Robbie Robertson Tells All: Dylan, the Band, Shattered Friendship With Levon Helm

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Robbie-Robertson_L1030405-1.jpg Robbie-Robertson_L1030405-1 - Credit: Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone
Robbie-Robertson_L1030405-1.jpg Robbie-Robertson_L1030405-1 - Credit: Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

In June of 2020, with a pandemic raging, Robbie Robertson took some time to look back at his career with the Band, from writing their greatest hits to their work with Bob Dylan. The release of his documentary Once Were Brothers had him a reflective mood, ready to share new details about the music he made with Band-mates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm. In the wake of Robertson’s death at age 80 this week, here’s a full text version of that interview, published here for the first time. You can also hear a new edit of the interview on the latest episode of our podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now. (To hear the whole podcast, go here to the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play below.)

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You can look at the story of the Band as a triumph. You made incredible albums that will live forever. It could also be seen as a tragedy in some ways, because you were never able to come together again after The Last Waltz. And then there’s all the resentment and some tragic deaths and later years for some of the guys. So which way do you see it?
It’s so sad that in this brotherhood, three of the guys are no longer with us. But after The Last Waltz, everybody had a certain intention. We had things we wanted to discover on our own. We were like, “OK, let’s all do our thing, and then we’re gonna come back together. We’re gonna get in a huddle and we’re gonna make music as good as we ever have.” And that felt great, and it kept us together in our soul in that way.

And as time passed,  at one point it just felt like everybody forgot to come back. Everybody went on to do other things. And then, there was probably no way of actually finding our way back. The after-story that Rick, Richard, Garth, and myself had — there was no resentment ever. We had the greatest brotherhood, and we were thrilled about that. And when they decided some years later that they wanted to go and play some gigs together, it’s in their blood. I completely understood that.

And they called me and they said, “Do you wanna join us in this?” And I said, “No. What I am interested in is the creative process, and if we were gonna make some new music, I’m first in line for wanting to do that. But I don’t want to go back out on the road.” Then they said, “Is it OK that we use the name ‘the Band’?” I said, “Of course it is. I don’t wanna get in the way of somebody doing their thing and making a living or whatever.” So they did, and that’s my side of the story.

In the book Testimony that this documentary was very much inspired by, that’s really my vision and my way of remembering this and looking at it. From my end of it, there is absolutely no resentment, no nothing, except an appreciation of the amazing time that we had together.

Now, all these complaints that Levon made in his book and in interviews are mostly based around his feeling that he should have gotten more songwriting credits for the arrangements of songs. Sometimes he would actually say he wrote the songs and sometimes not, in different cases. But overall, it sounds like he felt that he deserved songwriting credits for arrangements. Was that ever brought up in the moment versus years later?
Never. It was never, ever talked about. Everybody knew how hard I worked on this, and it was way above and beyond the call of duty or what anybody else was doing, but I felt that was my job. That was what I was really able to bring to this thing. And that’s the way it is. Some people write songs and some people don’t. Like, Ringo Starr didn’t write [many] songs. Charlie Watts didn’t write songs, and I can guarantee you that those guys never shared publishing with those guys, which I did.

So, I was very conscious of being generous and inclusive, and I gave Levon writing credits on things where he was just there when I was writing it. Because I cared so much about the brotherhood. I cared so much about everybody’s involvement, and I was really trying to encourage him or the other guys to write as much as possible. But in the very beginning, I was the only one that wrote songs, and in the end, I was the only one that wrote songs. I can’t fix that. I can’t change that.

And I understood that Levon was having a tough time later on, and that’s why I never said a thing. He was having a struggle, and he always was really good at finding someone else to blame for what was happening. He had gone down the whole list of everybody, and I was the only one left. And so, I wasn’t surprised no matter what he said or what he might’ve thought from his point of view, but he saw it from one angle. And I wrote the book and I saw it from my angle.

He says he worked with you on “The Night They Drove Dixie Down,” whereas in your book you say that he drove you to the library and that was basically it.
Yes, he did. And he told me not to mention Abraham Lincoln in the song. That was it.

