The Band are one of the most important and influential groups of the 20th Century. They made musical history not once but twice in the 1960s. They defined Americana despite being four-fifths Canadian. They were, according to George Harrison, better than The Beatles.
Robbie Robertson, the quintet’s guitarist, songwriter and official custodian of The Band’s heritage, spoke to Clash in October 2005 as he wrapped up production on ‘A Musical History’, an appropriately titled comprehensive six disc account of the group’s career. Their impressive journey from an R&B backing band touring the club circuit, to assisting Bob Dylan’s plugging in, to international stardom as enigmatic country boys makes for wonderful reading and even better listening.
It’s an epic saga that witnesses its heroes combating enraged audiences, alcohol and drug addictions, car crashes and ultimately themselves. Some never lived to tell the tale and those that did can’t even face each other.
Below is the full transcript of the first of two interviews (conducted a week apart) with Robbie.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON – PART 1
It’s a lifestyle. You can call it “the road”
‘A Musical History’ is certainly a comprehensive collection: 5 CDs of music and a DVD. Why did you decide to compile this now?
Well, after Capitol Records did this reissuing and remastering of The Band’s records with these bonus tracks on it, they found some things that I had thought were lost forever. It was quite encouraging that the people that worked on it, the people that produced this box set, Cheryl and Andrew. I mean, they’re so terrific in their detective work and their passion, it just made me think that if we’re putting together a collection of The Band’s music, now there is this team of people here that I feel I can really do this properly with. I’ve never felt satisfied with… There was a box-set done once before, but that had different motivations behind it and it was completely inaccurate; the information in it, I didn’t like the way it was put together… I dunno, I just deep down felt like this needs to be done right, you know, once and for all. This is starting at the beginning and going up through ‘The Last Waltz’; it’s really the true musical journey of this group of musicians.
The greatest hits are on there but like you say there are also some surprises, like the song sketches. Can you tell me about where these came from?
They came from various places. Some of it was in storage places of mine, some of it came from Garth Hudson’s collection, some of it came from they went through the library at Bearsville Records, all over the place. That’s what I mean, they’re such good Sherlock people. They just uncovered stuff. I mean, a bunch of it I’d never even heard! I don’t even remember hearing it before, and that’s exciting to somebody like me. To think, ‘Oh my God, there’s even some surprises for me?’ That makes me feel very excited about it. And then we went and just put every effort into making it the best quality we could possibly make it, the most interesting musical journey that’s possible… And when you see the package itself and the artwork and the cover and everything, I mean, everybody just did a fantastic job on this, so it is something that I can say I completely sign off on this and I feel very, very proud of it. This is it. If there was ever to be some sort of a bible on The Band, this is it.
I’m most excited by the DVD – footage of The Band live (besides ‘The Last Waltz’) is hard to come by. Do these selections mean there is more footage to be seen?
There are some other things. There was a couple of other pieces in this that we were trying to get for this package but we just couldn’t; it was taking forever to secure these things. There is some more stuff, but what was put together for this, I mean there is a track in there from the ‘Rock Of Ages’ album, the making of that record, and it’s just been in a film can in storage. I’d completely forgotten that there was any footage from that at all. That’s pretty great. Then there’s other things from the Festival Express, the train festival, then there’s things from Wembley Stadium in there in a concert that The Band did with Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young years ago. So yeah, it’s just some terrific never-seen-before stuff, and then there’s some things that some people have seen before, some of the things from Saturday Night Live and stuff like that.
Taking you back now to the beginning, I read that WLAC, an American rock ‘n’ roll radio station, was your first encounter with music as a kid growing up in Canada.
