Robbie Robertson On His New Book and Finding New Greatness in the Band
It’s not just that the Band’s classic 1972 live recording ‘Rock of Ages’ only scratched the surface of what the group did over four concerts during the final week of the previous year at New York City’s Academy of Music. Turns out, guitarist/co-producer Robbie Robertson never liked how the original sounded.
That dissatisfaction has led him to an new reissue focusing on these dates, with the forthcoming ‘Live at the Academy of Music 1971′ expanded to brawny four discs and a DVD. Included, as before, are the quickly drawn, but remarkably muscular horn arrangements of Allen Toussaint, but also the surprise guest appearance from Bob Dylan. He stopped by during the encore of the Band’s New Year’s Eve set, which is presented in two different mixes — one by Robertson and Bob Clearmountain and the other by Robertson’s son, Sebastian, taken directly from the soundboard.
Just a few weeks after ‘Live at the Academy of Music 1971′ arrives, another passion project of Robertson’s follows — a children’s book devoted to key musical figures called ‘Legends, Icons and Rebels: Music That Changed The World.’ Robertson again worked with Sebastian, along with Jim Guerinot and and Jared Levine.
Robertson talked to Ultimate Classic Rock about those inventive 1971 shows from the Band, the gutty individual performances that still give them such power, as well as his hopes for gifting the next generation with a sense of musical history through the long-term project that is his new book.
It’s been more than 40 years. What brought you back to these Academy of Music shows?
I never got it like what I thought it should be. I did the best I could at that time, and under the circumstances. But I’ve been living with this, Nick, all of these years – and there were things in the mix, the overall mix, that I was never happy with. I got myself into a predicament, and I had to just ride it out. See, when the record came out – the ‘Rock of Ages’ record, years ago – the reaction to it was wonderful. In the package now, there’s that great review that Ralph Gleason did [for ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, in October 1972]. He was one of the best; he was so knowledgeable in music. It was always such a pleasure to read his stuff, or to talk to him about music. So, I couldn’t complain about it then! (Laughs.) I can complain about it now.
In that original review, Gleason said he heard several tracks which – because of their unique arrangements – superseded the Band’s studio renditions. As you went back through the tapes, did any of them strike you the same way?
I don’t know about that. It’s its own thing. I know I’ve got certain songs that I know of from years ago that artists did that I thought were better than the record. But it was so different from the record. They did something that I liked better. Sometimes, though, it’s very difficult to go up against the originals. I find it’s like that, in most things. It’s hard to beat the originals. But you could say this is a different experience. It just feels so good, and it’s great that there is room to go beyond the originals. You know what I mean? A lot of times, you do something and it is what it is. Like, the Beatles doing ‘A Day in the Life’ live, it was never going to be as good as the record. It’s a whole studio thing. They were so fantastic at using the studio as a musical instrument. I know what he’s saying, but there are cases where I just don’t know if you could ever outdo them.
These Academy of Music dates certainly gave you a chance to re-design the Band’s music through the prism of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans-inflected horn charts. Are you disappointed that artists are less inclined today to take chances like that in the live setting?
It’s seems like today, now that you’re bringing it to my attention, is a different ball of wax. They don’t try to do this. I’m trying to think of an instance when someone did something live comparable to this. It doesn’t seem like that’s what they do now.
Anymore, the focus is on replicating the albums note for note.
Well, sometimes they try to make a more exciting live version of things, but in the pop world there are so many things that are based on pre-recordings — because they can make it so powerful by doing that. So, you don’t know what’s what, you know? This new set just seems like something of the time that is unique to today’s protocol.
I’m struck all over again by things like Snooky Young’s lonely call on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’ which adds a new depth to the lyric. And that rumbling brass on ‘Caledonia Mission’ gives it a new sense of propulsion.
