The film, produced by Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, is a reflection on lightning in a bottle that was Robertson’s career. The musician is a great storyteller, describing personal stories of being on a Canadian reserve, meeting Jewish uncles he did not know, and discovering rock’n’roll. Most of the film focuses on his acting career, which began when he started writing songs and playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Eventually, he started touring with Bob Dylan – to hooted crowds who didn’t like a “new style of play” – then formed The Band with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. (The last one, who is still alive, is not interviewed in the film, possibly deliberately due to song composition conflicts.) Their debut album, “Music from Big Pink”, was magical, and generated a handful of subsequent albums before filming “The Last Waltz,” the Martin Scorsese concert documentary that recorded their last public appearance.
“Once Were Brothers” chronicles the group’s success and its tragedies – car accidents and addictions – which all made “something so beautiful ignite”, as Robertson eloquently describes it.
The musician discussed with Salon his life, his music, his hypnosis and his new film.
You have wonderful descriptions of the music – that the music of the Delta region is “as heavy as air”. Or the way that Dylan’s electric guitar was “a musical revolution that has broadened horizons”. I’m curious to know what a song impresses you? How does your ear tune?
There are a hundred different things that can press the button, and sometimes the story is told and just that. And sometimes that’s what I learned from Bob Dylan – that someone can say something fun to hear, or that he has a cool way of saying it, but it’s something that has to to be said. Early for Bob, this is the path he was following. I got on a different train. Many people who have started rock and roll have followed folk music. I don’t have it at all. For me, rock roll n ’roll was the noise that shook the world for me. It had to do with sound and rhythm, rebellion, attitude and number one – it was sexy. So for me, when I was 13, rock ‘n’ roll certainly rang my bell.
In the meantime, before that, I was in this very unusual setting. My mother was born and raised on the Six Nations Indian Reserve. Lots of Indians played instruments, and that’s what made me play music. They sang country music. It was their connection to the outside world because they lived in the country. It was related to cowboys. So it was ironic to see Indians singing cowboy songs. I also made this joke before. My first guitar that my parents took me out of a catalog, had a picture of a cowboy because that’s how they came. The Indians taught me to play.
You talk at the start of the film that the creative process is best when you are “caught off guard”. Thinking about your composition, you discuss the freedom to write without constraints. The film illustrates how you found the sentence: “I arrived in Nazareth …” for “The Weight”. Do you write lyrics and put them to music, or is there a beat in your head when you compose the lyrics?
I couldn’t imagine at a very young age that there was a place for songwriters to go do that somewhere. I do not know where it comes from. It was such a beautiful mystery. When I was 15, Ronnie Hawkins took me from Toronto to New York to the Brill Building so that I could hear songs that it would be good for him to record. He had faith in my ear. I went to see a songwriting factory. [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoler was there, and Otis Blackwell was in another room. They wrote great hit songs for people who went out into the world. I went, “Whoa! It’s Tin Pan Alley. It’s a mythical place. I thought, “Isn’t that fantastic? “
So writing a song for these guys is like getting up and going to work. There were a lot of songwriting teams. But they were going into this room to sit, and whether you bring something with you or not, that’s the question. Sometimes you can think of a phrase, “lonely weekends,” and I’ll write a song about lonely weekends. But 90% of the time, I was taking a guitar or sitting on the piano and I didn’t know what was going to happen. But the feeling of putting your hands on the keys and making a sound that involves something that helps you tell a story or find a sentence, and they come together. Sometimes you find a nice chord progression and you think I have to write lyrics. Dylan wrote all the words and I thought, isn’t music the first? It’s traditionally like that [George] Gershwin or [Burt] Bacharach would work. They had a formula: write the words or write the music. I had no formula, I was just looking for that ray of light to happen, and often I would sit with a guitar and nothing would happen. I am bored. Or, I don’t like this guitar. And another time, it was taking me somewhere. I found a clue and that led to another. Many people have their own secret method and my secret method was presented with a blank canvas.
There are very dark moments in the film about your group mates’ dependence on drugs and alcohol. You reflect on this in the film. What can you say about these experiences?
Being in the moment, it was, on a good day, scary to think, “I hope someone will not die. “It is a horrible feeling. Then you think we are here for a reason. I hope we can do what we came here for: playing music. That’s when it degenerated into one place – it’s a progressive thing. When he got to that level, it was a roll of the dice. Let me be very clear: I was not an angel. I was not Mr. responsible. I was just better than the others and able to say, “Is everyone okay? But even if people are not doing well, they say they are.
