When Robbie Robertson was a kid, growing up in the Annex, his mother, who was born and raised on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, often took him back home to visit her family. Three or four times a year, they sat on a bus for two hours, and for Robbie, each trip was like a voyage to another dimension. There, far from the city, he could pick wild strawberries, fish for trout, swim in a rock quarry. His relatives had a profound understanding of the natural world, uncanny athletic ability and, most important to him, a great love of music. Everyone played an instrument or danced or sang, and Six Nations jam sessions, often held around a roaring campfire, were like small festivals of sound and light and colour.
Something even more transporting—and transformative—happened when he was nine. After lunch one day, his relatives set off into the bush, and Robbie followed them for half a mile until they arrived at a narrow, one-room building his mother told him was called a longhouse. A few minutes later, an older man entered the longhouse and sat down in a large pine and birch chair, draped in animal pelts. Everyone gathered, the kids cross-legged at his feet. The elder tapped his walking stick on the floor and proceeded to recount, with vivid imagery and riveting suspense, the tale of the Great Peacemaker who founded the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. Robbie was mesmerized. He told his mother that one day, he was going to tell stories like that.
It didn’t take long. Robertson began telling stories—or writing songs, same thing—when he was a teenager, then kept on telling them. There were the gentle puppy-love melodies he wrote for the rockabilly supernova Ronnie Hawkins, then the later hits, sometimes slinky, sometimes anthemic, that he wrote for himself. There were the experimental albums that drew on his memories of those Six Nations jam sessions, and the soundtracks, mainly for Martin Scorsese, that anchored so many cinematic worlds. But Robertson’s life story is something else, the story of rock music itself, its ups and downs, its evolutions and revolutions, its undeniable ascent and arguable decline. He was a one-man zeitgeist, a player, both major and minor, in some of popular music’s most defining moments.
He’s still best known, of course, for the groundbreaking songs he created with the Band, the wildly influential roots rock group, songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band was renowned for its democratic spirit and its industry-defying lack of a front man. Eventually, and enthusiastically, Robertson took on that central role, to the enduring ire of his bandmates. And while his career with the Band lasted only about a decade—1968 to 1978—his position as the group’s self-appointed chronicler has lasted about four times as long.
It’s a tricky role, one that hasn’t always endeared him to fans and critics. But it’s one that he has carefully constructed and has strenuously protected. This September, he was in Toronto for the premiere of a new documentary about him and the group, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band. It was a vivid reminder that Robertson has at last become the elder he dreamed of becoming—of rock music and also, in his own refracted and Hollywoodish way, of the Indigenous cultural renaissance. Unlike the elder he first encountered as a child, the myth he’s recounting is all his own.
I met Robertson the day after Once Were Brothers premiered at TIFF. It was both a star-studded and family affair: executive producers Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer were there, as were Ronnie Hawkins, Robertson’s ex-wife, Dominique, their daughter, Delphine, and Robertson’s current girlfriend, the restaurateur and Top Chef Canada judge Janet Zuccarini. A couple of hours after that screening, Robertson and Scorsese also introduced a screening of Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, the canonical 1978 rockumentary that chronicled the Band’s final performance with their original lineup.
It had been a long night, but Robertson looked like he might have just stepped off David Geffen’s yacht. He was tanned and tall and relaxed, his eyes hidden behind signature tinted glasses. His hair is of an indeterminate hue, somewhere between taupe and hazel, but still unreasonably luxuriant. Age diminishes us all, even Robbie Robertson—his once-notorious cheekbones are now buried in a fleshier face, and he walks with a pronounced, grandfatherly shuffle—but he’s still ridiculously handsome. He smiles easily, his teeth as straight and gleaming as piano keys. He talks easily, too, and slowly, his voice an almost voluptuous rasp. In conversation, he is as courteous as a courtesan, or as winkingly elusive as his long-time comrade, Bob Dylan. Asked how old his three kids are, he said, smiling, “The same age as me. I don’t get older, they do.”