No, my first encounter with that was there was a disc jockey in Buffalo, New York, which is like right across the lake from Toronto, and that was like the most immediate connection to R&B music. This disc jockey’s name was The Hound and he was just a fantastic disc jockey, his whole spiel and everything, and he used to do his show live from a club in Buffalo called The Zanzibar. He would be in the back doing his radio show and on stage out front would be Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or Laverne Baker or Fats Domino or somebody. So they would do the show and then they would come back and sit with him and you could hear them in the background. It was a pretty extraordinary thing but it was a way to just get beyond what the obvious pop music of the time was. In Canada there wasn’t very many black people so there wasn’t a huge R&B sensation going on, but just across the lake in Buffalo it was huge, so that was the most immediate situation. Then there was this station down the dial there that on certain nights, weather permitting, you could get this 50,000-Watt station out of Nashville, WLAC. With that, it took you more into Southern music and you heard more obscure things that would come out of a place like Sun Records, and then they had the Gospel hour and then they had the Blues hour. So there was all these different musicalities that they would put you through, and also it was in Nashville as well so you got a good healthy taste of some music that was coming down from the mountains that you wouldn’t necessarily hear up north.
Later on, when Rock ‘n’ Roll did start coming through Canada, that’s when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks first passed through. Can you remember the first time you saw them and could you have ever guessed that one day you’d be up there as their lead guitarist?
Well, not when I first saw them. When I first saw them, we were playing at like a dance. They usually played in clubs and stuff but sometimes if they weren’t playing in clubs, often they would do these one-nighter things. I had a band that was opening for them and I had never seen them before but I’d heard about them and I heard that they were really fantastic to see and they played great and all this stuff. But when I did see them I thought I had just never seen anything this excited and spirited. Everything that I was learning to love about music, it was represented right there. I was absolutely blown away. At that time of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, they were all from Arkansas, and so that Southern flavour and everything, they were just smoking. I’d never heard music played so swiftly. I mean it was not neurotic, it was just smooth and fast and it would explode at times and then get real quiet. Then when it would come time for another guitar solo, the whole thing would just explode. What that came from was when the singing came in, people wouldn’t play too loud so you could hear the singer, but when the singing stopped and the solos came, that wasn’t a problem. So everybody took advantage of that, especially in the youthful spirit of the music, so it became like a real stylistic thing. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis do that and Carl Perkins and his group would do the same. It wasn’t that unusual, but it was just more of an extreme with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and I thought that was exciting. My curiosity factor was completely on high. I was just curious on what they did and how they got that sound and where they learned… all those questions. I wasn’t in a position yet to be thinking, ‘Yeah, one of these days I’ll be up there with you guys’. That hadn’t crossed my mind at this early stage. Later on it did obviously, but I was just too young and too naïve then. I was fourteen or fifteen years old.
When you were in the Hawks, what Ronnie would do was steal members from rival bands because you wanted the best musicians possible and no member was ever safe in their job. How did you ensure you were never replaced?
Well, there was no insurance of that! (Laughs) Even when I was hired by Ronnie Hawkins there was other things going on. Ronnie, he was a great showman and a really very exciting performer, but he thought that the smart thing for him was to surround himself with great talent and to put together the unquestionably best band of any of these other guys that were on the circuit. So these original members from Arkansas, some of them just wanted to go back home, they didn’t want to travel, some of them had families that they were starting, all kinds of things. Ronnie really liked playing in Canada because if you played in the Northeast or in the South, the hours could be really rough. I mean, they were LONG hard nights and seven nights a week. But in Canada, clubs were closed on Sundays and they had to quit by a certain hour. In the States, some of these places were open til like two or three in the morning, and in Canada they were all closed at 1 o’clock. I think he was just treated a little bit better. He found a very special position there so he used to like to go up there and play a lot. I think they paid him more, all kinds of stuff that made it appealing for him. And as these other guys started faltering and going back to Arkansas, he started just looking around immediately and he came to a conclusion early on that there was a lot of very special untapped talent in Canada. In the South, everybody who’s got anything going, they’re scooping them up right away. Up in Canada, it was far enough away that he thought that there was still some people available there that had the potential to turn into something extraordinary. So that was very exciting to him and I was the first Canadian in the fold, but like you said, I was never sure whether it was gonna work out. I was 16 years old, you know? So they looked at me like, ‘He’s 16 years old. God knows what’s gonna happen’. So while I was playing with Ronnie, he was having this guitar player, Roy Buchanan, coming around and sitting in with us. I just didn’t know nothing and I thought my job is just to appreciate and take the ride for what it is. But by the time I was 17 years old I’d somewhat came into my own and I guess that I had proved to Ronnie that I did have the potential to keep the job.
