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Still Waltzing: Robbie Robertson on Martin Scorsese, the Band, and 60 Years in Music

The Canadian musician best known as the lead guitarist in the Band has also forged a strong working relationship with the legendary filmmaker over the past five decades, and they’ve paired up again with Netflix’s ‘The Irishman’

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Robbie Robertson has been busy. His sixth solo album, Sinematic, was released in September, and he was featured in the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival the same month. The Toronto native oversaw the November release of a 50th-anniversary edition of the Band’s self-titled second album, and he’s working on a sequel to his 2016 memoir, Testimony. He also composed the score for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which debuts on Netflix on Wednesday.

Robertson is famous for his role as the guitarist, occasional vocalist, and primary songwriter for the Band, the group he cofounded with Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel in 1968 after serving with them for years as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan. Robertson wrote many of the group’s classic songs, including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” and he and his bandmates frequently recorded and toured with Dylan in the ’60s and ’70s.

The five original members of the Band performed together for the last time at a 1976 Thanksgiving concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robertson invited Scorsese to chronicle the concert, and the resulting documentary, The Last Waltz, marked the beginning of a 40-plus-year professional and personal relationship between the musician and director, who worked and caroused together during and after the making of that movie and have teamed up for 10 subsequent Scorsese films. Scorsese also executive-produced Once Were Brothers.

Robertson, 76, and Scorsese, 77, are less than a year apart in age, and in their recent releases, they reflect on their lives and legacies. Earlier this month, The Ringer spoke to Robertson about his long association with Scorsese, the music he made for The Irishman, his memories of being in the Band, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and that still-stylish scarf he wore in The Last Waltz. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Silvia Grav

The Irishman is the story of a man who’s looking back on his life and surveying where he went wrong. You’ve been looking back at your own life a lot lately. Did that make this movie more personal for you? How did revisiting those memories affect your work for the film?

It all connects in one way or another. I knew that about this story from reading the script, and then when I started working on the film, I realized how much of a strong connection there was. I was making an album at the same time, so all of a sudden the movie becomes part of the album. The documentary, Once Were Brothers, becomes part of the album, the album becomes part of the movie and the documentary, and I’m putting together the 50th anniversary of The Band album and I’m looking back on that. So I’d never had an experience quite like this before, where all these elements were feeding off of one another like this and really contributing to the others.

And I have to say that was a rewarding feeling. Because sometimes when you’re working on different projects, you really try to put them in different rooms, and when you’re going to address one thing, you go into that room, and you’re either trying really hard to not let these things bleed into one another or you’re not allowed to, or there’s something that tells us from somewhere in our background that you’ve got to keep them separated. So this time I just opened up my arms and I brought it all in.

From afar it seems as if you’ve always been kind of conscious of time and memory and legacy. With the Band you tried to make music that would sound timeless. The Last Waltz was an effort to capture something that you sensed was significant at the time, so it was sort of a cross between a celebration and an elegy. So it doesn’t seem as if you’re someone who just lives in the moment—you’re always looking backward and forward and searching for something.

It is a discovery process. You feel like you’re moving forward, but you use what you’ve got, you use what you know, you use what you’ve gathered, and all of this plays into it. I don’t think about what I’ve already discovered that much, because I’m on a mission and I’m trying to uncover things and I’m trying to go where I’ve never been before and I’m trying to learn. You use the tools that you have on that mission, but you’ve already got it. So for me, I don’t think about it that much. I just know that it’s stored somewhere.

I’ve read that Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk tries not to watch the replay of his famous home run in Game 6 of the ’75 World Series, because he wants to preserve his own memory of how that moment felt rather than what it looked like on the screen. He’ll leave the room if the replay comes on. Do you have that sort of relationship with The Last Waltz?

No, I don’t. It’s just part of the story and part of the journey. And it was a beautiful part of the journey, I have to admit. In a couple of days, I’m going to Nashville and I’m going to sit in with these people that are doing this tour, this tribute to The Last Waltz, amazingly. A group of talented, extraordinary people they got to join in this. Out of respect and an appreciation for them paying tribute to the legacy, I’m going to go down and sit in. I don’t have any, I don’t know, superstitions. I don’t have any issues with anything. I don’t sit around watching The Last Waltz, but sometimes if it’s showing, I’ll watch a minute or two of it and kind of smile to myself and think, “That was a good night.”