Robertson was born and raised in Toronto but left when he was a teenager, and he’s lived in Los Angeles for the past 50 years, give or take. He returns frequently, though—it helps that Zuccarini’s here—and in setting up our meeting we tried to find somewhere that might have personal resonance, maybe a venue that he’d headlined, a bar he might have played. But except for Massey Hall, which is under renovation, all those places are gone. So we ended up in the Neil Young Room, a private dining room at One, the Mark McEwan restaurant in Yorkville, so named because of the framed black-and-white photographs of the rock stars that hang on the wall.
Robertson never played in Yorkville—his early musical years were set in the much rougher honky-tonks that once lined Yonge Street—but he grew up nearby, at Bloor and Palmerston. He was born Jaime Royal Robertson; Robbie was a neighbourhood nickname, derived, not so originally, from his last name. An only child, he referred to himself as a “half-breed.” His mother, Dolly, was Mohawk and Cayuga, and his Jewish father, who was killed in a hit and run before Robertson was born, was a professional gambler. “You could say I’m an expert in persecution,” Robertson writes, half-jokingly, in Testimony, his memoir. He was raised by Dolly and his stepfather, Jim Robertson, a factory worker and war vet, and spent his first few years living with Jim’s parents in an apartment before he and Dolly and Jim moved to Scarborough and a house of their own. Robertson’s home life wasn’t easy—his parents drank, and fought, a lot. Jim would beat up Dolly then turn his violent attention to his son. Once, he hit Robertson for the crime of leaving a fan running when he wasn’t in the room.
Other places provided solace. Robertson spent every weekend afternoon he could at the Majestic Theatre, where a quarter would buy him popcorn and a drink and a long program of cartoons, newsreels and double features. He adored movies. Once his relatives at Six Nations introduced him to another, greater love—music—he devoted himself to the guitar, and by 13 he had formed his first band, Robbie Robertson and the Rhythm Chords. Rock and roll had arrived: the radio was alive with Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. Robertson, who describes the discovery as his “personal Big Bang,” was completely in its thrall. Everything changed: the way he dressed and talked and moved, the way he combed his hair, the way he strummed his Fender. Like it was for millions of teenagers, rock was an escape hatch that could propel him into an unknown future.
For Robertson, rock also looked like it could be a job, one where he could make some good money and have a lot of fun doing it. Yonge and Dundas was quickly becoming one of North America’s great musical crossroads, a mash-up of Beale Street and Times Square, where on any given weekend night you could catch Carl Perkins, Charlie Mingus or Cannonball Adderley. There was the Blue Note, an after-hours R&B dance hall that hosted Jackie Shane and, later, Little Stevie Wonder and the Supremes. To the northwest, up on Bloor Street, where Long and McQuade now stands, there was the Concord Tavern, divided into its drinking and non-drinking sections, where underage teenage rockers like future Guess Who guitarist Domenic Troiano and David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears would hang out, dazzled by Bo Diddley and Duane Eddy and Ronnie Hawkins.
Hawkins had Kirk Douglas looks and James Brown moves. He was renowned for his acrobatic stage antics, including backflips and a proto-moonwalk he called the camel walk. He opened shows by yelling, in his Ozark accent, “It’s orgy time!” He was nicknamed Mr. Dynamo and the Hawk and, of course, his band was called the Hawks. With the competition largely out of the picture—Elvis was in the army, Jerry Lee Lewis was blackballed for marrying his underage cousin, Buddy Holly was dead—Hawkins was poised for big things and, had he stayed in the U.S., his career might have exploded. But on the advice of country musician Conway Twitty, he started touring Canada and promptly fell in love with Toronto. He loved its wild freedom. He could play engagements here, at the Concord or Le Coq d’Or on Yonge, for weeks or months on end, and get paid well for it. He could be the biggest fish in a small, increasingly debauched pond. For Hawkins, mid-century Toronto wasn’t a pallid, Presbyterian place but something closer to New York in the Roaring Twenties.