It really was very experimental. Allen Toussaint would be the first one to say that most of these, we got right. There’s a human element to it, which is so moving – even when there is not a perfect arrangement, because he needed more time. He might have been able to do more with it. That charm really stands out in coming back to this music. Being able to mix this music where the vocals are really doing their job, they’re really there – and we’re not missing any of the music. All of that, it takes you inside the music, inside the sound of the music. Now, all of those things that I thought were good before, now I’m hearing greatness in them. You’re talking about Snooky Young’s thing and all of these subtle beautiful elements, and the things that Garth is doing that blends with the horn section, and complements it — there’s just a beautiful musicology that’s going on in support of these songs. That’s why somebody like Ralph Gleason would say, “Oh my God, this is risen to a whole different level.”
It couldn’t have been easy for Garth Hudson to take up his sax, considering that celebrated horn section featured members of the Count Basie, Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus bands. Yet on tracks like ‘W.S. Walcott,’ he not only held his own — he took one of his most stirring turns. He really was your secret weapon, wasn’t he?
Absolutely. And when Garth played, when we were doing this, he didn’t blink an eye. When he played, those guys were, like, “Whoa! (Laughs.) That’s the s—!” They completely got it, because of Garth’s tone and his phrasing. First of all, they’d never heard a keyboard player, ever, play anything like what Garth was doing. That was completely mysterious. And then, when he’d pick up the horn and play, and they were backing him up, it was a beautiful sight to see.
At the same time, it must have been emotional for you hearing your departed friends again, performing at the peak of their powers.
Very much so. (Pauses.) It was exhilarating, and heartbreaking, at the same time.
The third- and fourth-disc presentations of the New Year’s Eve show via a soundboard mix make for an intriguing listen. There are glimpses there into those times you mentioned when everything didn’t go perfectly. After so much myth-making surrounding the Band, that has the effect of humanizing everyone.
I completely agree with that. The mix that Sebastian did, my son, and the mix that Bob Clearmountain and I did are very different. One is absolutely as valid as the other. The one that Sebastian did, it has no frills. It’s not trying to make the thing sound as glamorous as it can be. It’s really kind of, “Well, here’s what it is. No tricks, no nothing. This is just the way it sounded that night.” That’s a beautiful thing, to be able to go back and forth between these two things. If you really care about sonics, and you really care about music, an experiment like this is a terrific idea. I was just delighted when the record company agreed — and so we did the whole Friday night concert, just the way it was played. You can hear all of the ranting between songs from the audience. One thing is just trying to make it beautiful, while the other says, “I fear no blemish.” (Laughs.)
It has the raw energy of one of those old bootlegs from the 1970s.
That’s what Sebastian said when he was doing it! He said, “I love this idea of this being, like, a fantastic bootleg.”
Let’s talk about the new book. When it came to your work on the ‘Legends, Icons and Rebels,’ did you go back to your own days as a parent with young children in fashioning the stories? Were these anecdotes you once told Sebastian?
My three kids, they grew up in a house where everybody in this book was on the playlist. So, my kids now have such an extraordinary vocabulary of music. They recognize greatness in today’s music, who’s really doing something amazing. They completely know the difference. All three of them work in music, too. It not only inspired them when they were young, it stayed with them. The idea is not to make somebody have a career in music, at all, but that your child could grow up and know about this stuff and being able say, “When I was nine years old, I knew who Billie Holiday was. Lady Day, of course.” That kind of thing, there’s something supernatural about that. For me, as a parent, I am so proud of the fact that there’s very little that I can tell my kids about music that they’re not already on to. (Laughs.)
Couple the words with the accompanying disc of songs, and there’ll likely be some very young ears being opened to completely new sounds.
It builds a foundation; it builds something that you carry with you the rest of your life. That’s why, with this book, we really wanted to get it right. This is one of those things that comes into your life, and it makes a real difference forever. So, I’m so proud of this thing. It finally got to that place, in working on this – because we worked on this for years. This was not thrown together. There’s so much love and labor in this that I recognize when I look at it. Now, it’s not supposed to feel that way, and I don’t think it does. But there was really, really, a tremendous amount of time and effort that went into this. Deep down, I thought: I know how important this is. For this to come into some little kid’s life, and through the blessing of their parents or grandparents, or an uncle or aunt or whatever, for them to say, “Check this out.” And if the kid has some kind of interest in knowing abut this kind of stuff – they’re cool forever.