For over five decades, Robbie Robertson has been at the forefront of popular music. From his backing of rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins and his stint as Bob Dylan’s touring guitarist, through to his founding of The Band and extensive solo work, he’s firmly established himself as an icon. With the release of his documentary Once Were Brothers coming in february, we sat down with the legend at the 2019 toronto international film festival.
—By Jason Gorber
Photographer Don Dixon
The Canadian legend has presented stories from his recent memoir in his documentary Once Were Brothers, an ode to his relationship to his fellow Band members and their journey from the streets of Toronto to the world stage. We spoke following the World Premiere of his documentary, an opener at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
You’ve lived with many identities – you’re Canadian, you’re Indigenous, and in your teens, you found out you’re Jewish. Could you talk about how these various facets have shaped who you are and how you make your art? At Six Nations, where my mom was from, I got introduced to music. It seemed to me that all of my relatives played an instrument, or they sang or they danced. They had to make their own entertainment – there weren’t big shows coming through Six Nations. Everybody played, so I thought I’ve gotta play too. My parents got me my first guitar that had a painting of a cowboy on it, yet it was Indians who taught me how to play! With my Jewish heritage, I understood where my drive and interest in show business came from.
Did you connect differently with people who were also making music? Did you engage with Bob Dylan at all, being two Jews from the middle of nowhere? And how did your Indigenous heritage allow you to relate to, say, Buffy Sainte-Marie? They were both effective in that part of your mind that thinks this isn’t just a coincidence, that this is somebody who knows where I’m coming from, who feels what I feel or something like I do. I love Buffy, and I think that she’s an amazing talent and we’ve known one another forever. And working with Bob, although it wasn’t in every day’s conversation, it lived back there. We both knew in our own way that we were from the ‘hood.
Or at least a shtetl. Yeah. [laughs]. And it’s still that way!
Talk about that first time you went down to the Southern U.S., to visit that cradle of musical civilization. That was so impactful to me. When I went from Canada to the Mississippi Delta, I did think it was a fountainhead. That this is where the music that has changed my life, that is everything to me, grows out of the ground. I’m going to the Holy Land here! Who lives down there? Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, on and on and on. Life moves in a different rhythm down there. This Mississippi river goes by, that makes you want to write a song immediately. My job, at 16 years old, was to convince Ronnie Hawkins to take over on lead guitar, even though I was too young to play in any of the places we played. No rockabilly bands have Jewish Indian Canadians in them! I had to overcome this and convince him that I could cut it, and my God, I did.
The documentary touches upon all of these people in Toronto who wanted to get your sound. Now kids go on YouTube and see immediately how to thrash. How did you get connected to knowing how to play a given chord voicing, to make the fuzz tone just right? How were you learning to make these sounds? In the South. Down there, in the Louisiana Hayride, these guitar players like James Burton and Fred Carter were playing like that. This sound, this type of playing, hadn’t reached Canada yet, so when I come back from the South with that everybody’s like, oh my, this guy’s the savior!
Is it literally like you’re learning a pentatonic lick from James Cotton? What is the process of you ingesting that, or is it just you listening to it and playing over and over again in your hotel room? I write in Testimony, my autobiography, that when I went down there I spent my first week’s pay at a record store in Memphis. I bought Howlin’ Wolf records, B.B. King records, Buddy Holly records, Roy Orbison, all of these things. My job was to absorb this in the deepest, quickest way. I was so young and life was on fire to me. I was doing everything on 11, doing it with an excitement and a fire that really dazzled everybody.
You have a lifetime of creating art. What continues to give you that excitement and that fire? The curiosity. There’s something built in in me – that challenge of every day not knowing if I can do it. That’s the process that you put yourself through. From when I was 16 years old, I still am on that mission.
Eric Clapton has often talked about wanting to join The Band. Was there ever serious consideration? Well, he never brought it up. He said he was afraid. He didn’t work up the nerve to bring it up. When he inducted The Band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he mentioned it that night. After the event I said to him “you never told me that!” He said, “Oh, I was too nervous and I was afraid to say no.” I said “Well, were you suggesting that you should take over as a guitar player, or did you think we should have two guitar players?” He never answered me. [laughs]
Could you talk about your relationship with Joni Mitchell? Joni’s a dear friend of mine, and I still think that she’s the queen mother of singer-songwriters. I can’t think of anybody who’s even challenged that to this day.
Bob vs. Joni? It’s apples and oranges to me. What Joni invented is very different musically from what Bob was doing. I mean, they both wrote lyrics above and beyond what other people were doing, but Joni made up tunings on the guitar, made up rhythmic feels and everything that were very different. I’ve played with both of them, and so that’s why I say apples and oranges because I realize it from a musical perspective.
A lot of Dylan rubbed off on you, and you rubbed off on Dylan, but your music falls much more into a Bob Dylan school. I think it seems like you played with Joni Mitchell, yet Joni Mitchell seems very different than the stuff you ended up doing. Is that a fair
comment to make? Well, both of them come from folk music. I don’t come from folk music at all.
And yet you wrote one some of the greatest Americana folk songs ever. That could be from hanging out with Joni, Bob and Neil [Young]. They all came from a folk music background, and my thing was always Rock and Roll, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues, Blues, Gospel, [and] all of these elements. We come from different backgrounds, different schools and everything. When you mix those worlds together like we did with Bob, oh, halleluiah!
One of my favourite things you wrote with The Band is the hiccup-y bass drop on “King Harvest.” That was influenced by a Stevie Wonder song that not many people know called “I’m Wondering.” The feel of it – I wanted some of that!
The Last Waltz is a dream concert for many, but if you could have anyone on that stage, no matter the era, who would you invite? You mean that I could invite Scott Joplin? I could invite Glenn Gould? There’s a couple of guys I would want in my band right there. I liked Robert Johnson as well. I thought he did some good work. A lot of those people I’ve already had the very fortunate experience to have worked with. Buddy Holly was really special to me. When I was 13 years old or something and I heard Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” at the malt shop across from R.H. King’s high school in Scarborough, time stopped for me. I don’t know what the song’s about, I don’t care what the song’s about. The intoxication of that feel, that music, that sound, I’m still reaching for that.