The Hawks were notorious for working hard and partying hard, but you apparently tired early on of the machismo of life on the road and began to find your own entertainment. Is it true that Ronnie chastised and fined you for reading the likes of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams?
He wouldn’t fine me. In those early days, starting at such a young age, by the time I was like 19 years old, we used to play a lot of colleges in the South. In the South it was not unusual at all for them at all their dances and everything to hire rock ‘n’ roll bands. Up north, sometimes it was a little bit more sophisticated. They would have a crooner sing at their high school dance and down south they would have a full on Southern Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, you know? But anyway, in the lifestyle of what was going on, the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and living that to its fullest extreme, there was certain riches to that but there was also certain limitations to it. And playing all these schools and everything, all of a sudden I started to feel like that whole process of education and that social connection and just growing up… I had to grow up really quick. When I was 16 years old I had to start lying and saying I was 21. So there was like a gap in my progression of natural maturity, and one of the things that I really felt missing was certain knowledge that comes with school, where one person would say, ‘Screw that, I found a shortcut around that’. To me, I just felt like, I don’t know, I need to feed my mind and there’s more to life than just these honky tonks and playing rock ‘n’ roll. I just had this natural instinct to lean in that direction, so when I started reading a lot of books and everything, Ronnie used to say to me like, “What’s wrong with you? What are you filling your head with all of that stuff for? That’s not gonna help you here. You need to be practising the guitar and do more practising and less reading!” He was just kinda razzing me but he never fined me for anything like that.
After you split from Ronnie that’s when you hooked up with Bob Dylan. You went from being an adored and successful group to playing to jeers and boos every night. What did this do to your confidence?
There was another stage to it. After we left Ronnie, there was this period where just The Hawks went and played and that’s when we hooked up with Sonny Boy Williamson and we played another circuit down south and we played at Jack Ruby’s club. There was a whole interesting transition taking place there because with Ronnie Hawkins we had to play a lot of Ronnie’s songs obviously, and then we would play stuff of our own too, music of choices that we were making. We were just growing in a little bit different musical directions and we wanted to get better at what we were doing so that was the big reason that we parted ways with Ronnie; we wanted the opportunity for musical experimentation. So while we were out there doing that we got quite a reputation just amongst musicians and the inside world of that whole circuit that ‘These guys are a real hot shot group. I mean, they can play!’ So when Bob Dylan decided that he wanted to get a real band to play with him -sometimes when you have to find all separate guys it’s a lot more trouble than if you can get it all in one package! (Laughs) Anyway, by the time that we hooked up with him, it was such a left turn. First of all, we weren’t into Folk Music at all. It just didn’t register. We were from the other side of the tracks. I mean, there was a whole Folk scene coming along, but they were sipping cappuccinos in the places that they played in, and where we played there was people breaking whiskey bottles over one another’s heads. There was a real separation like two different sides of the tracks in that and Folk music was what was becoming like college student music. So anyway, when the Bob Dylan thing came along, we were like, ‘I dunno. I guess. We’ll just see what this is’. And then, as we started to find out about it, we realised that he had this big Folk following and in that he was becoming this great wordsmith in this whole field, like as good or better than anybody at a very young age. When I hooked up with him I think that he was like 24 or something, I dunno what I was, maybe 20 or 21 or something. It was just kind of blind justice we were experiencing here. (Laughs) It was just a life experience to play with him and we didn’t know whether we were going to do it for a minute or what, but it was like, ‘Oh my God, there is something really interesting going on here’. And then when we saw how people were reacting to this thing, there was something incredibly outrageous about all of that and weirdly precious to us. Because like I said, we were from the other side of the tracks, and in the beginning, we just thought, ‘Well, they’re booing because…’ You know, the first couple of gigs we played it wasn’t with all of the guys of The Hawks. It was just Levon and me and some other guys, so we just thought it’s because we’re not playing worth a damn, that’s why they’re booing. But when we all play together we’ll play this music properly and we’ll figure it out. We thought that would remedy the problem, but we played all over North America and Australia and Europe and they booed us everywhere we went. But pretty soon you figured out that this is a ritual, that the people were coming to the concerts with that in mind. Like, what you do is you go to this show and when they plug in these guitars, that’s when you start throwing stuff and booing. So it was like, ‘This is just weird’. But there was a certain survival aspect to it that was a learning curve that we weren’t used to. We were having a lot of fun in this experience and we were just going along with it just to see where the hell this leads you. I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, but we were on the inside of a musical revolution and didn’t really know it. We were just thinking, ‘Maybe we just need to do it better’. So after the shows, because they were shooting this film and were taping the shows, we’d listen to those tapes and think, ‘That’s not THAT bad! (Laughs) You don’t have to throw tomatoes and sharp objects and scream and boo at something like that. It’s not that bad.’ Finally we started to think that it was actually pretty good too, but they’re not hearing it. So we were going through all kinds of quandaries, and sure enough, over time, the world turned and we stood our ground and the world came around and said, “No no, this was great”. So that’s what revolutions are about, I guess.
