Robbie Robertson Was as Mythic as the Characters in His Songs: An Appreciation

Robbie Robertson, who died Wednesday (Aug. 9) at the age of 80, was a road warrior, songwriter and guitar hero who helped shape rock’s late-sixties golden age in The Band, provided or curated music for many of Martin Scorsese’s films and made several important solo albums. Over the years, he also emerged as one of rock’s most influential storytellers — myth-maker might be a better word, although he told true stories with dramatic resonance — first in Scorsese’s concert film The Last Waltz, later in the book Testimony: A Memoir and the Band documentary Once Were Brothers, and throughout his career as one of the most compelling raconteurs in the history of popular music.  

Robertson spent the first part of his career backing up Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan and then, with The Band, writing and playing songs rooted in American mythology. The stories were his, but the characters seemed so entrenched in the landscape that it sounded like they had been waiting for him to sing about them — Carmen and the Devil, Virgil Caine, the man with the stage fright. Many of these songs sketch out whole stories in small details — if you need to ask why Carmen and the Devil are walking side by side, you’re missing the point, but you can see it’s bad news from a mile away. 

Over the course of his time in The Band, Robertson seemed to age into a kind of mythic character in his own right, and in The Last Waltz, made about The Band’s farewell to the touring life and the star-studded concert they played to commemorate it, he started to examine rock’s own myths. “The road has taken a lot of the great ones,” he says in the movie. “It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.” Along with his bandmates, Robertson turned barstool stories about highway hotels and dodgy dive bars into widescreen epics. “Sixteen years on the road is long enough,” he says elsewhere in the movie, all of 33 at the time. “Twenty years is unthinkable.”  

More than any other work of the time, The Last Waltz gives the main characters of rock’s second chapter the chance to take a bow just as punk and disco took the stage. The concert, famously held at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 — complete with a turkey dinner and an orchestra for formal dancing — featured not only Band collaborator Bob Dylan, but also a Beatle (Ringo Starr), a Rolling Stone (Ron Wood), a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter (Joni Mitchell), a New Orleans pianist (Dr. John), a blues great (Muddy Waters) and a rock star who may have been celebrating the seventies in an eighties style (Neil Young, who according to unconfirmed legend had a visible particle of cocaine in his nose that had to be edited out). The film recounted the story of rock, right up to the point when it splintered into sub-genres.  

Robertson understood this vision better than his bandmates, who seemed to have found his concept pretentious. (The fact that he had a magnetic onscreen charisma that they lacked probably didn’t help, either.) “We were in the moment — we were playing songs we had hardly played before with people from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters — and all we could think about was trying to rise to the occasion,” Robertson told me in a 2016 interview. Over the years, the movie became its own myth, to the point that there have been tribute concerts commemorating what was essentially meant to be its own kind of tribute concert. (The film resonated so much with me that in 1998 I bought the movie poster, which has followed me to every apartment or office I’ve had since — a reminder of the music I grew up listening to that by then had come to seem a bit old-fashioned.) 

Robertson’s first solo album, released in 1987, also seemed shrouded in myth — both figuratively in songs like “Somewhere Down that Crazy River” and literally in co-producer Daniel Lanois’ haunted, reverb-heavy production. At a time when mainstream rock was growing slicker, Robertson found a way to maintain some mystery, partly thanks to a list of guest musicians that included U2, Peter Gabriel, Maria McKee and two former members of The Band. He followed that with the New Orleans-themed Storyville (in 1991), projects that explored Native American music and what was then called electronica (Music for The Native Americans in 1994 and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy in 1998), and much later two more solo albums (How to Become Clairvoyant in 2011 and Sinematic in 2019). 

In between those last two solo albums, Robertson published one of the best-ever music memoirs, Testimony, partly because he was there more than anyone else who remembers and he remembered more than anyone else who was there. Even this decision he cast in terms that loomed larger than life. “I just couldn’t carry around all of these stories anymore,” he told me in the 2016 interview. “There were too many and they got too heavy.” This sounds true enough, but it’s an unusually dramatic way to talk — you can practically picture the man weighed down by his memories, like a character out of one of the Scorsese movies for which he provided music. 

In the book, Robertson tells his story with the same eye for detail and epic sweep he used in his songwriting. “It’s a cinematic piece of work and I had to structure the scenes so they fold into one another; as opposed to, then in February this happened, and in March that happened,” he said in 2016. When we spoke, he talked about writing a second book, devoted to his later career — and it’s hard not to wish he had lived to complete it.  

Robertson had an incredible memory, and it says a lot about who he was that he even had a mythic — and true — explanation for it. In Testimony, he writes about how his birth father’s mother was a bootlegger who kept addresses and phone numbers in her head for safety. “My birth father,” he told me, “went on to become a gambler and won because he was a card counter.” You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried — and Robertson never needed to.