When I watch it, one thing that stands out is that you seem to have appreciated what was happening. It doesn’t look like one of those things where you think later, “If only I’d realized what this was.” It looks like you were having the time of your life.

I had to be really on my game, because we were playing 21 songs with guest artists that ranged from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters and from Neil Young to Neil Diamond. I was the one giving the signals to the other guys in the band. Like, “OK, the bridge is coming up,” or, “There’s a break,” or, “This is when this comes or that comes,” and it was really a responsibility of mine to try to be very informed about all of that. And they depended on me for that kind of thing. And we managed to get through and it went on that night five hours or more, and we aced it. There were no screw-ups. It was extraordinary.

And anything we did for the movie or for the record release on that was to fix a technical problem. I mean, there was a ground hum on one of Garth’s keyboard things. He fixed that, and on some stuff in the horns, it was too much leakage of everything. Just trying to keep the quality and to make these things not a distraction and interfering with the quality of the sound, especially for something in a movie theater with all these speakers and everything. But nobody screwed up. It was a remarkable feat. And so I’m having a good time, but I’m also really concentrating on what was happening, and that was part of the joy too. Just to be so plugged into the creative process and wanting so much to deliver for all of these great artists and our friends.

In addition to being a movie about looking back on life, The Irishman is also about a character who is initially out of place. He’s the Irishman in a world of Italians and a driver in a world of mob bosses. I wondered whether that struck a chord with you too, so to speak, since your upbringing was a blend of different cultures, and then you were the kid from Toronto taking the train to Arkansas to join the Hawks. Was your ability to sort of stand astride these different traditions and experience them as an outsider something that helped you capture characters in your songs, or even to synthesize several strains of music into something that came to be called Americana?

There could be some subconscious connection in that. You just reminded me of when I first went from Canada down to try out to play with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and I was going to the Mississippi Delta, and I thought, “Whoa, this is the fountainhead of blues and rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues. This is where this music was born.” And I had such a feeling about that. But when I got down there, looking at the situation—I was 16 years old and I was trying to take it all in as quickly as I could and try to be a part of it overnight. And I woke up one day and I realized I’m not old enough to play in the places that they play. I’m not experienced enough on the guitar to take over lead guitar in this group. And I’m from Canada. There’s no Canadians in Southern rock ’n’ roll bands. That might be illegal.

I felt like such an alien, but I felt like, “I’ve got to make this work.” I’ve got to cross over into this world. I just worked harder than anybody could ever imagine, and I ended up getting hired at 16 years old playing in a Southern rock ’n’ roll band. And before that, growing up—and like you were talking about heritage and being half–First Nations and half-Jewish—it was like you couldn’t talk about it because nobody could kind of wrap their head around this. “What, you’re an Indian Jew, what the fuck is that?” So I was just like, “OK, I guess I’ve just got to deal with this stuff and make it work.” So I think you’re right to a certain extent. I’ve just been on a path. My life just trying to make that alienation work for me in some kind of way. And maybe it has, I’m not sure.

Your theme to The Irishman reminds me a little of Ennio Morricone’s “Childhood Memories” from Once Upon a Time in America, which I suppose is appropriate since that’s also an epic, decades-spanning film with De Niro and Pesci and gangsters and teamsters. I wonder whether that was an influence, or what you were trying to evoke when you were working on that theme.

I knew that that [Sergio] Leone and Morricone had used a harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, but I wasn’t really thinking about Once Upon a Time in America. I don’t think that had a harmonica in it, but it might’ve, I can’t remember right now. Anyway, I was trying to discover something that could play throughout this storytelling and not sound like it comes from any particular era, that it had this timeless quality to it. Which, like we were saying before, has been something that I’ve reached for.

Music that I appreciated was never trendy, was never what’s happening. It was always something that you had to dig deeper for. And I appreciated it more for that. And I also appreciated something that was not obvious. And that sound, and what I wrote for this movie for that and for “Remembrance,” that is used at the end of the movie—there’s even this French harmonica theme that’s used at the very end of the credits, and it has some of Van Morrison and me doing a call-and-answer thing. All of these elements were a bit against the grain for what this story is and the way it takes place. And if you can find something that isn’t on the nose, isn’t obvious, and there’s some kind of magic in it, then it’s like striking gold in music to me.