When Robertson was 15, as part of a different band, the Suedes, he was invited to open for the man himself at the Dixie Arena in Mississauga. Robertson had never seen anything like the Hawk, and Hawkins was likewise impressed by Robertson. He told his drummer, Levon Helm, “He’s got so much talent it makes me sick.” When Robertson heard that Hawkins needed new songs, he wrote a couple overnight, and Hawkins ended up recording them. Hawkins took him to New York and the Brill Building, hoping Robertson’s teenage ears would help him find songs that other teenagers would like. While there, he introduced Robertson to Morris Levy, the mobster owner of Roulette Records, who said to Hawkins, “Nice-looking kid. I bet you don’t know whether to hire him or fuck him.”
When a spot for a bass player opened up in the Hawks, Robertson dropped out of high school, quickly taught himself the bass, and took a bus down to Arkansas to audition. He knew it was crazy. He was just a kid. A kid from Toronto. So he did the only thing he could do: he worked as hard as he could, which was 10 times harder than everybody else. He learned the set list inside out—the bass and the guitar parts—and studied how each of the Hawks’ guitarists worked their magic. He spent all the money he had on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters records and studied those. He took the raunchy licks that Ray Charles played on piano and transcribed them to guitar. He rarely slept, and when he did, he slept with his instruments.
“What I was trying to do was impossible,” Robertson told me, still somewhat awed by his own audacity. “I’m 16 years old, I’m too young to play in any of the places they play. I’m too inexperienced to play lead guitar in this group. And there’s no such thing in a Southern rock and roll band as a Canadian. There are no Canadians in Southern rock and roll bands. With all these odds, it was impossible. And it was my job to overcome the impossibility. And win.” He got the job. He won. And soon enough, after other Hawks quit the group, he became lead guitarist. Hawkins referred to him as his protégé. “You won’t make much money,” Hawkins told him, “but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
Levon Helm quickly became Robertson’s best buddy in the band, the big brother he never had. A few years older, Helm was, in some ways, Robertson’s opposite—short, Southern, hotheaded, with a devilish grin and white-gold hair. When Robertson first saw him play, he could have sworn he glowed in the dark. Helm took care of Robertson, introduced him to his family, tutored him in the ways of Southern life and culture. They double-dated, bought a Cadillac together, the first car Robertson ever owned. They reminded Hawkins of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. “It was me and Robbie against the world,” Helm once said.
As other Hawks left, the rest of the band suddenly became Canadian. On bass and vocals, there was Rick Danko, from Simcoe, who had the looks and jittery magnetism of a young Robert De Niro. Sweet, sensitive Richard Manuel, from Stratford, played piano and possessed a heartbreaking falsetto. Finally, out of London, there was the eccentric and enigmatic Garth Hudson, the only one in the group with classical musical training, who could play anything. They were a wild, impossibly talented bunch, and Hawkins worked them hard. They played six days a week and practised all night until, as Robertson says, they were probably the best white R&B band in the world.
Hawkins was also, they soon realized, holding them back. The band was younger than its leader, whom Helm referred to as “Daddy.” They craved independence, wanted to try new things. They had also, with great enthusiasm, started smoking pot—“When we first discovered the weed, it was a whole new world,” Helm wrote in his memoir. Hawk had often kept the band going with amphetamines, but marijuana, it seemed, was a pharmacological bridge too far. By 1964, they had split from Hawkins and became Levon and the Hawks. They abandoned the matching suits that Hawkins made them wear, but kept up the work ethic he’d instilled. Helm got top billing because of seniority, but the spirit of the group was more, as he put it, “communist.” Everyone would play an instrument, anybody could sing, and there would be no guy out front telling everybody what to do.
As radical as the concept was, it worked, even when another, more titanic musical force threatened to upset that egalitarianism: Bob Dylan. Dylan had notoriously gone electric at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965 and was looking for a band that could back him on the electric sets he’d planned for an upcoming tour. Robertson loved what Dylan was doing; it helped that Dylan appreciated his “mathematical” guitar playing. After Robertson and Helm filled in on a couple of Dylan’s stadium shows, they convinced the rest of the Hawks to join them. It was the big time—they flew from gig to gig in Dylan’s private plane—but it was also an unexpected, dispiriting gauntlet. Betrayed folk audiences who’d once considered Dylan a demigod now dismissed him as a fame-hungry sellout. They booed and threw things at his shows. Many blamed the Hawks, claiming they were ruining Dylan’s music. When the band returned to Toronto for a show at Massey Hall, the reception was even worse. Robertson took it personally. The city felt small and insecure to him, and though his mother still lived here—she’d settled in Cabbagetown—he didn’t know if he’d ever come back.
