The Robbie Robertson Interview
by Howard GladstoneFrom The Rolling Stone Interviews Vol. 1. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, 27 December, 1969. Copyright © 1969, 1971 Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.
Howard Gladstone released a Band/Dylan-influenced CD of his own music entitled Sunflowers Light The Room in 2002. See the Howard Gladstone web site for more information.
Even though he was quite tired at the time, he was willing to talk openly and honestly. I had the impression that "Take a load off Fanny" was really more than just a line from a song-more a way of life.
Has the success of the Band changed anything at all?
It's changed nearly everything. It's changed the music a little bit. It's an incredible thing. I don't even know if we're successful. It's crazy, it really is. There's just a few groups that have been together as long as we have, and one is the Creedence Clearwater. They've been trying to make it now for eight or nine years, and finally made and are right up there, and I just heard they're splitting up. That has a lot to do with success too. Everybody gets to be a different kind of person, and it's not as tight as it should be.Is it happening to your group, do you think?
To a certain extent. We've got a pretty down-pat thing, but it's still hard. It's harder for us now than it's ever been. We're not breaking up, but just keeping it together...the heads.I find it difficult to make out some of the words of the songs on the album. Like "Chest Fever," for example. Could you tell them to me?
I don't remember them offhand, to tell you the truth. We're actually putting out a book of Big Pink and this new album, and it will be a big songbook. Garth is writing all the music, and Levon is writing all the words. They've just got a certain kind of handwriting. Garth can do it so it looks like some kind of machine, and Levon's good at printing letters. And we've got a lot of pictures we've never had the opportunity to use. I have a funny attitude to words though. I grew up on rock and roll music and there were no words on the back of the album. I learned the words to all of Little Richard's songs the best I could, and what I couldn't figure out didn't matter.Well, on "Chest Fever" you get some idea of what the song is about without really know the right words...
A lot of people have recorded that song, and I've never heard anybody record it with the right words. I know when they're wrong, but I just can't remember, 'cause I don't ever sing the song. I'm sure Richard and Levon who sang it would remember though. I write quite a few songs.Did the reason you included "Long Black Veil" on the album have anything to do with the mountains around Big Pink? You know, "She walks these hills"...
Well, not really. I just remembered the song somewhere back in my memory and sang it for Rick one day and he remembered it very well. It fit well with the other songs. One of the big problems that we think is going on is that there's so many groups and so many songwriters that the value of a song is becoming less and less. Everybody's writing songs, so all the good ones are mixed in with all these billions of other songs. We were just trying to get across the point that we don't feel we're the only songwriters. We didn't do it on the new album, but we'll do it again. We got into an altogether different kind of package on this new album, and it just wouldn't have fit.Were the songs of Big Pink mainly new songs, or had you had some of them lying around for a few years?
Some of them were written a couple of months before. It went back as far as three months before we recorded the album right up until we were recording the album. On the new album, most of it was written while we were there. "To Kingdom Come," for example, was written while we were doing it.You look really tired.
Yeah, I am. Ive been going for a long time. I'm just one of those kind of people who insists on doing more than he can. I've been wasted for a year. The new album has really wasted me too. We got this brainstorm of doing it ourselves, and I was writing the songs while we were doing it.You wrote all the songs?
Well, one of them I wrote with Levon, and about three of them I wrote with Richard. And I wrote all the rest of them myself. Half of them were written while we were recording, and I engineered it. It was really a lot of work. I was wasted before we began, and I'm just not together after that.Would you say there was a leader in the group, or is it more a co-operative effort?
Well, neither, actually. We have something else going. I don't really understand how it works, it just goes that way. Everybody plays a total different part in the group. There is no leader, nobody in the group wants to be a leader. I do a lot of the out-front stuff, but the guys do a lot of the back-front stuff.It seems to me the idea of the group, of the sound, is so many different parts that never get out of hand, that go together so neatly. Like several individuals forming a solid whole.
Well, that's the idea.It worked on the first album.
Oh, it definitely works on the second album. It's the third album now. We're still writing songs for it. We're getting into that now. I've found a kind of song, a style of writing, that I like very much.You almost did the whole musical score for Easy Rider?
Almost. We didn't like it quite enough. It was good, but not quite...Is the whole band planning to be in a movie? Was it an Antonioni film?
No, Antonioni wanted us to do the music to a film. But this guy named Joe Massat from Apple Films brought us this script called Zachariah. He had us playing a band of outlaws. He saw that picture of us on the Music From Big Pink album, and said "there they are." It was so obvious. I never got around to just telling him an out and out "no," and he went and sold the movie. The people who bought the movie think we're going to be in it and do the music with George Harrison, and it's not true. I spoke to George Harrison just a few weeks ago. The guy, Joe Massat, is really a nice guy, but it's not true.Tell us something about the Isle of Wight.
