Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
By Harvey Kubernik © 2020
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, the feature documentary was premiered September 5, 2019 as the Opening Night
Gala Presentation for the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.
In February 2020 it opens in Hollywood at the ArcLight Cinema February 21st on Sunset Blvd. where Robertson that night will participate in a Q&A after the 7:30 PM show. It runs nationally on February 28th. UK and Europe distribution will follow.
Inspired by Robertson’s acclaimed 2016 autobiography, Testimony, director Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers documentary explores Robertson’s young life and the creation of The Band, one of the most influential groups in the history of popular music. The compelling film blends rare archival footage, photography, iconic songs, and interviews with many of Robertson’s friends and collaborators, including Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, and Ronnie Hawkins.
In 2019, Magnolia Pictures acquired the worldwide rights
In late January 2020 I was invited to the special screening Robertson, CAA Music, Brain Grazer, Ron Howard and Imagine Documentaries hosted at the Ray Kurtzman Theater in Los Angeles.
You’ll be hearing a lot about Roher. There’s plenty of unseen photos and archival footage. The editing was dazzling. There were many revelations on the screen.
“The first time I heard The Band was through my parents and I was instantly pulled toward their sound,” Roher said in the Magnolia Pictures press announcement. “Their incredible musicianship grabbed me, it seemed to come from a different place. The harmonies were rough and sweet. The music, timeless.
“I was hooked.
“The myth and legend behind the five men who made that music came into focus when I saw Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Waltz, as a teenager. Rick, Richard, Levon, Robbie and Garth seemed like itinerant outlaws, dust bowl union men, medicine show hucksters who stepped out from one of their own songs. They transcended celebrity, because they weren’t rock stars—they were musicians.
“When Robbie released his memoir, I devoured it. A wild musical journey built on a scattered upbringing in Toronto, on the Six Nations Reserve and in the living rooms of his underworld Yiddish relatives. I could see that this would make an extraordinary documentary, and making this film became my obsession. I would beg, kill, cry or steal to get this job. I wasn’t the obvious choice, but I hoped that what I lacked in profile, I could make up for in my unbridled passion for Robbie’s awe-inspiring story.
“Through sheer force of will, I wedged myself into the discussion. I told anyone that would listen that this was my dream project. My maxim: ‘I’ll die before this film isn’t great.’ The producers at White Pine Pictures and Shed Creative Agency recognized my verve and zeal, and soon after I had the chance to meet with Robbie at his studio in LA. I pitched him my vision, and promised I would work 25 hours a day, 8 days a week to make a documentary befitting of his mythic life. Robbie changed my life when he said, ‘kid, let’s make trouble together.’
“What followed was a whirlwind musical adventure of my own. I had the chance to sit with some of the most extraordinary musical artists of our time, delve deeper into Robbie’s life and get to work with, and learn from, some of the most talented and legendary people in the film business.
“Robbie’s story is about dreams coming true. It’s about a kid from Toronto who, against all odds, envisions a life for himself where he goes out into the world and achieves artistic success in the art form he was born to pursue.
“This is also my story. Robbie taught me that you must be willing to give everything to your art. You must be bold, uncompromising and thrust yourself into new opportunities with chutzpa and vigor.
“Robbie is uncompromising and tough. He demands greatness. If it’s not as good as it can be, why does it exist? It’s in this spirit that I made this film.”
In an effort to include the perspectives of the other four band members, Roher licensed archival interview clips of the late Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, and incorporated them into Once Were Brothers. “It was hard to find material with Rick and Richard, because they were more camera-shy than Robbie and Levon,” says Roher. “But we turned over every stone we could to find material with them because I really wanted their voices to be present in this film.”
As for The Band’s surviving keyboardist and saxophonist, Garth Hudson, Roher spent a weekend interviewing him on-camera. The footage, however, is not included in the finished documentary.
“He played music for me, and we had an amazing time together, but for reasons that are difficult to discuss, it soon became apparent we couldn’t use the footage. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to meet with him and shoot that interview. In the end, though, I understood that we had to find another way to add his voice to the documentary.”
If finding and securing rights to the mountains of archival material and conducting hours of detailed interviews was a challenge, it paled in comparison to winnowing it all down and organizing it into a two-hour film, stated Roher.
