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Robbie Robertson: A Life In 10 Songs

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The news of Robbie Robertson’s death on Aug. 9 at the age of 80 came as a complete shock, partly because he kept his health a closely guarded secret, but mostly because he always seemed so youthful. His longstanding partnership with filmmaker Martin Scorsese was going strong (it’s being said that Robbie’s work on the upcoming Killers Of The Flower Moon could be his crowning achievement in terms of film scores), and he continued to support and engage with young musicians right up until the end. Indeed, he will be best remembered for his lifelong passion for music and storytelling which, combined with his unlimited ambition, helped a half-Mohawk, half-Jewish kid from southern Ontario conquer the world.

Of course, it’s difficult to narrow down Robbie’s extensive 60-year body of work to 10 songs, but this list aims to show the breadth of his musical journey, and perhaps serve as a reminder of how far he came in the face of exceedingly long odds.

1. Ronnie Hawkins / “Who Do You Love” (single, Roulette Records, 1963)
Here’s where it all starts, with 19-year-old Robbie laying down possibly the most vicious guitar playing ever put on record to that point. Having been briefly tutored by the legendary Roy Buchanan, Robbie unleashed pure fury on this Bo Diddley nugget that pre-dated the arrival of his peers Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. Even Iggy Pop recalled this song leaving a huge impression on him as a kid in Michigan when he heard it on the radio.

2. Bob Dylan / “Like A Rolling Stone” (from Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall Concert,” Columbia/Legacy, 1998)
Originally heard on one of the most famous bootleg albums ever released, this version of the song that put Dylan on the charts just before he met Robbie and the rest of what would become The Band was actually captured in Manchester on the world tour that changed everything in terms of how rock and roll was perceived and presented. Dylan’s fans resented him for playing with what the Toronto Star derisively described at the time as a Yonge Street bar band, with this performance fuelled by the infamous cry of “Judas!” from a disgruntled audience member. Dylan reacted by commanding the group to “play f@#king loud,” and Robbie was more than happy to oblige.

3. The Band / “The Weight” (from Music From Big Pink, Capitol Records, 1968)
Dylan and The Band’s 1966-1967 home recording experiments that resulted in The Basement Tapes produced many glorious oddities that have surprisingly withstood the test of time. But their biggest impact was on Robbie’s own songwriting, which found him embracing ideas and concepts he hadn’t had a chance to discover while growing up. “The Weight” blurred the lines between reality and fantasy to the point where it was almost too strange to include on The Band’s debut album. But at its core was a deeply human message that resonated at a time when America was descending into chaos. That message lives on, and continues to be interpreted as needed.

4. The Band / “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (from The Band, Capitol Records, 1969)
Robbie came into his own on The Band’s self-titled second album, taking more control over production and songwriting. In terms of the latter, his focus shifted from the rustic surrealism of Music From Big Pink to telling his version of American history. Having learned about the south through Levon Helm and his family in Arkansas, Robbie wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” specifically for Levon to sing as a statement calling for the creation of a new, inclusive south. While it might be easy to misinterpret the song today, at the time its message helped ignite a southern renaissance in music and other artforms.

5. The Band / “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (from The Band, Capitol Records, 1969)
The counterpoint to “Dixie” was “King Harvest,” a modern tale told by a struggling farmer who has placed his survival in the hands of his union. The palpable fear is perfectly captured by Richard Manuel who sounds like a character directly out of a John Steinbeck novel, with the song’s overall jittery-ness expressed in Robbie’s solo at the end — all pinched notes, and a far cry from the guitar heroics of only a few years before. It was stuff like this that made George Harrison and Eric Clapton completely alter their respective approaches.

6. The Band / “Life Is A Carnival” (from Cahoots, Capitol Records, 1971)
Following the fine, but overall unspectacular Stage Fright, Robbie and company turned to New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint to inject some fresh energy into the music. It was in fact a natural pairing, as Rick Danko often cited Lee Dorsey’s Yes We Can album (made in collaboration with Toussaint) as one of The Band’s biggest influences. The deep funk rhythm and punchy horns on “Life Is A Carnival” make the connection obvious, and Toussaint would continue working his magic when asked to write horn charts for the concerts later in 1971 that would comprise the excellent live album Rock Of Ages.

7. The Band / “It Makes No Difference” (from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Capitol Records, 1975)
The Band’s fortunes between 1972 and 1975 were a roller coaster, from a high profile reunion with Dylan to several members nearly succombing to substance abuse. It’s often overlooked that Robbie was the primary force keeping things together, and he managed to pull off one last great album with the original line-up, highlighted by this crushing ballad sung by Danko. The combination of a plaintive voice and lines like, “Just like the gambler says, read ’em and weep,” solidified Robbie’s status as one of his generation’s greatest songwriters.

8. Robbie Robertson / “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” (from Robbie Robertson, Geffen Records, 1987)
For his official solo debut, Robbie teamed up with Canadian producer Daniel Lanois, whose distinct sonic approach had helped artists such as U2 and Peter Gabriel achieve massive mainstream success. Having spent most of the previous decade working in film, Robbie brought that new experience specifically to “Somewhere Down The Crazy River,” a half-recited fever dream, accentuated by Lanois’s ambient flourishes. No one could have predicted that such a strange confluence of elements would produce a hit, but behind it all was the undeniable combination of Robbie’s charisma and hypnotizing voice.

9. Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble / “Ghost Dance” (from Music For ‘The Native Americans’, Capitol Records, 1994)
Years before the Indigenous music renaissance, Robbie was laying the groundwork, just as he was further exploring his own heritage and promoting artists like Canada’s Kashtin. Asked to write songs for a PBS documentary, he used the opportunity to combine modern technology with traditional stories and songs, resulting in a groundbreaking album highlighted by “Ghost Dance,” a reference to the sacred ceremony intended to reunite the living and the dead.

10. Robbie Robertson / “He Don’t Live Here No More” (from How To Become Clairvoyant, 429 Records, 2011)
Robbie experimented further with the Music For Native Americans template on 1998’s Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy, but returned to more familiar terrain on How To Become Clairvoyant, his last true solo album, made with lauded British producer Marius de Vries. Featuring a star-studded supporting cast, the album showed Robbie still had the capacity to push his trademark sound in new directions, essentially confirming his place as one of the creators of the Americana genre.

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