The Band’s Robbie Robertson Sounds Off on ‘Stage Fright,’ Native American Poseurs, and Saving Bob Dylan
Robbie Robertson opens up about The Band, the end of the Trump era, Michelle Latimer and Elizabeth Warren claiming to be Native, plus saving Keith Moon and Bob Dylan from drowning.
“In 1970, the Band were really at the peak of their fame,” Sandra Tooze, author of a new biography of the group’s irascible drummer, says of the period when the Band were making their third album Stage Fright. “They’d just been on the cover of TIME magazine, but they really didn’t like fame. Levon [Helm], especially, wanted to be appreciated when he was onstage, but when he was offstage, he just wanted to live like a regular guy. And there were all these people around plying them with drugs, and heroin was quite rampant in the arts community around that time. That really affected them.”
The Band, of course, had come together as the Hawks, the backing band for rockabilly maverick Ronnie Hawkins, before striking out on their own and eventually joining forces with Bob Dylan as his backing band (after Dylan had gone electric) for a world tour—and nightly heckling—that tested their mettle as not only performers, but as the swaggering young rock-stars-in-waiting they were.
In the aftermath of the tour, the Band followed Dylan to Woodstock, and began woodshedding the songs that would eventually be known as “the Basement Tapes,” while finding their own, unique sound in the process.
As chronicled in the recent documentary Once Were Brothers, The Band’s debut, Music From Big Pink, set the music world on its ear, and their self-titled follow-up, often name-checked as the place where “Americana” was born, only upped the ante. Then came the always-difficult third album.
“They had become this huge group and yet there was no real front man, like Mick Jagger—a totally shameless, exhibitionistic front man who loves the spotlight—and I think Stage Fright, in many ways, is a subtle, almost subconscious addressing of that dilemma,” says Band biographer Barney Hoskyns of Stage Fright, which has just been released in an exquisite new box set, with the original songs remixed and in the original intended running order, and rounded out by rehearsal footage and live recordings.
“Still, this record contains three of my absolute favorite Band songs—‘Sleeping,’ ‘All La Glory’ and ‘The Rumor’—and they’re not the obvious ones,” shares Hosykyns. “That’s leaving out ‘Stage Fright,’ ‘The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,’ ‘Time To Kill,’ ‘Daniel and the Sacred Harp,’ and ‘The Shape I’m In,’ which most fans rank in their Top 20 songs by the Band. So, it’s a remarkable album, it just followed two of the most special albums ever recorded in rock and roll.”
Below, the Band’s guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson recalls the fraught making of Stage Fright, the fraying brotherhood of the Band, and much more.
I came to this record via my brother’s record collection, but he told me, “This isn’t their great one. These are the two great ones.” But later on, there was a reassessment. Musicians realized the songs were great. The original mix—the Glyn Johns and Todd Rundgren mix, in whatever combination it was—was the first time the group wasn’t hands-on, because you were on tour. But the new mix sounds like a band on a stage, playing together, the way you’d intended. It must feel good and it must bring back a lot of memories.
Yeah. It completed something, because we were doing that Festival Express tour, and so Todd went to England, and he was mixing in one studio while Glyn was mixing in the other. Back then you couldn’t just send mixes, so between some of the dates on the tour, I flew in and sat with Todd and he would play me the mixes, and I thought, “God.” It was the first time I hadn’t been there night and day for every mix. But the record company had the release date all set, and everything was in motion, so it never reached its completion as far as I was concerned. Over the years, the album felt to me like an uncooked dinner. So, this is really the fulfillment of what the record and the listening experience was supposed to be. I really understand people embracing the original mixes, 100 percent. But I also enjoy the idea of getting closer to the music and getting in the room with the guys playing the songs. And so, of everything that I’ve done in these anniversary releases, this has been the most fulfilling so far.