“In terms of an intellectual pursuit, narrowing down 700 pages of interview transcripts into a cohesive 100 pages was among the most difficult things I’ve ever done. From there, we trimmed it down even further to 60 pages that told the entire story. I wanted it to reflect the kind of kinetic energy Robbie’s life and career has had. His memoir reads like cinema, and I wanted to tap into that.
“I felt it was important to speak with Ronnie Hawkins because he knew the members of The Band before they were anybody,” says Roher. “So he really was able to see firsthand, with great clarity, the monumental shift that took place in some of their personalities later on. Perhaps it’s because Levon, Rick, and Richard are gone, but it felt like Ronnie spoke with us in a way that he’s never quite done before.”
According to Roher, each of the participants added something special to the narrative. “Bruce Springsteen was kind, respectful, and gracious to work with, and Eric Clapton’s interview was a great surprise for me because he spoke about drugs and addiction in ways that I didn’t expect him to,” he says. “And the fact that someone as interview-averse as Van Morrison agreed to speak with me was reflective of how much he admires Robbie.”
Roher also spoke on-camera with Dominique Robertson – Robertson’s ex-wife – who offered a one-of-a-kind perspective on the history of The Band. “Not only is Dominique a wonderfully brilliant woman who witnessed a lot of what went on during those years, she’s also a therapist specializing in helping families who are struggling with addiction,” Roher explains. “So, her insights into what was happening with the members of The Band come with a great deal of critical precision. I’m enormously grateful for the empathy she brought to the project.”
Roher acknowledges that Once Were Brothers represents one perspective of a complex story. “The film is subtitled Robbie Robertson and The Band, because it’s Robbie’s story,” he says. “Everyone has a different perception of what went down, and this is his. Unfortunately, Rick, Richard, and Garth never got the chance to have books published or documentaries made about them. Levon, on the other hand, wrote a wonderful memoir and had a really moving documentary made about him.”
At the end of the day, Roher believes everyone should have their stories heard. “I just hope people will watch the film and see that it was made with a balanced approach.”
Robertson’s Testimony book, companion album and Once Were Brothers deftly complement one another to capture time and place–the moment when rock ‘n’ roll became life, when legends like Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley criss-crossed the circuit of clubs and roadhouses from Texas to Toronto, when the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Andy Warhol moved through the same streets and hotel rooms. Robbie bumped into them all: Otis Redding, Marlon Brando, Charles Lloyd, the Crystals, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Aaron Schroeder, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Morris Levy, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
“A lot of stories had mounted up over the years, and it reached a point where they were too heavy for me to carry around,” admitted Robertson in Magnolia Pictures production notes.
“The only way I could get some relief was to set some of them free. Several authors had contacted me about writing my story over the years, but each time we’d hit a certain point where things just didn’t ring true to me. It sounded like somebody else was trying to impersonate my voice, so I ended up writing every word of it myself.”
A New York Times bestseller, Testimony quickly attracted the attention of filmmakers. “After it was published, a couple of people approached me and said they were interested in making a documentary based on the book, but I wanted to wait until I found someone who just sounded real to me,” Robertson explained.
Elliot Landy supplied the majority of the photos that appear in Once Were Brothers. Landy, who spent a great deal of time with Robertson and The Band during their time living and recording in the small town of Woodstock, New York.
“He was the first photographer we worked with,” notes Robertson. “He almost became part of the family in a way. It’s amazing that he got what he got, because the guys weren’t too keen on having somebody following us around taking pictures. Levon, in particular, hated it. But Elliott was able to do what he needed to do without annoying anybody too badly. That was quite a special gift that he had.”
Robertson says he hopes audiences who see Once Were Brothers will come away with a better understanding of the extraordinary music this once-in-a-lifetime musical collaborative created together. “What I really want people to realize is that this group, The Band, was one of the most unique musical entities ever in the history of rock and roll. There was never anything like it before, and there will never be anything like it again.”
I discussed Testimony in a 2017 interview with Robbie Robertson for Record Collector News magazine.
“I tried typing it on computer. I tried Dragon dictation. I tried everything and I ended up writing it long hand. And as I did it I thought ‘this is going to be around 400 pages, somewhere in that vicinity. And when I gave it to the publisher they said, ‘in book form this would be something like 840 pages.’ So I thought ‘I didn’t know what I was doing.’ So I had to do some cutting. There were a lot more stories and a lot more detail in it. Then I went to work in cutting it down to 500 pages.