I thought it was great. I though it was fantastic. We played good. We played about 45 minutes by ourselves, then stopped for about ten minutes, then came back on with Bob. We played for about an hour, and then came back for an encore and played about another 15 minutes. We were on stage for about two hours, and thought we really played good. The English groups all came down to hear it, and it was fantastic. We recorded it, and they're suposed to be mixing it.I remember about four years back when you did the concert with Bob Dylan here in Massey Hall, and there was the big hassle about him going electric.
We appeared for two years with him, and it was like that all over. All over Europe, Australia, the Scandinavian countries, the United States, and Canada. They booed us everywhere.How long ago did you stop touring, and what were you doing between then and the time Big Pink came out?
We stopped touring around '66. We were just as tired as Bob was. We did the basement tape with Bob. He did the John Wesley Harding album. We completed a film. The television company didn't think it was very good. So we weren't just exactly sitting around. We weren't playing concerts, that's all, but we were doing everything but. It was a very healthy time. I was much healthier than I am now.Do you like the concerts?
Yeah, I do. It's just what goes with it. Like this... [indicates hotel room] ...Is the idea behind the picture on the inside of Big Pink of all your next of kin taken from "Wheel's on Fire?"
Well, no it wasn't from the song. It was just about what was going on. You know, the punky attitude that had to do with music-hate your mother and stab your father. It's kind of a trend of some sort, and this was a statement that we weren't there. We don't hate our mothers and fathers.That's what "Tears of Rage" is about, isn't it? You know, the parent-child thing, but presenting both sides of the picture. And the frustration on both sides.
Well, I agree. It's from a parent's side of view. So what if your parents did you wrong? Maybe they did, but so what? Everybody's just doing what they can do, right or wrong. I'm just tired of hearing all of this-that little girl Janis Ian. You know, Jim Morrison and those people. I just think they're a drag. Even if that is their situation, who cares? That's got nothing to do with music.What do you think of Procul Harem? They have the same instrumentation as you, and on a few songs there is a similarity between both groups.
Right, right, it's true. The only thing that I really know about them is that "Whiter Shade of Pale." Their whole thing to me sounds like Percy Sledge, "When a Man Loves a Woman," for ever and ever and ever. I've heard vaguely a few records by them, and they're still doing that same song. I don't know why they want to do that. Whatever the similarity, I must say we're not conscious of it. We've had organ and piano for ten years. I don't know how long they've had it. We got ours from gospel music. That doesn't have much to do with Procul Harem.What do you think of the Byrds?
They're all right, I guess. Sometimes they do something nice, mostly bad.Is there anybody who you like?
Yeah, it's pretty inconsistent. It's pretty hard to make an album with ten or eleven good cuts. Almost all albums are half good and half not good. I really enjoyed Dr. John's first album. I like the better things by the Beatles and the Stones. I'm just pretty obvious in what I like. I don't like noisy stuff too much, 'cause it's just noise.Well, for a time that seemed to be the trend?
That's why we thought it was time for us to make our move. Somebody had to do something. That San Francisco thing was just too bad.That the album came out when it did was a statement in itself, then?
Oh yeah, we could have done an album anytime. It was planned. So was John Wesley Harding.Did you work on that at all?
No, we'd much rather work on our own records than work on Bob's records. He's not really into the music like we are. He's really into his end of it, so we just as soon he'd done that with somebody else. We just care too much. And you know, we've had some thoughts of doing some things together. He came back after recording half of John Wesley Harding and said, "Can you put on the lead guitar, and Garth the organ?" We said, "No-it's small time." We may decide to make an on-purpose full fledged album, but we'll have to find a compromise to do it. But we still enjoy playing together a lot.Whose songs do you do when you play with him?
Any songs. We don't practice anything for any reason. We play for pleasure. We aren't practicing to play anywhere.Do you like the basement tape you did with Bob?
Sure. Now they're bootlegging it, and that's enough to make you release it. We have the master tape in Woodstock, and it's fantastic quality, much better than the one they're playing. They've got a tape of a tape of a tape of a dub of a tape of a dub that was actually recorded in the basement of Big Pink.Wasn't Music From Big Pink?
No, it was Richard and Rick's house. We just practiced in the basement. That's where it was all written, thought of, and arranged. If we would have been somewhere else we would have done something else.How did you like Woodstock?
I thought is was kind of remarkable, the happening, that's all. It was a drag playing. We got even less than response from the audience. The event was not the music, the event was the people. We were like Muzak. They made a big thing out of it, but it wasn't anything so special. It was just special that the people dug each other enough to stick it out. We did about half a good set. Groups weren't showing up, so they had to put them on when they came. We played in between Ten Years After and Johnny Winter, and we came out like a bunch of preacher boys. It was very inappropriate for us.How did you come to write "The Weight"?
I just wrote it. It's just one of those things. I thought of a couple words that led to a couple more, and the next thing I knew I wrote the song. That song was the only song on Music From Big Pink that we never did rehearse. We just figured that it was a simple song, and when it came up we gave it a try and recorded it three times or four times. We said that's fine, maybe we'll use it. We didn't even know if we were going to use it, and it turned out to be the album.Well, I wouldn't say that. It just brought attention to the album first. Like in my case, I like the album when I heard it. So I listened again and it began to grow on me. You realize that it is a subtle statement.