And so I did quite a bit of experimenting in the music for this. I went around the block a few times, and all of a sudden, with this, it was haunting and it was mysterious and it wasn’t obvious. And so I thought, “Aha.” And Marty thought, “Aha, OK.” The only thing traditional about it to me was it was thematic. I love old movies, great themes, The Third Man theme, or movies that had that thing that, when that sound came on, it just gave you a little chill and you knew where you were in the story. I like that. But it’s tricky nowadays, because that can be a little hokey or old-fashioned. Anyway, it was some trial and error, but I’m very happy with the way this works in a subtle manner.

You and Marty met at a premiere of Mean Streets, right? Not at Woodstock?

No, we didn’t meet at Woodstock, but I didn’t meet him at a premiere of Mean Streets. I met him at a screening of it, because my road manager, Jonathan Taplin, when he left working for the Band, he went and produced Mean Streets and he said, “Oh my God, I think this director’s really talented, and there’s a great actor in this movie. His name is De Niro.” Nobody had heard of these guys, ever. So they had a screening of it, and at the end of the screening, Marty came by to say hello to me. And that was the first time I met him.

What do you admire most about his work?

I just think that he is so learned in his craft. He’s so dedicated to his craft. He is somebody that takes everything that was ever done and pulls all of this for when he needs it. And at the same time, he’s just as unpredictable and just as inventive, and he is a rare species in the creative process of the movie world. And his instincts for music are phenomenal. So I don’t know if it gets much better than that.

And what do you think he appreciates about you?

We speak the same language in a lot of ways. From many years ago, he was sharing with me some film experiences I would have never dreamt to look at, I would have never known about. And he took me into a deeper place than that. And in music, I played him things that I didn’t think that he would ever know about. Fife and drum blues, for instance, and a lot of rare pieces of music that have ended up in the movies over the years.

And we’re still doing this tit-for-tat thing, back and forth. We’re still mixing it up, and every time the next movie comes up, we go on this mission of trying to find out, “What does this sucker sound like? What do we do in this?” And sometimes it’s finding an incredible counterpoint, something that should never work in a million years, and it’s absolutely magic. And then other pieces that take you right inside the character, right inside this period. It’s not easy, and what we do, it sounds easy on the outside, but it’s a real process every time. And I love it more and more every time we do it.

I think this is the 11th time that you’ve worked on a movie with him. I know you’ve played different roles from film to film, but in general, how does the collaboration begin, and at what point in the process do you get involved?

It’s never the same. There is no formula. On the next movie [Killers of the Flower Moon], I’m putting together some sounds and some music for Marty to listen to while they’re shooting, or for him to play back while they’re shooting something, so everybody feels a mood. I don’t know yet how useful it’s going to be, but I want to do that. And sometimes I come in late in the process, sometimes I get the book or the script and I start from that. It’s always up in the air.

This time, did you help select some of the preexisting tracks, or were you solely composing the score?

I did both.

Were there any particular song selections this time around that you had in mind or that you thought worked particularly well?

Well, there were a few things, but for some reason, there was something about these characters in The Irishman that I had to send Marty a copy of Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” Part 1 and Part 2. And he used them both in the movie. And there’s other stuff too that we sent back and forth, but you asked a particular one, and it fits. It could be because it fits really well with the score. But it’s a mood, and there’s something kind of haunting about it.

Do you have a favorite musical moment in Marty’s movies as a whole?

No, I don’t sit around picking favorites.

There are moments in The Irishman when De Niro’s character makes choices that dictate the direction of the rest of his life. Maybe if he hadn’t marched down to the grocery store and curb-stomped someone in front of his daughter, she wouldn’t be afraid to talk to him. And we all have moments like that, although they’re usually less violent. I felt almost the same way when I was watching Once Were Brothers, because there’s this idyllic interlude in Woodstock where the Band was working on the first couple of albums, far from the public eye and living what seemed like this mostly serene life. And I was thinking, well, what if they had somehow stayed inside this calm before the storm and the storm had never broken? But if you stay in that sanctuary, you don’t experience anything new, and even if you don’t self-destruct, you might start to stagnate. So maybe there was no way for that peaceful, productive period to happen without what came next.