Levon’s voice obviously fits that song so spectacularly, as is the case for other songs sung by the various other members. To what extent were you were writing for a particular bandmate? Or almost casting the song?
That’s how I saw it, almost in a sense of a theatrical group where you do different stories, you do different movies. It’s like John Ford and Ingmar Bergman used the same people in a lot of their movies. In this one, this guy played the doctor, and that one, this guy played the priest. That’s what I did. I wrote these songs specifically for those guys to sing. Levon was my closest brother, and so I was trying so hard. I knew his instrument. I knew his abilities and I was trying to write songs that were perfect for him to sing. And a couple of times I might’ve nailed that.

The sort of Biblical, magisterial, non-contemporary language that you used in many of these songs, the idiom that you were writing in, where did that come from?
I just like great storytelling. I think a lot of the biblical stories are pretty terrific. And sometimes you just go in a certain direction and it gives it a stronger feeling. Whenever I would write a song that kind of pulled from that place, that biblical place, like “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,”  it just felt good. And I think that the Bible is some of the best stories ever told. Really quite a bestseller. I couldn’t help at some times but reach in there and pull from that inspiration.

You’d be with Bob Dylan at Big Pink, and you’d see him typing lyrics on the typewriter. A lot of people in that position would say, “Bob Dylan’s right there. Who am I to write songs instead?” It seems to have pushed you quite the other way.
Yeah. it didn’t feel intimidating at all. It felt like we were at the clubhouse and everybody was doing their thing and hanging out and we’re having a great time. And in the meantime, the reason we got the clubhouse was for the Band to make our first album. So that’s the reason we were there. Bob just jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak, and it felt so good that he wanted to come and hang too. It was just right, at the right time, and everybody felt really good being there. It just became a ritual. Some people, every day you get up and chop wood, and some people write songs,

And yet you were never running your songs-in-progress by Bob. It sounds like he heard a lot of this stuff as a finished product. Why was that?
Because there was something inside of me that I felt very proud of. Bob and Albert Grossman, our manager, and other people too, I felt like, “They think they know us. They think they know what we do. They don’t know us.” And the idea of being able to do something with somebody that you’re so close to, and at the same time you can really surprise them and even blow their mind a little bit? That’s a good feeling. Yeah.

Musicians who were around when the Band’s debut came out universally say what a revelation the restraint, the dignity, the song-focused approaches were, versus, say Cream. It was a radical shift that was incredibly influential. How conscious were you of the almost oppositional nature of what you were doing?
There might be something subconscious going on in something like this. You don’t wanna be a follower, you want to be at the front of this parade. So not once did any of the guys or me say, “Let’s do this because it’s different.” Never, ever. Really what happened was we found ourselves up in the mountains, in an atmosphere, in this clubhouse, and if you played in the basement too loud, it hurt your ears, and also you couldn’t hear the singer. So we adapted to where we were and what we were doing in that moment. And when we finished making Music From Big Pink, we had no idea what anybody was going to think about this. We knew what we thought about it, but we had no connection to the outside world in how it would be received. So all of that reaction was quite a surprise to us. What we did know, was that we had already been together for six or seven years before we made that record, and we had been out there and paid our dues and we had grown musically to a place that we didn’t have to be obvious. That we knew.

Was it essentially because you’d gotten all your hot licks out on stage for years on end, and thus didn’t have anything to prove in the way that rock bands were proving stuff in 1969 with extended solos and a more superficial flashiness?
It really was a maturing, a musical maturity that had set in. At that point, I had spent a lot of time doing everything on 11, as they say. [Laughs.] And that passion and that excitement, I appreciated. But I hadn’t yet learned about the subtleties, and I hadn’t learned about the soulfulness in the rhythm, the soulfulness in what the spaces could be too. And when you get to that place, that you have that kind of confidence or maturity or whatever it is that allows you something like that, it’s a really gratifying place. That’s what Eric Clapton was referring to: “Oh my God, you can do that. You can do this in such a delicate way, and it feels that powerful. Whoa.” It had nothing to do with anything other than the place that we had grown to.