“I wanted to do the structure thing like I said in the beginning where I start with the musical journey. I start with that. Then I can go back and talk about what got me to this place. I could do that. And after a while I’m on this train. I’m on this path and then I’m talking about another path that goes along parallel and that goes along side of it. And one catches up with the other one. And then they become one after a while. So that was the way. And I didn’t want it to be scattered. I wasn’t trying to do this to make it confusing. I was doing this to help the story right. Once I got up to a certain point and these two parallels came together then I was kind of off and running.
“So these stories got so heavy from carrying them around all these years that when I got to this place I thought ‘I can’t carry them all anymore. It’s too much.’ And writing this book I felt like ‘I can unload this.’ I feel lighter. I feel like now I don’t have to tell these stories anymore. I can hand you the book. (laughs).
“What I wanted to do was I wanted to start with music, but not that I was dipping my toe in the water. I wanted to start where the mission began. And the mission began when I took a train from Canada down to Arkansas. As I call it in the book, ‘to the fountainhead of rock ‘n’ roll.’
“Riding on that train going down there and the feeling that that gave me at age 16 was so pivotal, was so deep in my overall journey. In my whole experience that I thought, ‘That’s where I’ll begin.’ And then I’ll do these flashbacks to what got me to the train.
“One of the things that I really took away from that was that Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman or Leiber and Stoller, or Otis Blackwell, and a thing I had to cut out with Titus Turner, who was an incredible character.
“Anyway, one of the things I really got from them, because the obvious thing was that they tapped into something that felt good. But it had to feel good. The song could be about anything but it had to feel good. And I was like. ‘Wow…’ It would be one of the guys sitting at the piano playing. ‘Let me think of something. What about this?’ And they would start to play something. I was studying. I didn’t know what the song was about but it feels good. So I just thought coming in that door, coming in the back door of something, that when you start this thing if it doesn’t feel good then stop right now. ‘Ah ha. That’s something.’
“I thought who would think in their wildest imagination that Tin Pan Alley was a real place. The Brill Building and then Donnie Kirshner’s thing. All of it was actually in a place you could go. And the doors were golden when you walked in. And inside there in all these rooms were people who wrote songs and sent them out to the whole wide world.
“I had such a respect and a connection feeling for these people. And I knew Doc and Mort all of their lives. Doc and Mort remained friends. And I recorded with John Hammond, Jr. on an album that Leiber and Stoller produced. I was friends with Jerry and Mike, so to say none of that rubbed off on me just wouldn’t be true,” underlined Robertson.
“I wasn’t the lead singer in The Band. I don’t know if the Brill Building influence was that specific on arrangements and voices but I did try and soak up as much as I possibly could from the guys.
“So to say none of that rubbed off on me just wouldn’t be true. And it was stuff that I don’t know that if you grasp it on the surface but in a way of seeing the way these guys could adapt to these different artists. And they could write something and then cast it. Or, someone could say, ‘we need this. We’re coming to you.’ And they could write for that. And I thought that was a special gift. And I was doing that in The Band.
“I thought my job was in this was what they were doing too. My job was to say, ‘I’m going to write a song that Richard Manuel could sing the hell out of. I know what to do with his instrument.’
“Then, the other door was Bob Dylan who it wasn’t about that. It was about emotion and an energy, but it was really about saying something. It wasn’t about ‘these words could be anything.’ No. No. It was specific. So to me it was rebelling in a beautiful way against this other thing.
“I thought the sound was really important to me too. It still is. My first attraction to rock ‘n’ roll was just as much the sound was the song and the song was the sound. So when I heard these early Sun and Chess Records, I thought, ‘what is going on here?’ Before that, Les Paul and Mary Ford. This sound thing. Because records before that you didn’t think that much about the sound. It was a vocalist and some music in the background.
“When rock ‘n’ roll came along there was coming out of these different studios from places in Texas, Memphis and New Orleans. The sound of the records coming out of New Orleans that was [engineer and studio owner] Cosimo [Matassa]. What is going on here? The sound coming out of Chess Records in Chicago. I thought ‘what kind of a room is that? What is this magic?’”
In my 1975 interview with Robbie Robertson for Crawdaddy magazine, I asked him about the double keyboard combination of piano and organ. I wondered if the guitarist ever felt suffocated by this format.
