made everything seem real. I wasn’t just imagining it or hoping anymore, I was actually doing it.”
Hawkins was so impressed he asked Robertson to join The Hawks, and with Helm quickly taking on the role of watchful elder brother they gradually added bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson.
After splitting from Hawkins in 1964, Dylan hired the five-piece to back him on his fateful debut electric tour the following year. Robertson and Dylan quickly became close, and they lived side by side in New York’s Chelsea Hotel while Dylan was writing ‘Blonde on Blonde’.
“He wrote on a typewriter all night long,” recalls Robertson. “The clacking of that typewriter would drive me crazy. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t even know if this guy sleeps.’ Eventually I’d hear him crash out for a while and then he’d be up and back at it again.”
While Robertson relished the “wonderful distraction” of touring with Dylan, Helm was less interested in going to work to be booed every day. The drummer promptly quit the band to go and work on an oil rig, a decision which still surprises Robertson to this day: “I have no idea what the draw is on that one…”
Helm rejoined the group when they decamped to a rented pink house near Woodstock to start recording their own music. After years honing their craft behind Hawkins and Dylan, they finally had a chance to write their own myths with debut record ‘Music From Big Pink’.
“We were fulfilling a dream I had in having this workshop, this clubhouse, this sanctuary,” explains Robertson, one of The Band’s four-out-of-five Canadians who with that record helped shape a Southern rock and folk sound that quickly became known as ‘Americana’.
“‘Music From Big Pink’ had nothing to do with what we did with Ronnie Hawkins or on the tour with Dylan. It’s a completely different sound, different flavour, different everything. We weren’t trying to do that, we were just in the moment saying: ‘This is what this thing, whoever and whatever we are, has evolved to.’”
Having spent all those nights awake listening to the master at his typewriter, Robertson vividly remembers the pride he felt watching Dylan react with vindication to hearing the album’s staggering centrepiece ‘The Weight’ – sung by Helm and Danko but written by Robertson – for the first time.
“I could see some kind of satisfaction in his eyes,” says Robertson. “Several times in my life, doors have opened and I’ve been able to say: ‘See! I told you I’d do this!’ At that moment, it was almost like Bob was saying: ‘See! I told you I knew what I was doing! I told you these guys were great! I’m responsible!’”
The Band went on to release half a dozen more records in the next decade, but they’re perhaps best remembered for their spectacular farewell to live touring. On Thanksgiving 1976, at the Winter Ballroom in San Francisco, The Band were joined by Hawkins and Dylan as well as the likes of Joni Mitchell, Dr John, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Neil Young for a concert dubbed The Last Waltz, captured by Martin Scorsese in the film of the same name.
For those of us who’ve long adored The Last Waltz, new film Once Were Brothers does a good job of placing that performance in context and explaining some of the fractures that were developing in The Band. It had been Robertson’s idea to quit touring, and the inclusion of Neil Diamond in the line-up in particular was a sore spot for Helm. Robertson, however, disputes the idea that there was any strain between band members on the day itself.
“I don’t remember any tensions,” he says, with a little too much force. “I remember a lot of work, and a lot of concern that we better be on our game. We were going to be playing with everybody from Neil Diamond to Muddy Waters, you know what I mean? We’re gonna fuckin’ cross the horizon of this music and… we made it! We never fucked up!”
In a show full of sensational performances, the most sublime of all is surely Neil Young’s peerless performance of ‘Helpless’, joined by the heavenly voice of Joni Mitchell singing from the wings. When Scorsese’s film was released, much was made of the fact that a lump of cocaine had to be digitally removed from Young’s nostril – at great expense – although the offending rock has returned in later versions.
“You know, you want to be honest about these things,” laughs Robertson, who has his own complaints. “If there was anything wrong that night, it was that the cocaine wasn’t very good. It was wet and lumpy. I couldn’t indulge anyway, I had too much to be responsible for. I couldn’t mess around with trying to keep my head on straight. Neil didn’t have that problem at all!”
Once Were Brothers wraps up The Band’s story with The Last Waltz, ignoring the fact that Robertson’s bandmates reunited without him in 1983 to tour and release three further albums. Over the years The Band suffered many of the predictable scisms that divide groups, including disputes over royalties, but Robertson waves away the idea that they were a particularly fractious brotherhood.
“I think that exists in most bands,” he says. “It wasn’t like we invented that. We invented some other shit, but we didn’t invent family problems. Over time, you go off in different directions, but when we were young, we were a gang.”
Once Were Brothers is out now