Jul 052011

Dear Robbie,

First of all, Happy Birthday! I was planning to write you today regardless, but when I logged onto my e-mail this morning there was a message from Wolfgang’s Vault saluting you on this, your 68th birthday. I wish I knew where to send you a card, but this open letter I’m posting here on Rock Town Hall will have to do.

As old friends and regulars to the Halls of Rock know, I’ve been fascinated by The Band since childhood, when my relatively hippie uncle gave me your second, self-titled lp and let me listen to your band’s other albums on the 8-track player in his bedroom. He would regale me with tales of having seen you guys in concert many times over, ranking your musicianship among that of his other favorite artists: James Brown, Traffic, and Joe Cocker’s Leon Russell–led band. My uncle’s dark, exotically scented room was a wizard’s den of learning and exploration. Your albums were sacred relics.

I’d spend so many years gazing at the photos in the gatefold sleeve of that self-titled album that I felt I knew my way around what I’d learn years later was Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house. And your facial hair and clothes, in sepia tone no less! I couldn’t wait to grow up and sprout whiskers. What was cool, too, through the lense of my middle-class, Italian-American family, was that you sported all that cool facial hair while not overstepping the bounds of stylishly long hair. Most of you were capable of cleaning up and looking stylishly hip, unlike the incorrigible freaks of the Jefferson Airplane, for instance.

Most importantly, of course, was the music. The fact that you fit the Goatee Rock standards of an Italian-American household in the late-’60s was convenient, but the wavy hair nipping at your oversized shirt collars wouldn’t have meant a thing if your music didn’t have that swing. As I gazed as the credits for your second album one thing that was unavoidable was how much you, Robbie, contributed. You’re listed as playing just about every instrument under the sun! Your bandmates play multiple instruments, but only your credits require a paragraph’s worth of space! You were the man, Robbie. I learned this as a boy, before I caught the sports bug, and the lesson was driven home when I rediscovered your music through The Last Waltz, just at the moment when my dreams of a professional baseball career were evaporating.

Damn, you cleaned up as well as would be expected for that film! Levon and Rick looked good, too, but there was no doubt who was the Bandleader. Levon was the team MVP, but you still wore the C. After the second viewing of The Last Waltz when it came out in the theaters I started saving money for a Fender Strat. I couldn’t find a gold one, like what you played in the movie, but a year later I’d saved enough money to buy a blonde Strat with a black pickguard. It would have to do. My friends and I were starting a band, and I began writing songs with an eye toward claiming the captaincy. With every half-assed song I wrote I had one eye on the C. I was too lazy to properly learn how to play guitar let alone learn multiple instruments, but that didn’t stop me from trying to pick up as many credits as possible. Backing vocals and percussion? Check. Slide guitar? Got it! Overdubbed second bass part coming out of a solo? I’m ready, if you need me! Hold a note on the organ through a few measures? I’ve got a forefinger!

I was all over your career following The Last Waltz, Robbie. Shoot, I paid to see your directorial/acting debut in Carny. I remember it not being bad, despite not being able to remember a thing about the movie. I think I spent the entire film imagining you and my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, being connected at the hip in future years for a run of cinematic masterpieces that would incorporate not only your music but appearances by The Clash. Didn’t they make a cameo in some film you and Marty worked on? I remember reading about their coming appearance and expecting a lot more. That’s OK, I told myself, there’s more to come from this meeting of the minds!

Years passed, The Clash came and went, while you continued to lay low. Once night in the mid-1980s I had nightmare of meeting your burned-out Band-mates backstage, in a sunken dressing room. Rick and Richard looked like hell; Richard was literally hooked up to an IV. Levon wasn’t talking. I was afraid of Garth from his interview scenes in The Last Waltz. All that stuff you were saying in the movie about Jimi, Janis, and Jim and The Road rang true. Once I made my mark with my band, I thought to myself in the middle of this dream, I was going ease us off The Road and just create, like, Art. Maybe I could then work my way into that Scorcese scene you and Strummer would have had up and running.

Shortly after this dream Richard Manuel would hang himself and you would be coming out with your first solo album! Bill Flanagan, one of my favorite writers from Musician magazine was thrilled, but I was a leery of you hanging around with U2 and Peter Gabriel. What did those guys have to do with the legacy of The Band? Did they even own the s/t Band album or sit through a half dozen screenings of The Last Waltz? I’d bet my life a 16-year-old The Edge never shelled out for a copy of Moondog Matinee and experienced the disappointment I felt at that age with a new copy of that turd. I thought we had an agreement, Robbie. I thought you were going to watch out of me, or at least include me through collaborations with my new generation of rock heroes. I listened to that first solo album a couple of times and it was bad, man. Why did you subject yourself to Daniel Lanois and all his mystical vibe nonsense? That stuff may have served the two-chord wonders of U2 well, but you’ve been credited with having played a paragraph’s worth of instruments and written perhaps rock’s greatest story song ever, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” You don’t need Lanois, Gabriel, Bono, and all that shimmering reverb to bring out a vibe, man. You were the captain, man. I know I’m saying this stuff to you almost 25 years too late, but based on what I’ve heard from your latest album, How to Become Invisible, or whatever it’s called, the general message stands.