It was just part of the job to go out in the world, and out in the world turned out to be a crazy-ass place. Drugs were rampant in that period of time. On the road, everybody wanted to turn you on, and everybody wanted to hang out with you. And their way to be accepted in that was a lot of times by saying, “Hey man, I got some blah, blah, blah,” whatever. And sometimes you’re out there and you’re bored or just looking to fuck around. And it can turn into something, but you don’t know that in the beginning. And for one person it affects them one way, and another person, they try something and have to have it all the time forever. Like it says in Once Were Brothers, we didn’t understand addiction. We didn’t understand alcoholism. Other people had those problems. We didn’t have those problems. And that’s the way most addicts feel.

Once Were Brothers portrays you and Garth as the members of the Band who were slightly removed from the hedonistic side of the experience and more focused on your family and work.

Well, I was no angel. It was just that I didn’t want to do anything that was getting in the way of the work, getting in the way of trying to be as good at what we were doing as we could be. So that was the only difference between me and Rick and Richard and Levon. But Garth and I, we weren’t no goody-goodies. And it was a period of time, it was an era where everybody was just—it started in the ’60s that people were wanting to find a new drug, a new thing, a new high, people experimenting with LSD and hashish and magic mushrooms and all of this kind of stuff. And then when these more dangerous drugs came along, opiates and all of that, you thought, “Oh my God, that gets in the way, that shit.” That was it. I was just trying to stay on my game.

You did let loose and run wild with Marty during and after the making of The Last Waltz. So what was it that drove you down that road at that time? Did you feel like you could take a break from staying on your game?

No, we were on the same wavelength. I hardly knew anybody that wasn’t doing what we were doing. We weren’t special bad boys. And I don’t like to even think about it that way. Keith Richards, that’s his thing. “Rock ’n’ roll, we were badass.” Please. We were just going through different tunnels, and some of those tunnels were darker than others. We came out the other side, and we’re lucky, because some people didn’t come out the other side. And so we tried to acknowledge that at a certain point and think, “Whoa, you don’t want to ride that close to the edge,” because it’s too dangerous.

With the Band, you wove your guitar work into the tapestry of the music, maybe more so than you had with the Hawks, and you were usually writing songs for someone else to sing. So was working on music for movies a natural transition after sort of subsuming yourself in those collective creations?

Well, if it was, probably a lot more people would’ve gone down that path besides me. And I’m not a traditional music movie person. That’s one of the reasons why I think Marty chooses to work with me. If you want to get someone to do a traditional score with big orchestras and stuff—I really respect guys that write fantastic movie music. That formula isn’t something that I’m naturally drawn to, and I don’t read or write music. When I’m working with people on the score, I’m talking to them in a whole other kind of language, and I’m translating what I want not on paper. I either play them on the guitar or on a keyboard what I’m talking about, or I hum it and they love it. It’s different. It isn’t just, OK, here we go again, just see these little dots on this paper, just do what it says there. It’s a different thing. It’s more expressionistic.

There’s a moment toward the end of the documentary where it cuts from “I Shall be Released” from The Last Waltz to you alone with a producer or engineer in a control room listening to “Once Were Brothers,” the song. And you tell him you want the harp in the song to sound more atmospheric, so he clicks a mouse to make it more atmospheric. There’s a contrast between that somewhat isolated and less lively scene and the joyous spectacle of that stage in 1976, or even the ensemble efforts in the basement at Big Pink. Do you enjoy the process of making music on your own as much as you did as part of a group?

I don’t make music completely on my own. I write it on my own. I originate it on my own, but then I need people to play on these songs and I put together a workshop of people. And it’s kind of what I did with the Band, which was like a workshop of people that did something really wonderful. And so I choose musicians to work with, that I think I’m going to be able to get close to what I’m imagining in it. And it’s the same thing with movies, same thing with the record.

“Once Were Brothers,” I wrote that song while they were making the documentary. I wrote it because they were making the documentary, because it was on my mind and it was stirring around. And then after I recorded it, I played it for the filmmakers, and they said, “Wow, this is the heart of what we’re making this movie to be. We want to use this in the movie. And we would even like to call it Once Were Brothers.” So that’s what I was talking about in the beginning, saying how all of these threads were connecting, and when they connect well, it really goes somewhere. It’s a mysterious process, all of it. And that’s what I’m addicted to.