The world kept on turning, because by the time The Band’s debut album, ‘Music From Big Pink’, came out, you were locked down in the house’s basement honing The Band’s unique sound while all around you music was exploding in a million colours of psychedelia. Were you aware of what was happening elsewhere and was it a conscious move against the prevailing culture of the time?
I guess that there’s a bit of a rebellious spirit in all that. As I’ve said before, it came out looking like we were rebelling against the rebellion and perhaps that’s true, but I don’t remember anybody saying, ‘Let’s rebel against the rebellion’. What was really making me follow whatever path that I was on for writing and all that kind of stuff was that a lot of these things seemed trendy to me, even GREAT trendy, but trendy nevertheless. Like, ‘Okay, now we’re all gonna get like really loud polka dot clothes and we’re gonna play really loud and we’re gonna play ten minute guitar solos…’ I’d already been down that path, we’d already done that. That’s the one thing about The Band: we had been woodshedding and learning our craft for many years before we put it out there and there was a lot of seasoning already in our playing and in our taste. So by the time it came for us to do something, all of this crash, pots and pans stuff, we’d been there and back and it already seemed tired to me. I was thinking, ‘I’ve already played wailing guitar when somebody was wiping these guys’ noses, and now I’m into playing like really tasteful, subtle things, and just when you think that you would jump in there, let’s get out of the way and let’s let the song speak for itself and the sound of the voices…’ That’s what excited me, that’s what seemed fresh to me and this other stuff was just like, it was becoming so common that it was hard to follow somebody else’s path.
The shockwaves of ‘…Big Pink’ rippled right through the music industry. Clapton split Cream, Jagger ditched The Stones’ faux psychedelia in favour of the Blues, and The Beatles quit their studio obsession. Indeed, George Harrison was a fantastic advocate for The Band, calling you better than The Beatles themselves. Looking back, what do you personally think was the real legacy of your debut album and what its consequences meant for you?
Well, it was interesting. When this album came out, we had thought what we had done on this record was that we had did some really tasteful work on here and it was a representation of some good songwriting too. And in making this record we were convinced that we weren’t doing somebody else’s schtick also. And not even on purpose, that was just the way it came out, but we were satisfied with that. When this record came out, people reacted to it like, ‘Where in the world did this come from?’ Because it was nothing like what we did with Ronnie Hawkins, it was nothing like the way that we played live with Bob Dylan, it was a whole other musical period for us, and what made it so unusual to everybody us baffled us a little bit. Because all this was was taking all of our real musical experiences and roots of the discoveries made along that road, that musical journey that we were on that took us through the South and took us up north and took us here and there and all the musics that we were drawn to, the different flavours of music that you hear. There’s some Gospel influence in there, you hear mountain music, you hear Blues and you hear Rockabilly and you hear R&B and all of these things, and to us it was like, ‘Well, that’s just all of everything of where we’re coming from!’ It was a very natural process to us, but when you added it all up at that time – plus having worked with Bob and with Ronnie Hawkins and the Sonny Boy Williamson experience and all of this stuff, it all adds up to something – every day you learn something. So we were not people that just started music a few months earlier and were looking for a record contract. We were really looking to hone our craft and to be able to do something like what we did. So when it came out and people went, ‘Whoa! My God, where did this come from? Who are these people?’ What we were really representing was the truest thing to ourselves that we possibly could, and The Band was called The Band because it was a REAL band. It wasn’t a singer and a guitar player and some other guys along for the ride. It was everybody in that group played a pivotal part in it; to its sound, to the way that they played with the other guys, to what we could do with the instruments, the voices, the interpretation of the lyrics and everything… There was no slack in there with anybody and that’s what I was most proud of in the whole thing: that everybody was in an equal musicality place in the group.