By that point, Robertson was 22 and living in New York. Despite the torments of the tour, Dylan had opened up the world in a way that Hawkins never could. Robertson and Manuel got a suite at the Chelsea Hotel, where Robertson trysted with Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick. She introduced him to the Velvet Underground and the infamous Dr. Feelgood, who injected them both with speed. Robertson was meeting everybody: Allen Ginsberg, Salvador Dalí, Carly Simon. On a movie set, he palled around with an intimidating Marlon Brando, who kindly opened a Coke bottle for him with his teeth. He was a fixture at the city’s art-house cinemas and, ever the autodidact, bought screenplays at the Gotham Book Mart to figure out how those movies worked. At Dylan’s first wedding, he served as best man. A world tour took him off the continent for the first time, and he travelled to Hawaii, Europe, Australia.
Dylan, however, was exhausted. A serious motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966 gave him the opportunity to, as he put it, “get out of the rat race.” He retreated with his young family, a station wagon and a dog named Hamlet to his house in Woodstock, in upstate New York. The Hawks soon followed, with Danko, Hudson and Manuel settling in a nearby ranch house they dubbed Big Pink. Robertson and his future wife, a Québécois journalist named Dominique Bourgeois he’d met in Paris, moved into their own place a few miles up the road, and Helm, who had temporarily left the band, joined the gang again a few months later. They transformed the Big Pink basement into a recording studio. Dylan dropped by every day with his typewriter and guitar and songwriting superpowers, and took everyone to a new, cosmic level.
The basement became one of the most legendary laboratories in the history of rock. Here, in rural isolation, the group created the quasi-field recordings and oddball ditties that became known as The Basement Tapes. Here, they composed the songs that would comprise their first record, Music From Big Pink, including one of the most indelible songs in the American pop canon, “The Weight.” They created a genre of music later called Americana, which fused blues and country and gospel and all the other genres they’d been obsessed with, and which would inspire everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Neko Case. They renounced the Hawks and gave themselves the defiantly non-commercial name the Band, mainly because that’s what everyone in Woodstock called them. With their scruffy beards, tight-fitting Western suits, vintage eyewear and hats, they looked like Greenwich Village gunslingers. In 1968, the year Big Pink was released, America was in flames, rocked by the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, riots in Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The album seemed, as rock critic Greil Marcus put it, “like a passport back to America for people who had become so estranged from their own country.” If Robertson’s discovery of rock and roll had been a Big Bang, now, at long last, he had formed his own galaxy.
A year later, the Band cut their self-titled sophomore record, and it too contained instant classics, including “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The songs sounded like hymns written in the backroom of a 19th-century saloon, boogie-woogie ballads, history lessons for a country unsure of its future. They were woven from each of the group’s different singers, sometimes in exquisite harmony, at other times in surprising counterpoint, and no voice seemed more central than another. This was part of the Band’s secret, Helm said.
It would also be its undoing. Despite their ostensibly democratic configuration, the story of the Band soon became, as it did for so many musical acts, the story of who was the true voice of the group. Hudson was, arguably, the brains, and Manuel the heart. Danko was the guts. But both Robertson and Helm vied to be the soul of the Band—or at least to be recognized as such. John Simon, who produced the Band’s first two records, noticed that during Helm’s temporary absence from the band, Robertson had effectively become its leader. So, as the Band became more and more successful—in 1970, they became the first North American rock band to appear on the cover of Time magazine—the question of who was responsible for that success became an issue.