The chordal licks that became a huge part of your sound, versus the stabby single-note leads, did that come in part from people like Steve Cropper or Pops Staples?
You mean going to a place where you don’t have to come out of the door screaming and playing everything above the 12th fret?  I think that those people you mentioned, I thought, “See, now there’s somebody who’s been around,” because of the way that Steve Cropper played on those Otis Redding records. Fantastic. Or Sam and Dave. Fantastic playing. And I loved the simplicity of the accompaniment that Pop Staples did. One of the major people to me that I thought really understood this was Curtis Mayfield. Yes, he was another one. What he did with a guitar, I thought, “Whoa, that guy ain’t got nothing to prove. It’s all right there.” So I was drawn to that. These other things had become very obvious to me and I had been there and done that.

You obviously famously retired from touring, but do you have any regrets about it?
I’ve never considered that. I made a movie called The Last Waltz declaring myself on that. I did it for many years. I did it under the most incredible circumstances. The Hawks and the Band, we played joints that you couldn’t imagine. We were completely lucky that we were alive, and we played the biggest concerts in the world. So I had seen everything that I needed to see from that, and I got to a place after doing this for more than 16 years. I felt like I was in a play. I felt like Yul Brynner in The King and I, having been doing this for 50 years. I’m saying the same songs, the same words every night, and I just go out and I do that. I was really hungry for a challenge that I didn’t know how to meet.

I wanted to learn. I wanted to keep on growing, and it’s because I went on the road at such an early age. I’ve always had this hunger for just absorbing more and growing creatively. So that’s why I worked with Martin Scorsese on all these movies and other people as well. . There are so many times, in what I’ve worked on since the Band, that I woke up in the morning and thought, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to do this. I gotta figure this shit out.” And that is a feeling that is challenging and it’s exciting to me, rather than doing something over and over again. And then when I would feel like making a record, I’d make a record. I could go off in tangents and say, “I’m gonna revisit my [Native American] heritage on this and work with some artists nobody’s ever heard of that I think are extraordinary, and we’re gonna delve into something.” I thought, whether right or wrong, I had earned this. I had paid my dues in so many other ways that I can do something that really makes me feel like I’m growing.

I remember I asked you before the big Rock & Roll Hall of Fame anniversary concert if you had any plans to jump on stage, and even that wasn’t in your head. You don’t seem to have any itch to perform, let alone tour.
I completely admire people that have a need to be in front of people and to perform. I get all of that, but I just needed to use a different muscle. I needed to use a different part of my brain, and I didn’t feel this hunger to get up in front of everybody and show off. I wanted to do different things. And I did it. And I know a lot of people, their life revolves around, “I’m gonna make some music and then I’m gonna go out and do a tour, then I’m gonna make some music and go out and do a tour.” And I did that a lot, and at some point, I don’t know, it grew old to me. It’s a wonderful way to make a living — going out and people cheering for you and paying you to go out there and do that. It’s extraordinary. And as I say, I have great respect for that, but I don’t know, I just have a different hunger.

There was an attempt at recording with the Hawks at the beginning of the process of the Blonde on Blonde album. Eventually Dylan went to Nashville and then just brought you out. But do you remember those initial sessions?
We never thought about it as it being the beginning of that record. Bob hadn’t written those songs at all. I think he wrote two songs. One was called “Please Crawl Out Your Window.” I forget the name of the other one. And we went in and recorded “Crawl Out Your Window” and I think we recorded another one too.

You did a bunch of takes of “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” according to studio records. And there also was an early, alternate version of “Visions of Johanna.”
Yeah, it could be. But what we came to understand was that we thought of it like, “Oh, this guy is used to playing by himself a lot.” And when you go into a studio with studio musicians, that’s what they do. You go in, and they try to figure out in 15 minutes what you are trying to do and try to figure out some little parts in that. That’s not who we are.  So when we went into the studio with Bob for the first time, we really understood that he just plays a song and people try to catch up with him in the studio. And we were like, “No, we’re a band. There’s five of us, and the five of us need to figure out what to do.” We’re not hired studio musicians. We think of ourselves as the opposite of that.