‘The Weight’ was the biggest hit from the album and ultimately your most famous. I dearly want to know what it’s about but I’m afraid of spoiling my own ideas, so instead I’d like to ask you what has been your favourite cover version of it?
Geez… It has been covered, I don’t even remember, but at last count it was up there in the forties – forty different versions of it. Well, one of the most exciting things, I mean, Aretha Franklin did a pretty damn good job with Duane Allman on it. Cassandra Wilson, just like a year ago, did a version of it that’s very cool. But probably our personal favourite on it was The Staple Singers. That’s why The Staple Singers are in ‘The Last Waltz’ and we did it together, because we REALLY enjoyed The Staple Singers, their sound and flavour and the way the voices worked and the sound of Roebuck Staples’ voice and Mavis. We were really proud of that, then when we did it together there was something absolutely magical about that.
My curiosity factor was completely on high.
It was also like completing the circle too. You had been influenced by the Gospel of the Staples and then here they were playing your song. It must have been quite a compliment.
Yup. I mean it was just like so pure in its musicality because they were just coming at it with complete innocence and us loving The Staple Singers was just with complete innocence. When we first started listening to The Staple Singers they ONLY sang Gospel music.
Moving on to your second album, the song ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ seems like the perfect culmination of everything you learnt about the South from Levon, and indeed no one could have sang this better than he. Its Civil War backdrop has inspired countless articles and endless speculation, but it all started with just you at the piano, playing softly so as not to wake your baby daughter. How did this song transform throughout its creation?
I guess what happened in this is I started discovering just the chord changes to this, and I thought, well, it’s kind of the opposite of a movie. It’s like writing the score for the movie before you make the movie. I’ve always been a bit of a film buff, so a lot of times I would compare things in that kind of way, like the storytelling and all of that. So I wrote this SOUND, and I had no idea what this song was at all. Then when I let it take its natural course, this is what came out. It wasn’t a clever idea, it was all I could think of at the time to be really honest about it. People say “How in the world did you ever think to write a song about the Civil War and coming from the Southern side and this was gonna be like a popular song of the time and where in the world did that come from?” I guess the explanation is that it was things of when I first went to the South with such an innocent eye and was lapping all of this up and it was like going to the Holy Land of rock ‘n’ roll to me. It really affected me and I’m sure that there’s things in that that I just stored in the back of my memory and came out in this song. But when I sat down to really think about what I was writing in this song, it just popped out and like I said, there was nothing profound about it except that it was all I could think of at the time.
The flip-side of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ was ‘Acadian Driftwood’ from ‘Northern Lights – Southern Cross’. This is an especially significant track because it marks the full circle you came in your writing. You were now writing about your homeland with the same empathy and compassion that had infused ‘Dixie’ and ‘King Harvest’. Were you homesick at that time or was Canada specifically on your mind?
There was a period when my first two kids were born and I was living in Montreal because my wife was from Montreal. I was up there and on CBC television one night there was a special on called ‘L’Acadie, L’Acadie’. It was about Acadians and these people that found themselves in limbo with the war in Canada between the French and the English and what happened. So the story of these people became really kind of moving to me. I knew about the story already but this just brought it to my immediate attention. It was interesting because the show was in French and it was just the flavour of all of that, it started to add up for me. And then the connection with French Louisiana and that whole linkage between these people and the French islands and that whole thing, it became a bit of a parallel in my story too. You know, going from Canada down to the South and getting such a special feeling out of a place like Louisiana and the whole Southern flavour of music; it was like it grew out of the ground down there. So anyway, I just felt this certain parallel to this story. I could really relate to it and it also allowed me to incorporate stylistically a musicality that I’d wanted to do something with anyway. I did a little bit more with it when I wrote the song ‘Evangeline’ that we did with Emmylou Harris. But that Cajun flavour that originated in Canada and then took on a whole new life in Louisiana, I dunno, just watching the evolution of the people and the musicality at the same time running side by side was just a fascinating experience and experiment for me.
