Robbie Robertson on the Band’s Breakup, Working with Scorsese, and a Lifetime in Rock ’n’ Roll

By the time he turned 34-years-old, Robbie Robertson had lived a thousand rock ‘n’ roll lives. As he recalls in his new film, Once Were Brothers, Robertson left Toronto for the tutelage of American musical dynamo Ronnie Hawkins at 15; he backed Bob Dylan when the Judas went electric; he shepherded the Band into a musical mythos, inventing Americana and accumulating devotees with the last names Clapton, Springsteen and Harrison, then watched it all come crashing down in a haze of ego, alcohol, and cocaine before wrapping it up in a neat bow called The Last Waltz. Now 76, Robertson has found a renewed sense of purpose. Along with the documentary, this year he’s released a new album, Sinematic, penned the soundtrack to his pal Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, and overseen the 50th Anniversary release of the Band’s seminal self-titled sophomore album.

In Once Were Brothers, you say the Band’s journey ultimately became too hot and burned itself. What did you mean by that?

It’s a journey: it builds to this incredible celebration of music, our experience, and our brotherhood. We thought we were going to have an opportunity for each guy to follow some of their individual dreams and then we’ll come back, meet up, and continue our journey. As we talk about in the documentary, it didn’t go that way. Ultimately Richard died, Rick died, and Levon died. Whoa. I couldn’t have imagined any of that in a million years. So I’m referring to the unknown and that it comes along, it sneaks up on you, and it shows you real life.

In one of the film’s most emotional scenes, you recall visiting Levon at the hospital but by the time you arrived he was already unconscious. What was going through your head when you arrived?

I didn’t have any tension or anything. I went to see Levon before he died because of the brotherhood. And because he was the closest one to me in the brotherhood. When I found out he was sick, I thought he was recovering and he was going to be fine. And it was so shocking to me when they told me he was in the hospital and he wasn’t going to make it. Oh my God, I just couldn’t imagine this world without him. That’s what drew me up there. Whatever Levon’s personal issues were, that was his thing. I just wasn’t a part of it. So I wasn’t trying to rectify or fix anything. I had nothing to fix.

What was your takeaway from the infamously disastrous “Dylan goes electric tour”?
 
I learned that it’s okay to break the rules. That you don’t have to follow somebody else’s idea of what’s okay and what’s not. I learned that you can do something that really inspires others. And if you have to break some windows along the way, that’s okay. And if you’ve got something that needs to be shared and it offers a gift in that you get to represent your true self, that’s a double reward.

I’ve always wondered how your musical truth went from Toronto rockabilly to Appalachian folk.

It was just what I gathered along the way. I liked the idea of discovering musical corners that weren’t necessarily upfront; that you had to dig deeper to find some beautiful music was a challenge that I loved. And whether that took me to a place of sacred harp singing or it took me to a certain type of gospel music, or high Anglican choirs…wherever that led, it was always an interesting discovery through the story of jazz and all kinds of American music. It’s just this longing for the unknown. Longing to make discoveries. To this day I’m fascinated with those discoveries.

You blame substance abuse for the dissolution of the Band. Your ex-wife was almost killed in a drunk driving accident while you were up in Woodstock and ultimately became a substance abuse counsellor. Do you look back on that period with any regret for not being more proactive in trying to save them?

Some people have that chip that takes them over the edge and some people don’t have it. Back then we didn’t understand the difference. We didn’t understand alcoholism. We just thought, “Why are you drinking so much?” And it’s because we couldn’t see it; we didn’t understand it. We were naive and we didn’t know how to handle it.

After the Band fell apart, you refocused your career on cinematic scoring. You built a fast friendship with Scorsese while cutting The Last Waltz and you guys moved in together. Can you talk about that transition?

We found a connection. His really deep connection with music and my really deep connection with film, we were able to scramble that together. In doing that, we discovered we could contribute to both of our work. And because we were having a great time hanging out and we’re both workaholics, it ended up being a beautiful thing. And we’re still living it. And whenever these new challenges come up like The Irishman, it’s so rewarding. I feel lucky to have this friendship. It’s almost like I went from the brotherhood of the Band to a brotherhood with Marty.

It must be a trip to consider your seminal album turned 50 this year…

I haven’t stopped to take stock yet. I see these things along the way that remind me of this journey, but I have a lot of stuff that I want to do; things that are pulling me forward. I don’t get a lot of time to think about yesterday. Until it comes up and somebody shows me something and says, “Remember this?”