It happened to a place where I thought someone was going to die. It was on the road – wilderness in itself. Back in the 1970s, wherever you went, people wanted to befriend you by having some kind of drug to offer. “I have a gift for you …” It was always a magnet that pulled you somewhere, and that’s why “The Last Waltz” won me over. We had to get away and not be as vulnerable. We knew nothing about addiction. The group was by no means unique in this area. Each group was in the same boat.
You visit Levon Helm on his deathbed. I understand from the film that there was a conflict over typesetting credits and money. Would you like to comment further before waiting until it is too late to reconnect to Helm?
Here’s something I haven’t said before. To date, on The Band songs, I share editing and composing credit with Levon. The other guys said they wanted to sell their share of the edition. When we started, everyone was supposed to write songs. [When they didn’t] I thought they were lazy. But some people can write songs, others can’t. Levon did not write any songs. I gave him credit for certain songs because he was there. Garth was a great musician, but he couldn’t write. Ringo Starr does not write songs. Charlie Watts doesn’t write any songs, and they don’t share the publishing credit with the other guys in their bands. After 16 years together, Levon never mentioned songwriting. When it first appeared, I was generous about it. I did things I didn’t have to do and I did it to be a good friend. It was 10 or 15 years after that when Levon was in financial trouble, and he blamed someone else for what happened with him. This was another case of this.
I was also struck by the suggestion in the film that David Geffen signed and wooed you because he really wanted Dylan. What do you think?
No. I know it was said, but David is still one of my best friends. We hit him. he [said] he could make us leave Capitol Records and let us do whatever we want. He tried to do better than we had and encouraged me to move west. I did the Woodstock thing. In this process, I said that you should meet Bob who moved to Malibu. It was my idea. David never asked me to introduce him to Bob. David said we should do another tour together. It would be history! Bob and I thought it would be fun. Bob hadn’t been on the road in eight years. He wanted to do something.
“The Last Waltz” is a canon documentary that has helped cement your working relationship with Martin Scorsese. Can you tell us about your collaboration with him over the years?
I worked on 10 or more films with him and it was such a broad horizon of things that needed to be done and determined. We are even working on the music for the next film. It’s a remarkable and wonderful relationship. Marty has a very special gift not only for the cinema, but also his sensitivity in music. What we have done has been consolidated over the years. He’s a dear friend. I love working with him.
The film doesn’t touch your acting career, but why didn’t you continue this after appearing in “Carny”?
I did so much on this film, I burnt out a bit. What is gratifying in music is its lonely part. You go into your own world, do something and come back with something that did not exist. Of course, you collaborate with others, but this cinema experience, there are so many cooks in a kitchen! I produced “The Last Waltz” and “Carny”. The director, screenwriter and producer of “Carny” convinced me to participate. It was amazing, but after that I thought, give me this guitar please!
You state in the film that you end up with memories. What are you thinking in these heady days? Do you look back with tenderness or regret?
It was like everything else – half was beautiful and half, I didn’t know what was going on. It’s a balancing act. God, there were good intentions. John Lennon really wanted people to connect in the best way. Who does not want peace? Or is this love special and the most important thing in the world? Looking back and thinking, “This is a waste” is awful. People really wanted to.
What do you think of the current music industry compared to the time? Things have changed dramatically, but do you think it has improved over time?
I think there’s always good music and people who do really special stuff. Sometimes you have to dig deeper or look beyond the obvious. For me, the difference is the late 1960s and the 1970s – that period that everyone holds holy – because music was the voice of the generation. Now it’s just great entertainment. Some people are really talented. But people were listening to music [back then] to find out how they connected. Now, unity is nonsense.
I was amused by the story of having a hypnotist to help you play. Was it a unique thing or did you continue hypnosis?
Years ago I went to a hypnotist because I didn’t want to smoke cigarettes anymore. I’ve experimented over the years, but no one was as good as Pierre Clément. It was unexpected. I was so sick and yearned to feel better. I went with. “Please help me and allow me to feel better. I said, “I’m going to fall under your spell or your spell. I will do whatever you want me to do. “
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the band” will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday May 26.