“No. I play as much as I want to play. No one is telling me, ‘Listen, you’re playing too much.’ That’s my own decision. That’s how much I prefer to do. When I hear other people play a lot more than required I find it really drivel and there’s nothing in this fuckin’ wide world that’s going to do anything for the song; I don’t care. I like a good guitar part where it adds something, has a nice place and is a nice solo. Not too much, not too little. But I think as time goes on it just takes different proportions, and too much is unnecessary.”
Robertson’s guitar theory seems to simply extend his basic life philosophy of unhurried discipline.
Or, as Bob Dylan said when he called to talk about Robbie for the magazine: “Listen to his guitar playing. That’s all you have to know about him.”
When I spoke with Robertson ijn 2017 for Record Collector News we talked about the 2016 Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings issued Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, a 36 CD box of 1966 concert tours of the U.S., U.K., Europe and Australia.
When I earlier talked to Robbie in 1976 about the Band reuniting with Dylan on the 1974 tour he remarked “at least this past time we weren’t booed,” referring to confusing nights on the Dylan/Hawks 1966 tour.
I confessed to Robbie in our 2017 chat that I still have a hard time comprehending Dylan and the group being booed in 1966. What I remember about the three 1974 shows I saw, everyone was enthralled from the blend on stage.
“There was a thing that happened between Bob and The Band on stage that when we played together that we would just go into a certain gear automatically. It was like instinctual, like you smelled something in the air, you know, and it made you hungry. (laughs). It was that instinctual. And the way we played music together was very much that way. And whether, we were playing in 1966, or 1976, or when we did the tour together in 1974, we would go to a certain place where we just pulled the trigger. It was like ‘just burn down the doors ‘cause we’re coming through.’ And it was a whole other place that we played when we weren’t playing with him. So it was like putting a flame and oil together, or something. I don’t know.
“When we did the Dylan and Band tour in ’74, where we went and did a lot of the same things we did back in ’66, and the peoples’ response was ‘this is the shit and I knew it all along.’ It was like you weren’t really there all along. It’s interesting and it’s one of the things I talked about in my keynote speech that I made [last decade] at the SXSW conference.
“It’s really a very interesting experiment to see, or go from something that people were so adamantly against this music, and that we didn’t change nothing, and the world revolved, and everybody came around and said ‘this is brilliant.’ That was very interesting to see everything else change around you.
“Well, we didn’t change. [laughs]. I don’t know that this has ever happened to anybody else. And it is a phenomenon. And that’s why I feel bold enough to refer to it as a musical revolution, because the world came around. We didn’t. We didn’t do anything that much different. [laughs]. We just went out there and hit it between the eyes. And now people have a completely different reaction to it. And I thought ‘that’s kind of incredible that the world actually came to this place,” you know. And I don’t know who else has been through that.
Robertson and I reminisced about The Basement Tapes and Music From Big Pink.
“When we hooked up with Bob Dylan it was made clear to Bob and to Albert (Grossman) ‘this is a whistle stop for us.’ We are on our own path. We’ll do this in the meantime but we’re going to do our own thing. We’re not here. We’re here to do this. Right?
“After we did the thing with Bob and he wanted to do more. But he had this accident and so then, and I say this in the book, Albert had no idea what we were or what we could do. No idea. He liked us. He thought it was really interesting what we did with Bob. But he said ‘I think I can get you a deal for doing an album of instrumentals of Bob Dylan songs.’ So I said, ‘All right. Let me talk to the guys about that.’ (laughs). And I thought, ‘Albert has no idea.’
“When we recorded Music From Big Pink Albert was astonished by the results of that record. And he so embraced it and made it his own and all that other stuff vanished. He was like ‘I knew it all along.’ It fit so perfectly into his scenario.
“Bob and the Band were so close to Albert. We had been through everything together. Like I say in the book we were like war buddies. And we had gone to the edge together. And because we had done all that stuff and The Basement Tapes, and through all of this, still had no idea of what this was going to be when we did it. That was thrilling.
“I didn’t plan to have cover versions from the album. That was a different kind of validation, yeah. I loved that.
“But we did have the experience with Bob Dylan and in doing The Basement Tapes with the songs that were supposed to be shared with other artists to record. It was because so many people recorded Bob’s songs and we were hooked up together, you thought ‘Oh. That’s part of it.’ And how that struck me I didn’t think about it in writing the songs or making the records that other people would do. This was a very interior thing. This was a thing between the five of us in the band. Something that we had collected over ages and pulled it together and made this gumbo.