When you were working on your first solo album, you said, “It’s easy to be a genius in your twenties. In your forties it’s difficult.” So what is it in your 70s?

I’m still trying to find out.

That word, genius, I think, makes it sound as if it’s something that came naturally. You were writing songs for Ronnie Hawkins at 15 years old, so it’s easy to say, “Well, he was a prodigy.” But you were also exposed to music at an early age and then you were on the road refining your craft for years. So how much is a gift, and how much is just hours of practice and repetition?

It’s a perfect combination. If you don’t have the gift, then you make it up in another kind of way. Just like Charlie Watts or Ringo Starr or Levon Helm. They’re amazing at what they do, but some people write and some people don’t. And that’s just the way God planned that. I was thankful that I had this chip that made me want to write, that made me want to originate ideas, that made me want to tell these stories and that made me want to work harder. And that’s just been a very strong part of my process since I’ve been 16 years old. And some people just say, “It’s just you’re born with it or you’re not.” I don’t know what these things are. All I know is, I just try to follow that path that I’m drawn to and hope that I do some good work.

It seems as if you’ve sought stardom and the spotlight at times in your career, but you’ve also sometimes stepped back from that, whether through avoiding lead vocals in the Band or playing a lead role in Carny but then rejecting many of the roles you were offered after that. Is that a tension in you, that you seek the spotlight but don’t want to stay there?

I’ve never thought of it as stardom. Everything that I’ve ever done in music, I’ve always thought of it as storytelling. And if I can contribute to the story and to the storytelling, it interests me. And that’s what it was in Carny, and in other things I thought, “I don’t think I can contribute to this story. That’s somebody else’s job.”

I was reading a Rolling Stone profile of you from the year after Richard Manuel died, and you were saying that it made you feel uncomfortable to talk about him and tell his story without him being there to speak for himself. But now that he and Rick and Levon are gone, and given Garth’s preference to stay out of the spotlight, you’re the only one who’s still here to talk about being in the Band. Do you feel a responsibility to try to present your bandmates’ viewpoints on certain subjects when you’re sharing your own perspectives on that time?

I can’t really speak for anybody else. I can talk about my feelings. And that’s what Once Were Brothers, the documentary and the song, are. Once again, I don’t mind telling the story, but I can’t tell you what Rick thinks or what Garth thinks. That’s their job, and Rick isn’t here to do that. You know what I mean? You want to stay in your own place, and I don’t feel comfortable talking on behalf of somebody else.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sloan, the Toronto-based band, but they’ve been touring and recording together for almost 30 years now without a lineup change, which is difficult to do. I asked them last year how they’ve stayed together so long, and they said that for them, the big thing was avoiding any bitterness about credit or profit by just attributing every song to the group instead of to individual songwriters, as U2 and R.E.M. and the Doors also did. Looking back, do you think that’s a model that might have benefited the Band?

That’s their business. If I got up really early in the morning and worked harder than anybody else to try to come up with a tune for us to record, I’m not going to be embarrassed to say that I wrote the song. It’s hard work. And I was writing songs unlike anybody else in the world. We were making music unlike anybody else in the world. And that has to come from somewhere. So I don’t know. I grew up where I was such an admirer of songwriters and ended up playing with Bob Dylan, and Charlie Watts doesn’t write songs and Ringo Starr doesn’t write songs and some other people do. That’s just the reality and the honesty of it.

Lastly, there are a lot of fashion choices in The Last Waltz that haven’t held up that well to the 2019 eye, but the maroon scarf you were wearing in that movie has stood the test of time. I’ve always wondered where you got it.

Jeez. I don’t know if I remember exactly. When we went to San Francisco to start setting up for the movie and figuring out what we were going to play at the concert and all of that, I remember going to a vintage store and I got that jacket, and I think I just went to another store somewhere and I saw that scarf and I thought, “Oh, that might work.” There wasn’t a lot of thought behind it. It was spontaneous, and I was lucky that it didn’t turn out to be something that after years you would be embarrassed about.