The other choice from the album ‘Northern Lights Southern Cross’ that appears on ‘A Musical History’ is ‘It Makes No Difference’, which is my favourite song of all time, although I can’t decide which version I prefer – the studio one or live from ‘The Last Waltz’. It’s just the most honest and frankest song about heartbreak you wrote, and sounds like it could only have been written by someone who had experienced that. What’s more, it sounds like it’s sung by someone who had also experienced it; Rick’s voice is so tender and sweet. What does that song mean to you?
I’m with you on this. When I wrote that song I was thinking of… I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of The Band songs writing full-out love songs. I mean, if you notice, they’re about everything BUT love! (Laughs) And then to finally come to a place where I had the courage to write an unembarrassed, full on, as-touching-as-I-could-make-it love song, it was really coming full circle for me. Because, for the most part, a lot of love songs were kind of corny and there was hardly any way around it. Not that I didn’t believe in love songs, I just didn’t know how to express it in a way that didn’t sound, to my ears anyway, just a little hokey and that had already been done before. So when I wrote that song it was like, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna come at ’em right between the eyes here and I’m gonna be completely unembarrassed about this and I’m gonna express this as good as what I’ve been storing up this all this time for. It’s a very, very proud moment for me and I think that it’s my favourite vocal of Rick Danko’s too.
How has your perceptions of a musician’s life changed since you left The Band? One of the reasons for Last Waltz was because you thought the road was dangerous, “a goddamn impossible way of life”. Yet all the musicians involved continued to have long careers. Do you still think of a musician’s life as being inherently consumptive or was that just where you were at at that time?
I’d have to disagree with you a little bit; it didn’t work out so great for Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.
What about the others like Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell?
A lot of them had made it through and some of them just barely. I mean Eric Clapton nearly died. It’s a lifestyle. You can call it “the road”, but what we’re really talking about here is a certain rock ‘n’ roll legacy and lifestyle that some people can get away with it and other people just get taken out. You think, ‘Okay, well I’ll just throw myself out there and see which way the wind blows’. I wasn’t comfortable with that and we’d been doing it, like I said, I’d been out there since I was 16 years old and I thought, ‘I don’t know if there’s much more for me to take out of this besides money’. I understand why Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and people like this stay on the road all the time; you go out there every night and there’s thousands of people just sending you a lot of love and a lot of money! (Laughs) You think you’d have to be crazy NOT to do that, but for some people it works for them and other people… I don’t like it. It’s just a personal thing, and if I’d never done it, I’d feel guilty about not liking it, but I did it plenty and I did it in every circumstance just about that you could possibly do it. I’m sure there’s a couple out there that I missed but not many! I’m much more fascinated by other creativities than that, and I feel so strongly about that that I made a movie about it! So I have to stick by my guns too. I’ll do isolated special things, but I’m not ready to get on the bus, I’ll tell you that.
Before that time, but most especially around ‘The Last Waltz’ when you announced your desire to quit, your relationship with Levon seemed to deteriorate. How do you think the two oldest friends in the group grew apart?