“Bob already had such a track record that you thought people are going to be drawn to this. If he put something out there for people to record, people are going to be drawn to this. It just seemed to me that this was something he’s already established. So it wasn’t after we sent out these songs and everything and it wasn’t me saying this is exactly what it was.
“Bob was involved in it. Garth was involved in it. Right? And part of it was just in fun. You know, we would record a song like ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere.’ And Bob would say. ‘Whatta you think. Ferlin Husky? Right? And it was half kidding around and half meaning somebody is going to but with the way that he is and the way that he thinks too Bob that he could insist on sending that song to Ferlin Husky first. You know what I mean? Just because he would do something like that. But when we said ‘OK. We’ve got to pull some of these things. We were recording a lot of stuff. We were covering songs and just having fun. And then every once in a while there would be an original one in all of this.
“And when we were doing this not with Bob, this was the germs and the idea and the beginning of Music From Big Pink. That was happening kind of in the back room too. So when we chose those songs to send out we were choosing what we liked. We were kidding around. I didn’t notice Manfred Mann could do a really great job on ‘The Mighty Quinn.’ I didn’t know that. But we were saying ‘that ‘Mighty Quinn’ thing has something to it.’ It really was what felt right in putting that collection together.”
The Band relocated to Hollywood to cut their second album. Was there a reason for this decision?
“We came to do it in Hollywood because it was too cold in Woodstock. (laughs). And we were from Canada. So we knew cold and we knew when to get out of the way. So we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to go and do this thing and go outside, where it feels beautiful and sunny and everywhere else it’s stormy. It was a good feeling inside and we felt we were getting away with something.
“Before Big Pink, I had had this dream of having a workshop. A place. A sanctuary where we could go into the privacy of our own world and do something and not be on somebody else’s lawn, to really be in our own environment, let alone away from studio union breaks. We go into a studio and the guy is like, ‘Well, it’s almost 4:00 p.m.…’ So all of these things are playing into it a little. Although the experience in the studio of recording Music From Big Pink was fabulous.
“The producer John Simon was great and the engineers were great at Phil Ramone’s A&R Recording, but the idea of having this private sanctuary and that it would have its own sound, its own sound and its own flavor. That’s where that Les Paul thing came back into the picture.
“It would be like Chess. We could have our own one. And it would not sound like any of these other places. Going into somebody’s environment and then saying, ‘You go over there. You sit here. And we’re gonna use this kind of microphone on you.’ I thought that was what you did with somebody else. ‘I feel like I’m getting seconds here.’
“I was thankful for that period of time too. Because it was now a period where an artist wanted to something that A&R guys like [Capitol Records engineer and staff producer] John Palladino had nothing to do with the music. He was never there when we recorded. No intrusion.
“So when I said, ‘we want to do this thing that started in the basement of Big Pink. We want to bring the equipment to us in our own atmosphere. And we want to record at whatever time we feel the spirit. We don’t want to be on somebody’s clock,’ John was like, ‘OK.’ ‘We just need the equipment to come to us.’ And he had to kind of go along with it, you know, but he didn’t understand it.”
Here’s a regional fact that informed the sound of The Band. The drum kit with wooden rims that Levon Helm used on the album recorded inside the pool house at entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.’s home in the Hollywood Hills was found at a pawn shop in Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd.
In 2018 I spoke with drummer Jim Keltner who was invited to a recording session in spring 1969 for a track appearing on The Band.
“I was playing with the Charlie Smalls Trio. Wilton Felder was the bass player. Charlie sang and played piano. We had two great girl singers. Charlie later wrote the big Broadway hit, The Wiz, which they later made into a movie.
“We worked the Daisy Club in Beverly Hills a few times. We were going to play the evening of [June 5, 1968] for a victory party when Robert F. Kennedy got shot.
“I met The Band through my dear friend and the amazing bassist, Carl Radle. We were with Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Leon Russell was the producer and arranger. We were all from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Carl took me up to Sammy Davis Jr.’s house high up in the Hollywood Hills where The Band were doing their second album for Capitol. They had a studio set up in the pool house. I think they had an eight-track machine. Carl knew Levon and the guys and he was the one who turned me on to the Music From Big Pink album. That album blew my mind. I listened to it all the time. I thought they were all Southern guys. And it was kind of a shock when I met them. Levon was the only guy from the South.