I couldn’t bear the occasional solo albums that would follow, Robbie. For that paragraph’s worth of credits on the second Band album, perhaps no unfulfilled role on those recordings was more valuable than that of lead vocalist. I sometimes lift the needle on “Unfaithful Servant,” but I would have had to scratch an entire track off the album had you thought it necessary to add lead vocals to your list of contributions.

Despite these profound disappointments I have had no interest in reading Levon’s grumbling. He was a miserable bastard in that dream I had. You will always be the Captain of The Band in my heart, Robbie. As for the new album and any possible plans to record further records in the future, can we put this shit behind us once and for all? Can the whole Renaissance Man/Captain Slick routine be put to bed? You piled up a paragraph’s worth of credits on one of the greatest albums of all time. You got to play a gold guitar and wear a veltet jacket and red silk scarf on your brilliantly conceived and executed camera-hogging farewell performance with your teenage mates. Jann Wenner and the rock ‘n roll media will foot the bill of your hotel stays and meals around the world for eternity so long you spend a few minutes chatting them up and casually waving a dyed-brown forelock back in place. You can make an appearance at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony whenever you’d like; they’ll make sure Levon’s nowhere near the joint. Just stop, already, with any efforts at presenting yourself as a viable musician. Maybe you can do something respectable like John Sebastian and make Time-Life informercials.

I’ll always love you, my Captain, but no rock ‘n roll love affair has left me feeling more shame and remorse than I do whenever you re-emerge to promote some quasi-mystical, star-studded solo album.

A paragraph’s worth of admiration,
Mr. Moderator

  33 Responses to “An Open Letter to Robbie Robertson”

  1. Mr. Mod — since I don’t watch The View, you’ve done a great service in letting us know that Robbie and Whoopi are friends. I haven’t seen such fawning since Jane Pauley interviewed her friend John Hiatt as one of her last official acts on The Today Show.

  2. tonyola

    As far as I’m concerned, there are three essential albums by the Band or its solo derivatives: Music from Big Pink, The Band, and Rock of Ages. Stage Fright is a step down but still not bad. All the rest is coasting and therefore optional if not disposable. That includes The Basement Tapes too.

  3. Have to say I am more likely to listen to Robbie’s Solo records than to The Band (who I very much admire but am less drawn to). Robbie Robertson (s/t) is better that the U2, Gabriel and BoDeans records of that time (yes I just chose Robbie over Joshua Tree) but the better record is the 2nd one Storyville with the Nevile Brothers as his band. The Music for The Native Americans and Redboy are more Native American music than rock / pop / folk but are strong records for what they are. Redboy has more techno / house music that I normally go for, but I give Robbie credit for trying somthing new. The new CD How To Become Clairvoyant is more guitar based version of his 1st two solo records (and Bono Free!). He is older and the songs are kinda laid back. Sounds like the solo CD that Eric Clapton has never been able to pull off (although he is on this record for a few songs so maybe he’ll figure it out)

  4. machinery

    I dig basement tapes. Just to think of Dylan and The Band churning out a double album worth of stuff makes me smirk. That must have the been THE PLACE in the musical universe for that time. Music’s pretty great. And the low-fi production only adds to my wanting to be a fly on the wall. A little indulgent? Indulgently-great!

  5. Some day I will wake up and will suddenly understand three things that have always eluded me…

    Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, and The Band.

    I know, it’s me.

  6. You don’t get The Band? I thought you’d dig them. Man, we need to talk.

  7. tonyola

    I have to say that for the longest time I could not understand what people saw in the Grateful Dead, but all I had to go by was the records. Finally, at the insistence of Deadhead friends, I saw them live in the early 1980s. Though I’m still not a Deadhead or even a fan, I have to admit that on a good night they put on a really impressive show. Therein lies their appeal.

  8. Sorry to call you on this minor detail, but Robertson’s “paragraph” on the self titled album reads:

    Jaime Robbie Robertson: Guitar & Engineer

    I’m sure that your “points about Talking Heads” figure very largely in your thoughts on the Band, and I think Robbie was more ambitious/less lazy than the rest of the guys and made things happen. But cut him off from the wide screen gifts of the other guys and he’s just a calculated, self-mythologizing Dylan copy.