But there was a darkness around the making of it too, and there was a lot of uncertainty. The dynamic was strained. Todd was new to you guys, and you were at the Playhouse, not Big Pink or Shangri-La, and not in front of an audience, as you’d intended. And it was a different atmosphere, with hard drugs having entered the picture. Levon said, as you just have, that he felt Stage Fright was made too fast, and that this was the first one that got away from you guys, as you say, because you were on tour and didn’t see it to its conclusion in the way you had the previous two.
Oh, yeah. In The Band, while we were together, there was a great sense of how the machine worked. And it absolutely worked. When we were no longer together, years after not being together and still, as Levon says in the Once Were Brothers documentary, once it was gone, it was too difficult to bring it all back together again. And with that came distance, and people going through their own issues and everything. That leads to something that has nothing to do with the harmony and the connection and the musical brotherhood that we had for all those years being together.
The new track list really elevates the album. Was this the original order? Was it internal Band politics that drove the version that was released in 1970?
At that time, I was trying to encourage other guys to be involved in the songwriting. When I made up the original song order, the guys felt their songwriting wasn’t being taken into account, because their songs were all later in the running order. And I thought, “Jeez, that wasn’t the idea at all.” So, I changed it. Later on, I realized, that was a foolish thing to do. I couldn’t get it through my thick skull for a long time that some people write and some people don’t. But I still had the original running order written down and I realized, “This tells the story of Stage Fright. This running order wasn’t just a whim.” It was upsetting to me that I’d never shared it with the public and let them know really what the experience was supposed to be. So, I’m glad this package has turned out to be a revelation, as you say.
Let’s talk a little bit about the dynamic within the Band around the making of this record. After this record, you became really the only songwriter. But this was still at the point where the other guys were at least trying to contribute some songs. You said earlier that some guys just don’t write. But you were trying to get Richard to write, and “Sleeping” is an epic song. You also talk in the documentary, and in your book, about how the lifestyle and the drug use—and just the drama of being in a big band at that time—weighed on you guys. Was this still at the point where it was fun, or were the drugs and alcohol starting to take a toll? Because there’s less characters here, and the lyrics here are more reflective, with a pathos to them, that the first two records didn’t have.
Well, with our first two albums, I really enjoyed playing the part of the storyteller. But on Stage Fright, that was the first time that I couldn’t shake off what was actually going on. It became much more personal. And the idea of the brotherhood was starting to be damaged, because of the experimenting. There had been an innocence to it in the beginning.
It was fun until it wasn’t.
Yeah. It was a self-discovery process, too. But then, when hard drugs stepped in, it got really dark. For me, getting the guys together was more difficult than it had been in the past. I didn’t like that. And also, subconsciously, I was writing songs like “The Shape I’m In.” And with “Sleeping,” Richard was trying to write a song, and I wanted him to do it so badly that I would end up writing the song with him to get it done. And Levon would try to write, and I would finish the song for him just to get it done. So, there was that dynamic going on. Also, on the first two albums there were a lot of harmonies. But on this album, there are hardly any. That’s reflective of what was actually going on. There wasn’t great harmony.
And yet, once you locked in, it was still The Band. Ringo has told me a very similar story—which he’s told often—that around ’68, ’69, Paul (McCartney) had a similar role. He was writing a lot and so he was the one pushing the guys to get together. “Hey man, we’ve got a record to make.” John, at the time, was focused on his new relationship with Yoko, plus was doing heroin. George just didn’t want to be in the Beatles anymore, nor did Ringo, in many ways. But Ringo said that once they got into the studio and he counted four and they started to play, all that went away. There’s a buoyancy to these songs, especially in these new mixes, that I had not heard before.
Ringo has told me that story, too. Paul and George, as well. One time, during a crazy period with John, he told the same thing. But it’s not unique to any group. There were a lot of groups dealing with the same kinds of things, and it was getting in the way. So, I completely agree with it, because once we were locked in, that “thing” happened. Within our particular group, there was a magic that happened when we sat down in a circle, especially when we had a song that everybody was really into. Boom! A light came on. It was when we weren’t playing when it was difficult.
The proof is the Royal Albert Hall show included in the new box. It’s astonishing!