“If you are a singing drummer you have a great advantage. I’ve always played to the vocal and I found out that Ringo and countless other drummers, I’m sure, do as well.
“Levon was able to push or pull the groove any way he felt it by singing and playing at the same time. The way he felt space was magnificent. His biggest influences were the blues bands he heard as a young man. The geniuses from the Delta and around where he was from.
“So to hear that Big Pink LP and then go to a couple of tracking sessions in Hollywood for their next album and to hear Levon singing and playing with one of the greatest singing bass players, Rick Danko, who always made me wanna cry. Such a sweet soulful voice. And Richard Manuel was the voice that sounded like it was coming straight from heaven. Garth Hudson creating a totally unique sound for the Band. His keyboards seemed to have a voice just as soulful and timeless as Rick and Richard’s. And, of course, those epic songs and perfectly formed guitar parts and solos of Robbie Robertson.
“I was in New York in July 1969 with Delaney and Bonnie. One night I ended up at the Hit Factory, I think, could have been A&R studios. John Simon and Robbie and the guys were mixing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.’ They had recorded the track a few weeks earlier in Hollywood.
“I can’t even begin to describe what that scene was like. I was sitting in the back on a couch watching this happen. There were four or five pairs of hands all over the studio console. The song seeped into my soul so much so that later when I would hear it on the radio and remember that evening with those guys as they mixed I would just cry. It still gets to me when I hear it.
“Levon makes you believe this guy Virgil Kane and his deep Southern pride. I am so glad I met Levon as early on as I did. His goodhearted soulfulness helped change my outlook on music and people. I will never tire of hearing The Band play and sing those great songs.”
I asked Robbie Robertson in our 1975 Crawdaddy interview about crafting autobiographical songs and employing a third person narrative in some of his tunes heard on The Band.
“I just think it’s part of storytelling,” Robertson reinforced. “It isn’t anything to put the songs in the third person. Sometimes when you get that little detachment you can write about more. I’m Canadian and I wrote the song about the Civil War [‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’]. I didn’t know the story and it fascinated me. Everyone else took it for granted—they read about it in history class. When it’s strictly about yourself you’re ‘not allowed to deal with fiction.’ So it’s something that opens the gates a little bit,” he volunteered.
I’ve been at Village Recorders in West Los Angeles many times over the last few decades where Robertson has recorded for the last 44 years and quite aware of the studios history. It’s a 22,000-square-foot former Masonic temple long championed by such artists as Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and Jimmy Smith. Geordie Hormel, a musical composer, equipment dealer, and entrepreneur founded the facility in 1968.
I always wanted to know why The Band and Bob Dylan selected Village to record Planet Waves and mix the 1974 live Before the Flood album.
“I moved out to Malibu and Bob and I were hanging out. We’d been talking about a tour for years. All of a sudden it seemed to really make sense. It was a good idea, a kind of a step into the past. We felt if there’s anything that everybody expects us to do, that’s what it is. We quickly decided it was a good idea and a new day. The other guys in The Band came out and we went right to work. We started rehearsing anyway, so we thought we’d do the Planet Waves album and get back to rehearsing, and that’s exactly what we did.
“There weren’t many studios in this side of town. And when I came out from Woodstock and New York to the west coast, and I write about it in the book too, that David Geffen convinced me to go to Malibu. At the time I don’t know if I had ever been to Malibu. You know what I mean? We might have driven down there in an afternoon or something, but I didn’t know what Malibu was. So it just shows you how good David was in convincing me of something.
“Anyway, it was all west side. And Village was the only studio. And it was new. And my current room, my office, was studio C. The first room in the building. Where people recorded. And tons of people made records in this room. When I came along I took over this room. That’s why the office has this big window, because it was the actual studio. Then they built studio B. I don’t know why they started with a studio C. Maybe Geordie Hormel [original owner] thought ‘Oh. I’m gonna add and do stuff.’ Then the next room was B, and then studio A. And then studio D. And now there is other stuff upstairs.
“So the fact that it was on the west side was rule number one. Rob Fabroni was already here. When you came here to record he was the engineer who came with it. And Rob was terrific. I’ve done a ton of stuff here. It’s a west side story.”