After ‘The Last Waltz’ there was definitely a sense of, just in personal interests, things that I was drawn in a certain direction and it wasn’t the same path that we had been on. I can’t disagree with that. The whole idea behind ‘The Last Waltz’ was, ‘Let’s end this phase with as much class and dignity as we possibly can and hopefully musicality first. Then let’s let everybody kinda get their feet on the ground, have a chance to just look around…’ There needed to be a time of some kind of spiritual connection being made then, because an unbalance was so prevalent out there with music people. Everywhere you went there was like a dark period there where everybody was so screwed up all the time and that’s where I was making those remarks like, ‘Jesus, is this turning into something else altogether? And now that I’m no longer a teenager, a kid, and I look at this and I’m able to hopefully stand back and really see where this is going, it’s just heading into a place of darkness that it would be really healthy if we could allow ourselves to get a perspective on that and just not go blindly in there.’ So that was the idea, but it didn’t happen. So after we did ‘The Last Waltz’ thing and it was like, ‘Okay, here’s our time of sanctuary and really just figuring out how we can do some wonderful things together in the future’. And not so much schlepping around the country but creative things, taking things out of the air like we had done in the past and making them exist in a really powerful musical fashion. That’s what I was excited about, and if some of it could be involved with film or other progressive ideas that was exciting, but it didn’t happen. So I thought, ‘Well, this is just more of the same. I don’t know how to make this something other than what it is’, and I thought the best thing that I could do for all concerned right now is get out of the way, and that’s what I chose to do. I’m sure that Levon could have easily thought at the time that maybe I was letting him down. I didn’t mean to let him down at all, I just was in a survival mode. I just needed to get out of the way. I had other creative interests that were drawing me to them. After that I went and I worked on the music for Raging Bull, which the soundtrack for just came out again. That was something that was very painful for me to not be able to share with people after it was done, because I thought this is an amazing collection of music and it’s everything that was in the movie and all of that. So it only took 25 years, but I’m just as proud of it as when I was first working on it. So anyway, that was an exciting challenge and different, something completely different for me and to this day it’s something that I’m so happy that I was able to be involved with. Then I produced this movie ‘Carny’, and that was a whole new experience and that was exciting, except I learnt the right way – the hard way but the right way – of just how many people are involved in film making. There are so many people in the loop that I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ I’m not used to that. I’m used to paddling my own canoe here and all of a sudden I’ve got to check in with 50 different people on everything! But it was a fascinating learning experience and I loved it. So I just kind of drifted off on my own path and was really enjoying the educational process of it.
The legacy of The Last Waltz the movie has been immense – others have tried to copy it and Spinal Tap even spoofed it, the ultimate compliment! How do you look back on the movie and what’s your opinion of it now?
You know, so many of these things are all about just being in the right place at the right time and all that kind of stuff and it was like the gods were absolutely blessing this experience, the stars were aligned or whatever you want to call it. It’s gonna be a tough one to… I kept thinking over the years, when we did this thing two years ago when I went in and I had them remix the whole movie and the whole record with all these bonus tracks, it turned into a whole undertaking this thing. But it was worth it because I realised, ‘Jesus, 25 years and nobody stepped up. Nobody’s come along and said, ‘That was pretty good, but check THIS out! This leaves that in the dust!’’ There’s nothing even CLOSE to leaving it in the dust. I mean there’s been some fine music films made and everything, but I don’t know. I’m excited about the fact that somebody could do something better than that but I’ve almost given up – it’s been over 25 years now! (Laughs) So I was just really lucky that all of the pieces fit together. It was a phenomenal feat to do this. Not only to produce the movie, get it made, convince everybody that this was the right time, the right thing, and THEN playing with all these different artists. If you listen to the record and you listen to the movie and everything, there’s not hardly a clinker in the whole night where we screwed up. I’m telling you, the feat of going between playing with Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell to Neil Diamond to Dr John is no simple feat! I mean Joni Mitchell has too many chords! (Laughs)
Everyone must have had sore fingers by the end of the night!
Oh my God! But when it was over it was an extraordinary feeling, it must have been like landing on the moon or something.
But then it didn’t finish right away. They say that the best music happened afterwards in the hotel.
Well, that’s not true. I mean there were some fun things going on, but there’s always these stories that get carried around. People were just on a roll and having a good time. There was some terrific things that happened, but I’m pretty satisfied with what’s in the movie.
The influence and legacy of The Band is still apparent in many new bands. Who do you see as the brethren of The Band and are you flattered or indifferent to their admiration?
I think that it’s a beautiful compliment for a young group today to be listening to this music…