We try to do that on purpose. If people can, they will listen just once and throw it aside. If they can't they'll listen again and again.Calling it simple country music, or folk rock music, is really misleading.
Yeah. The new album is more complex. It was harder for us to play, for us to cut it. It's not the same thing over again. It sounds a lot different. We played it for quite a few people, and a lot of people who found it difficult to get next to Music From Big Pink find it easier to get close to this album. For what reason I, for the life of me, can't understand. I don't understand not being able to get next to Big Pink. It almost seems it should be the other way to me, but it isn't for some reason. I don't understand any of it anymore, I've come to realize. You do your best just trying to make it and I can't figure it out at all. It gets too complicated.On a lot of songs you switch instruments. On "Caledonia Mission," for example, doesn't Levon go to acoustic guitar and Richard to drums? You recorded it that way, I guess?
Yeah. On the new album, Richard plays drums on about half the songs. Not that he's a drummer at all, but it gives it a loose floppy feeling. You can tell the two styles very distinctly. Levon plays very fat, you know-boom, boom, boom-while Richard sounds very chunk, chunk, chunk. It's much higher sounding. It's an interesting thing to have two people who can do that. You can change your rhythm, it isn't always the same person doing the same thing. We switch instruments just to take some of the staleness out of it.You don't do very much singing on the album?
I sang on "To Kingdom Come." On the new album I don't sing at all. I can hear it when someone else is doing it, but when I'm singing I can't hear it. That way I can tell if it's right if they're doing it. I was engineering, writing, and playing guitar, and I just didn't have time. Everybody played many, many instruments on this album.You did that one live at the Toronto Pop Festival.
Right. But we really didn't get to do it because of the equipment breakdown. It was awful back there, there was a crackling noise, and nothing was coming out of our monitors. If we had've been smart we would just have stopped and said we'll be back when they get it fixed. We did do that, we did it twice, but we weren't insistent enough. We'd stop, but they'd say 'we've got it now.' We did another song and it was the same. It was terrible for us, we were having an awful time. They kept saying that they had it perfect, and they kept doing that until we were finished playing. The people were nice. They were nice just out of niceness. But we'll make that up. We'll play in a real nice hall. We'll play good. We've played good most places.You did so many of those pop festival things. They never turned out like they were supposed to.
Yeah, that's really true. I don't understand to this day why we did those things. We did it in Toronto because it was Toronto. We did it in Woodstock because it was originally supposed to be in Woodstock. We thought we would just drive down the road, play, and come home. And it turned out it wasn't in Woodstock. The Isle of Wight we did 'cause we wanted to go to Europe to visit with our musician friends, and we wanted to do it for Bob, 'cause he really wanted to play. So that's really what it's all about. We were offered a lot more that we passed on. They all at the time seemed to have a legitimate reason. I doubt if we'll ever do another one again. By the way, did you get to see John Lennon [at the Rock and Roll Revival]?Well, that's what distinguishes a good song: having the right words to fit the right music in the proper balance.
Well, that's the idea. It always has been, and always will be until everybody gets too spaced out to sit still.Isn't a lot of the more simple stuff coming back in as sort of a reaction to that kind of stuff?
I've heard so little I really can't say. But if so, I'm sort of sad to see that happen too. We certainly didnt want everybody to go out and get a banjo and a fiddle player. We were trying to calm things down a bit though. What we're going to do now is go to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and record four sides, four psychedelic songs. Total freak-me songs. Just to show that we have no hard feelings. Just pretty good rock and roll.What do you think of the Beatles' new album?
There's only one real good song, and two or three that are OK. The Get Back album isn't good. Some of the songs sound like they just wrote them and immediately recorded them.Do they play for their friends?
They play in a room, they don't perform while we sit down and look. We all play. John Lennon always is playing. If he's not talking, he's sitting at the piano, singing...uh, Love is the answer.Do you like Bob's new album, Nashville Skyline?
Sure. Most of it. Some it's not as good, but that's on all albums. He can still really play. You just get to a certain point when you've made yourself a certain thing, and the public makes something out of it. But there's still something else past the point where you're good, like the Beatles. Or the Stones. Bob.Bob has always been a puzzle to a lot of people. I never knew whether it was just myself reading into his albums, or whether he was really going through all the things I was going through. Know what I mean?
Right. That don't matter. You shouldn't really be concerned, you should just be concerned with the outcome of things. Whether he cares about love at all, whether he thinks he's putting the world on, doesn't really matter. It's what you think. It's what you get out of it. It wasn't meant to be any more than whatever you see.Well, is there really any such thing as a put-on? Who are you putting on? The world or yourself? Do you know how Bob feels about that?
I don't know. We don't talk at that level.