Everybody did well at first. They were making more money than they knew what to do with, and they spent their money with gusto, mostly on drugs, fancy instruments and ever-more-expensive cars, which they usually gleefully wrecked on Woodstock’s back roads. Robertson had written fewer than half the songs on Big Pink—Manuel was the other principal songwriter—but by the Band’s third album, Stage Fright, he was writing all of them. “I stayed up late and got up early,” Robertson told me. “And I worked much harder than any of the other guys in the group. It was my job. It was what I was called upon to do.” Initially, the Band had shared the publishing royalties equally, but by their sixth studio album, 1975’s Northern Lights–Southern Cross, Robertson had bought out Manuel, Danko and Hudson’s ends. He had written these songs, so why shouldn’t he get paid for them?
At least, this is how Robertson tells it. In 1993, Helm published his own memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire, a rollicking, vivid, occasionally vitriolic tell-all that praises Robertson in one paragraph and excoriates him in the next. “Now the old pencil-whipping started to really come down, and it was felt that Robbie was getting more than the Band,” Helm wrote. “Greed was setting in. The old spirit of one for all and all for one was out the window. But hindsight—20-20, as usual—reveals that some of us were in denial. None of this was talked about much among the five of us, so resentment just continued to build.”
That resentment spilled over when Robertson proposed, in 1976, after 10 studio albums, that the Band stop touring, regroup and figure out what to do next. By then, Robertson and Bourgeois had three kids and were living in Sam Peckinpah’s old house in the Malibu Colony, just down the beach from Cary Grant. He’d become pals with David Geffen and Cher and Neil Diamond. While he’d developed a taste for cocaine, he steered clear of the heroin that Manuel, Danko and Helm indulged in. He was tired of the road, which he’d never liked much to begin with. Plus, he was plotting his next move, which he hoped would be the movies: producing them, writing music for them, starring in them.
He started with that hotshot, motor-mouthed young director who had made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese loved music as much as Robertson loved movies. Jonathan Taplin, who’d produced Mean Streets, had once been the Band’s tour manager. He set up a meeting between the two men and they agreed that Scorsese would film the Band’s last concert, to be held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where they’d played their first show. Robertson had a grand vision—it would feature both musicians who’d influenced them, like Hawkins, the Staple Singers and Muddy Waters, and several of their fellow travellers, including Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. “The Last Waltz,” as Robertson referred to the show, was electric and transcendent and joyous, and the ensuing movie was the best concert film ever released.
For Helm, it was a travesty. He thought Scorsese missed major moments and that Robertson got too much screen time. More importantly, he just didn’t want to stop touring. He thought Robertson was trying to destroy the group, and he hated him for it. It didn’t matter. Robertson refused to tour with the Band, and would never again make a record with them. From a fan’s perspective, Scorsese might have been the Yoko of the Band, but as far as Robertson was concerned, he’d found a new brother. Both men had marital troubles, and Robertson moved into the garage of Scorsese’s house on Mulholland Drive. The pair spent long nights listening to music, watching movies and editing The Last Waltz, almost always high on coke. The house was blacked out with blinds, soundproofed, the windows kept closed because of Scorsese’s asthma. Eventually, though, in 1978, the relentless years of hard work and drug abuse caught up with Scorsese, and he ended up in hospital for 10 days, almost dying. Things changed quickly. “One day, it kicked us in the ass,” Robertson told me. “It said, ‘Uh, guys, somebody’s gonna get hurt here and you’ve got work to do.’ And we said, ‘Okay, it’s been kind of fun and funny, but the joke’s over.’ ”
In September, Robertson released his sixth solo album, Sinematic, its punning title a nod to film in general, but also to a specific movie, Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman. Robertson scored the soundtrack for that film, the 10th Scorsese movie he’s worked on (others include Raging Bull, Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street). Like all of Robertson’s solo records, Sinematic is lush and imagistic and held together by Robertson’s low growl. (As a singer, he’s always been a great guitarist.) There are songs that conjure gangster movies (“Shanghai Blues”) and Robertson’s background (“Dead End Kid”—the only time I’ve ever heard the Scarborough Bluffs name-checked in a song). Normally, Robertson told me, he keeps his projects separate, but for this record, they converged. “It’s a big scramble of lovely things that I couldn’t help but embrace.”