I know! That was a high point in all the concerts we ever played. You can tell by listening to it. I love that recording. It’s the Band really at the top of their game. Hearing it after all these years turned out to be completely enlightening for me, so I’m so glad that we’re getting to share it.
You had such a fascination with the American heartland, even though you guys were Canadian—except for Levon, of course. The Band always felt like a sepia-tone version of the past, but do you feel disconnected to that maybe idealistic view you had then of the American heartland? And has that idealistic vision of America changed for you—especially given the last four years?
I think that having gone through the ’60s, and the assassinations of these great human beings, I don’t know. You couldn’t help but think, “That was fucked. How horrible. What is up with people? Why this horrible ugliness, this hatred?” But the other day, somebody was playing Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John” on the radio, and I thought, those assassinations are reflective of an early time in America, anyway. And in my songwriting, that always was there and came through. Everything that we’re seeing today, you open your eyes and come out of your life for a moment, and it breaks your heart. There’s a dark cloud over the country and there’s a dark cloud over our own selves. But back then, I remember thinking, “Goddammit, I can’t help but feel this and write about this.” And what’s happening on this record, unlike the first two albums, is that we had come through that storm. So, it’s once again timely, I think, as a response to what we’ve just gone through, strangely enough.
As a Native American, where do you fall on the controversy over the director Michelle Latimer—and Elizabeth Warren, too—getting heat for claiming indigenous ancestry they shouldn’t? We’ve talked about how you hold that heritage really, really closely. Do you get offended?
My relatives joke about this. They say, “God, at one time, the worst thing in the world was to be an American Indian. Now everybody’s a fucking Indian.” But it affects me through my mom, who was born and raised on the Six Nations Indian Reserve, which is something so sad and so beautiful at the same time. Because I remember, in my teen years, when other kids were talking about how their parents came from Italy, or how their grandparents were German or French or Jewish, and asked me, “So where are your folks from?” And when I said, “Well, my mom is Mohawk Indian, and my dad got killed, but was Jewish,” they were like, “What?! What the fuck is that?” So, I thought, “Maybe I’d better keep this shit to myself.” And even when I joined up with Ronnie Hawkins, which I write about a little bit in Testimony, the guys teased me about it. Not in a mean way, but I was a joke in the way they were referring to it. But then, years later, I realized, “No, this is who I am.” And I remember feeling good about it and I decided to make it part of the equation of my writing and in my work and what I do. And now I'm about to work on this movie, Killers of the Flower Moon with Martin Scorsese, and I’m going to meet with the Osage people, because I want to do it like something we’ve never heard before and in the most honest fashion ever presented in a movie, which is a big full circle for me. And that challenge—that experience—is completely frightening and exciting for me, as much as anything I’ve ever gone into.
I’ve got to ask before we wrap up, because we’ve talked many times, but I’ve never asked you about how you supposedly saved both Keith Moon and Bob Dylan from drowning. Do I even have that correct?
Well, yeah. [Laughs] With Keith Moon, Rick Danko and I were out at Broadbeach, and the tide was coming in, and he was passed out on the shore there, and the water was starting to splash up on him. I was visiting Rick and he said, “Oh, God, help me out here.” He knew him, but I didn’t really know Keith, and we dragged him up onto the sand, and then some of his friends came and got him. And with Bob, after we finished our tour in London, in 1966, that night, the Beatles were in the living room of Bob’s hotel room, but Bob was just spent. He had given it his all and he had passed out. Albert Grossman said, “Put him in the bathtub and maybe it’ll freshen him up. I’ll go tell the guys to hang on for a few minutes.” So, we put him in the bathtub. And when I went back in, he had slipped down into the tub—they have big tubs in London—and there was bubbles coming up! I grabbed him by the hair and pulled him up and kind of slapped his cheek and said, “Hey, man. The guys are out in the other room here. Are you going to be able to say hello?” But he was just so exhausted that I had to finally go tell the guys that he had passed out and they were going to have to let him rest. So, I don't know if I saved anybody’s life, but you know, but I would’ve.