  9. Maybe I’ll dig up a copy of the first two and give ’em another try this summer.

  10. Hilarious! I’m sure you would agree that my Points About Talking Heads make up for my horrible memory regarding Robbie’s list of credits on that album!

  11. misterioso

    Dear Mod,

    Clearly that was One from the Heart. Which, I realize, is by the wrong Italian-American director, but whatever. But obviously this all means a lot to you; anyway, a lot more to you than to me. Which isn’t to say that Robbie Robertson does not hold a high place in my personal pantheon. He does: he’s given me a lot.

    But, hell, it’s been more than 40 years since Robbie was involved in a good record (other than live ones), unless you count Dylan’s Planet Waves, which is a pretty darned good record, actually. The parade’s gone by, man.

    Admittedly, I am coming to the Band and to Robbie from a Dylan-centric perspective. Robbie wasn’t the Captain: he was crazy Cap’n Bob’s able First Mate as they charted unknown seas in 1965-66 and unexplored the back woods in 1967. His contribution to Dylan’s work in that period is huge, and deserves to be seen as such. His lead work on the live 1966 material is immense and Dylan’s praise (“the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound”) was well earned. I know Mike Bloomfield could probably play circles around Robbie, but anyone who listens to Dylan at Newport and compares it with Dylan at Albert–uh, check that, Manchester Free Trade–Hall should be able to hear who the more compatible guitarist was.

    On the other hand, from the evidence of the Last Waltz interviews, you’d get the impression that The Hawks in their pre-Dylan days were just the most rip-roarin’est rockers that ever cranked up an amp in anger. The evidence suggests they were a good little rock combo that Dylan transformed into something entirely else. Robbie looked, listened, and learned.

    So the fact that he went on to make a couple of terrific lps with The Band was a bonus. But he/they ran out of ideas around 1970. Okay, so be it. Skip the interviews, skip the solo records, and retreat to Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house. It’s safer in there.

    Your pal,


  12. That means a lot, man. I think I will seek refuge, as you’ve suggested.

    By the way, why didn’t members of The Band play on those Dylan studio recordings? I agree that the live ’66 stuff with them sounds excellent.

    I’ve just cracked open a Dylan book I received for my birthday/Fathers Day that is written around 4 or so key concerts through his career. It seems like the author actually attended these shows. I completely forget the title of the book, but 10 pages in and it’s pretty good. For all the Dylan albums I own I don’t think I’ve ever read a Dylan book beside Chronicles.

  13. BigSteve

    By the way, why didn’t members of The Band play on those Dylan studio recordings?

    They apparently tried to use the Hawks for the Blonde on Blonde sessions in New York, but it wasn’t working, so they went to Nashville and recorded with the pros. Robbie came along, but I guess the Hawks as a group were still too rough around the edges in the winter of ’65/66.

    After the Basement Tapes era, Dylan went to Nashville again to record the John Wesley Harding songs. There was apparently some idea that these were basic tracks which would be overdubbed by Robbie and Garth, but after they heard the recordings that idea was abandoned.

  14. misterioso

    I really don’t know. Some of the Band, and certainly Robbie, play on Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan tried recording with them in fall 1965 and apparently didn’t like the results: though to my ears “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, for instance, which was released as a single, sounds just great.

    I remember reading that Dylan approached Robbie et al to overdub on the John Wesley Harding tracks but he/they said no way, they are fine as they are. I’d like to know if that’s true or not.

    But it is weird that the only studio album that is Bob Dylan recording with the Band is Planet Waves.

    I’d like to know the title of that Dylan book. I, on the other hand, read most of them.

  15. Just found it: The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait, by Daniel Mark Epstein.

  16. I must be the odd man out here for I’ve never been a fan of Dylan at all. I have one song of his in my entire music collection, and that’s “Positively 4th Street”. I keep it mainly because of its viciousness. The only Dylan album I ever owned was a Highway 61 CD that I bought used and ended up giving away. Yes, I’ve heard all of his better albums multiple times but I still don’t like the guy. His voice grates and the too-often simplistic or ill-judged music doesn’t provide enough pleasure to compensate. There are maybe a half dozen of his songs that I genuinely like. That’s it. Go ahead and call me a Philistine – you certainly won’t be the first.

  17. I will only call you a man who doesn’t like pizza!

  18. hrrundivbakshi

    Tonyola: I don’t know if you’ve been around the Hall enough to know exactly what this phrase means, but — despite the fact that I’ve grown to enjoy the first two or three Dylan LPs — in general, WE REACH!

  19. psssst: tonyola, I founded this place and I still don’t get what that term means!