It wasn’t until we made Music From Big Pink and The Band and Stage Fright and these other records that we were really able to get across what our process was. And our process wasn’t a studio musician’s process or what Bob was looking for. When Bob first played me some of the records he had just made, it sounded like musicians desperately trying to figure out what the hell was going to happen in the song next. And that’s OK when you’re one person. With the guys in Nashville, Bob would play a song, and they would immediately decide who among them would play on the track. And then their job was, “Oh, I’ll play this little melody thing here or there.” And they could do that. They would just sort it out quickly because they’re studio musicians.

It didn’t really appeal to us. And Bob knew that. Because I would say to him, “We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do here. Just scrambling along without knowing where this starts or ends isn’t good, because everybody needs to decide on the language that we’re playing together. We’re not all just looking at you trying to figure out what you’re doing.” When we were playing live, we had figured out the arrangements of the songs and what we were going to do. So that was fine, but this was a different thing. So that’s when he said, “I’m going to go down to Nashville, and I’d like you to come with me.” I’d been to Nashville before, and they weren’t very welcoming at all. They were a cult — a cult of guys that were just so good at what they did. But this club didn’t want any other members.

In ’74, you guys obviously toured with Bob again, as captured on the Before the Flood live abum. I think people heard perhaps the influence of stimulants in the energy of the arrangements. Is that apocryphal, or was that part of what was going on as far the absolutely hypercharged energy of some of those songs on that tour?
When we played in 1966, Bob was going through a stage with amphetamines, of course, and it gave him a lot of go-power. We just thought, “Wow, some people do that, some people don’t.” We’d already seen that in the rockabilly world where everybody took bennies or dexy or something, and we’d already gone through that period. By the time the 1974 tour came up, Bob was in a completely different place, and he wasn’t using speed at all.

What we were doing, and probably what contributed to the energy and power of that music, was that we were revisiting a place where we had been booed around the world. We’d been booed to death. Now, we were coming back, and everyone was acting like, “This is great. It’s always been great.” But we remembered what that was like, and there was a certain vengeance in the way we were playing. I think it had something to do with playing music with power and confidence in your face. It was more about our energy and excitement that we were living through. It wasn’t tremendously different from what we did years before. There was an eight-year gap, and the passion in the music wasn’t tremendously different. But now, we could play as hard as we wanted, and nobody could dare say anything.

I imagine that when you first heard punk rock, must have thought, “We were doing that on stage in 1966.”
There was something of that. And a lot of punk rock, I thought, “boy, do we need this, this slap in the face.” It’s refreshing. We had been in a period where the music truly became the voice of the generation. It was a heavy responsibility, pivotal for the community and the unity of the youth across the nation and the globe. But after that? What then? Punk rock declared, “We don’t give a fuck about unity. [laughs] We don’t care about anything. We just wanna piss on your shoes.” I thought, “OK, that’s the next passion play.” I admired some of these guys. Elvis Costello was a terrific songwriter. The Clash? Fantastic. And the Ramones, with their simple musicality, took me back to my early days with Ronnie Hawkins, where there was a kind of innocence. But some of it just sounded like bad music to me, and I think that was the intention. I didn’t have much of a problem with punk. My only gripe was with Scorsese. He loved punk, and he played it so loud. It was the first time I ever asked someone, “Could you turn down the music a bit, please?”

“It Makes No Difference” is one of my favorite songs you’ve ever written, and I know it’s Eddie Vedder’s favorite song that you wrote. What do you recall about the actual writing of that song?
At that point, I wanted to write a song that Rick [Danko] could sing the hell out of, and I was trying to really find a powerful place for that voice of his to go. I was also wanting to write something that I wanted to play on. I wanted to write a song and do a particular kind of guitar playing, and do a thing with Garth on sax. I had this whole vision in my mind. It was again my thing of being in this group, in this club, and my job was to write material for these actors to play.

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