One of those things is a song about the Band—“Once Were Brothers.” He sings, There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no encore / Once were brothers / Brothers no more. But after the Last Waltz, the last time Robertson was on stage with them, the Band continued to play. They might not have sounded quite the same, and the audiences might have shrunk, but they kept going. It was all they knew how to do. They also kept drinking and using drugs, and things got darker and darker. In 1986, Manuel hanged himself in a hotel bathroom in Florida. He was 42. Danko died in 1999 of heart failure at the age of 55. At Danko’s funeral, Robertson spoke, and describing the moment in his memoir, Helm can’t contain his disgust: “He got up and spouted off a lot of self-serving tripe about how great Rick had sung the songs that he—Robertson—had written. It made me sick to hear.” Helm himself suffered his own grim setbacks: he was twice diagnosed with cancer, the treatment of which bankrupted him.
Robertson knows he’s been vilified. But he’s a guy more inclined to self-mythologizing than self-reflection. I asked him how it felt to be known as the guy who had put the Band together but who had also torn it apart. “I was the one who wanted the Band to continue,” he said. “I was the one who was the driving force in this group and I drove it and I drove it until there was nothing to drive anymore. I showed up. Nobody else showed up.” He didn’t care if I believed him, or what other people said. They weren’t there. And they aren’t here now. He was the one who’d survived, he was the one who got the last word, and here he was getting it again with me. He considers Helm paranoid and insecure, but insists that he made peace with him, visiting him in hospital just before he died in 2012. “I thought to myself, what all he and I did together, and all the things we came through and the music we made and this life experience—nothing can compete with that.”
Maybe, maybe not. In 1980, he produced and acted in his first feature film, Carny. He got more acting offers, took bit parts here and there, but in 1987, he returned to music and released his first solo record. It was the first time he was writing songs, telling stories, that were about himself, and he brought in a bunch of his famous friends to help: Daniel Lanois produced, U2 and Peter Gabriel played, David Geffen committed half a million dollars to promotion. Robertson called it—what else?—Robbie Robertson.
One of the songs on the record, “Testimony,” contained the line Come bear witness / The half-breed rides again, and others, like “Broken Arrow,” explicitly reminded listeners—or told them for the first time—of Robertson’s heritage. It was unusual at the time. How many other Indigenous artists were in rotation on MTV? I had the sense that Robertson had to hide that side of himself when he was part of the Band, that his early career was whitewashed as part of his efforts to appear as Southern as the music he loved, but when I raised that notion with him, he waved it off. “That was just part of my bloodline,” he said. “It wasn’t a musical necessity. I wasn’t about to start playing Jewish folk songs either.” Nonetheless, his solo career was marked by occasional records that rediscovered that heritage: Music for the Native Americans, a soundtrack for a TV doc called The Native Americans, and Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, whose ambient electronica in some ways prefigured bands like A Tribe Called Red. “You know, I’m just travelling the road,” Robertson said, “and sometimes I go off the main highway into the rez for a while and then come back to the highway and I love it.” In 2015, he published a children’s book, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, which retold the story of the founding of Six Nations, the same one he’d heard in the longhouse as a kid, and in 2017, the community presented him with a lifetime achievement award. He was delighted that Six Nations Chief Ava Hill attended the Once Were Brothers premiere.
It must be strange to be an elder, though, at this point in rock’s history, when so many of your musical brothers are no longer with you, and the ones who are—Neil and Bob and Van and even the indomitable Hawk, somehow still standing—are blinking in the twilight. It must be strange when, like Robertson, you talk and talk about the past, and the stories from the past keep informing the story of the present. But whatever this moment was, it wasn’t strange or tedious or sad. At least not for him. “I’m appreciative of being able to come back and celebrate that in a certain way,” he said, referring to this valedictory moment. “Because my natural mode is moving on, moving on, moving on. What I’m doing with my life has to do with today and tomorrow. So these things—it feels good to go there because I don’t go there very often.” That wasn’t quite true. It was another story. But I sat and listened.
This story originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.