  20. tonyola

    I love pizza. But Bob Dylan is the anchovies on my pizza. Take ‘en away!

  21. misterioso


  22. misterioso

    tonyola, I doubt you are the odd man out: I think there always have been and always will be people who don’t take to Dylan.

    Still, even at this late date, I find it startling that anyone with even a passing interest in rock and roll would not take to at least a cautiously short list of great Dylan records, and it is hard not to conclude that you aren’t seeing the pizza for the anchovies.

  23. tonyola

    I’m old enough to remember when “Like A Rolling Stone” was #1 on Top 40. As I said before, I’ve heard every important Dylan album multiple times starting with older brothers, then high school and college and so on to the point of saturation. I will say that Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde represent Dylan at his best, but not enough for me to keep them in my collection or actively seek to listen to them.

    But I’ve also never been a fan of even tuneful folkies and rural/country music is generally a turnoff to me unless it’s infused with some genuine rock and roll. Just as an example, I find Joni Mitchell’s early albums to be mostly dreary and precious. Once she got some serious musical sophistication on Court and Spark, she became much more listenable. That album and the next few are by far her best.

  24. hrrundivbakshi

    I dislike Dylan, but LOVE anchovies. As Townsman Machinery once famously asked: what’s wrong with me?

  25. New poll posted. PLEASE RESPOND!

  26. hrrundivbakshi

    Come on, TEAM ANCHOVY!

  27. I really respect Dylan but I probably don’t like him as much as many folks. And I don’t order them much but I like anchovies more then a lot of folks. So I’m not sure how to vote in the poll. But I think the more apt pizza example would be if Tonyola said he didn’t like peperoni pizza. That’s something I could relate to. Everybody loves peperoni pizza, but not me. I’m not sure why, but I don’t get it. And can we all agree that if Dylan is a peperoni/anchovy pizza, Donovan is the Domino’s stuffed crust pizza of the rock world? Trying way too hard, and ultimately unsatisfying.

    I’ve had several Old Fashioneds, by the way…

  28. misterioso

    So, Hejira “si” but Highway 61 Revisited “no.” There you have it.

  29. tonyola

    All right, Misterioso, here’s my beef with Highway 61. It it Bob at this most clever and energetic? Undoubtedly. Does he have fine players? Sure. But the record is musically a little too careless, casual, and tossed off. That dissipates what could have been really powerful music. Couldn’t they tune the piano for Ballad of a Thin Man? The annoying “Ahhh…” Bob uses to begin verses. Have you noticed that Bob fluffs his entrance on the final chorus of “Like a Rolling Stone”? He comes in one beat too early. Any other artist would have done another take and gotten it right. But nooo – we don’t tell One-Take Bob what to do, do we? I wish Bob would have cared as much about the music and sound as he did his poetry. And that in my mind is what keeps Highway 61 – and Dylan himself – from being truly great.

    You can be rough and crass in rock and roll, sure – not everything has to be as polished as Steely Dan. However, in the end it’s still the experience for the ear that counts – even self-professed primitivists like Lennon knew that. Bob is a singer and a poet, but he way too often comes off as not giving a shit about the music. He’s far closer to the Shaggs than Steely. That’s a fatal flaw for me. And yes, I’d rather listen to Hejira. That’s because Joni and the people around her cared.

  30. misterioso

    tonyola, I gotta say, I don’t get the problem. I just can’t hear where these “flaws” (if flaws they be) in any way diminish the brilliance of that record (or many other Dylan records). I simply cannot imagine anyone listening to Like a Rolling Stone for 6+ minutes and being left shaking his head and muttering, “Not a bad song, but he ruined it when he came in late in that last verse.”

    There is a cliche which I think is often quite apropos: the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    In the end, I think you’re confusing “not giving a shit about the music” with a recognition that the power of a particular recording or performance does not necessarily dwell in its perfection.

  31. Although I strongly disagree with tonyola here, I’ve got to give him credit for making the type of fuddy-duddy argument I would make for an artist truly deserving of these criticisms, like Husker Du.

  32. tonyola

    “…in any way diminish the brilliance of that record (or many other Dylan records).”

    Ah, you see – you regard Dylan’s brilliance as axiomatic, as if it’s unnatural and even heretical to think otherwise. I don’t see true brilliance in any of Dylan’s records, but Highway 61 comes as close as any. But it’s still a miss.

  33. misterioso

    Well, not quite axiomatic. I am not arguing that the lack of good songs, the terrible production, and crappy singing do not diminish the greatness of Empire Burlesque. (Which is far more “professional” sounding than Highway 61, say.) But if anything in rock can be said to axiomatic, I am comfortable applying that term to the greatness of Dylan ’65-’66.

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