During 1976 I was in Culver City on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie set on the Scorsese–directed New York, New York. I had lived in Culver City from 1957 to 1963 with my parents, Marshall and Hilda and brother Kenneth.
I was on the famed M-G-M lot with my own parking pass!
One afternoon I interviewed saxophonist Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who portrayed a trumpet player named Cecil Powell in the film. I was an extra in a crowd scene with stars Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. In 1975 I sat with her at a Rolling Stones concert in Inglewood at The Forum.
I met actors and soon-to-be friends Harry E. Northup and Don Calfa at one shoot. Harry was present at the 1968 Woody Guthrie Carnegie Hall tribute in New York where Dylan and the not-yet-christened Band did three numbers.
Harry told me that in 1975 he picked up his script for Taxi Driver from Scorsese, then residing in the same West Hollywood apartment building where I bunked with my folks on La Cienega Boulevard. Harry’s screen character was Dough Boy.
During I975, 1978 and 2017 I interviewed members of The Band.
In 1976 I attended The Last Waltz, the final show by The Band at the Winterland venue in San Francisco.
In November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published The Story of The Band From Big Pink to The Last Waltz a book I wrote with my brother Kenneth.
In our Record Collector News 2017 conversation, Robbie and I touched on the November 2016 Rhino Entertainment 40th Anniversary Editions of The Band’s The Last Waltz in various CD, Blu-ray, and vinyl formats.
On Thanksgiving Day 1976, the Band took the stage for the very last time at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco, California. For the landmark show, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson were joined by an all-star group of music pioneers and recording artist friends, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and Neil Young, among others.
The roots of The Last Waltz began when Jonathan Taplin, executive producer of the film, who had been the Band’s road manager for four years, and had produced Scorsese’s breakout film Mean Streets, introduced Robertson to Scorsese, who had helped edit Woodstock and Elvis On Tour. “I couldn’t let the opportunity pass,” Scorsese explained. “It was this crazy desire to get it on film, to be a part of it.”
“The idea was to get the most complete coverage possible, so our 35mm cameras were scanning and zooming for the action,” continued Scorsese. “When Bob Dylan shifts from ‘Forever Young’ to ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down, the film truly documents Robertson, Helm , Hudson and Danko adjust and play on.”
“I remember Marty saying,” Robertson mentioned, ‘This is something you never see. You’re never in on this.’”
The Last Waltz became the first concert documentary to be shot in 35mm, and influenced future music documentaries. “We live so emotionally and powerfully through those moments,” Scorsese felt. “The picture, for us, was so powerful. And it was bringing these emotions to us, creating the psychological atmosphere that I couldn’t verbalize then. But it was pretty scary. As exciting and as fulfilling creatively as it was, it was extremely frightening.”
Scorsese, with director of photography Michael Chapman and a team of seven cameramen, including Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, recorded the event that was produced by rock promoter Bill Graham. It was the same venue where they first debuted as the Band in April, 1969.
“There was something about this period from the ‘60s through the ‘70s, everybody had a pretty good run,” Robertson offered “When you watch these things over and over again, and how stirring these performances were, you’re almost seeing inside the whole era.”
Did Robbie and The Band members have interaction with Dylan before the show regarding song selections?
“For sure,” underscored Robertson. “We all through our thoughts into the hat and then we would try stuff, and if it felt right, then we just did it. It was one of those things like letting some higher power make the decision, because the proof was in the pudding. And “let’s play that song and see how it feels.” We would that and say, ‘that was fun. Let’s do that.’ But Bob wanted to do stuff that was connected with our origins together, which is why we did ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down,’ which we played back then, and ‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Had Met).’ And having a thread going back to 1965-1966, and because it felt real. And obviously ‘Hazel’ and ‘Forever Young,’ because us working together on Planet Waves.
“So it was trying to find a connection, and not just do something that nothing to do with anything. We wanted it to have some thought. Nobody suggested ‘Hazel’ but Bob said I think we should do ‘Hazel.’
“One of the things I’m excited about on the (new) Last Waltz is that we got to use ‘Hazel.’ But you know when we were saying, ‘OK. Out of all of the songs we can do together what do you think we should do?’ It was like we’ll do some of the stuff from the 1965-1966 period. We’ll do something from Planet Waves we had just recorded it a couple years earlier. And in mixing it up we ran through a bunch of crazy ideas too.
“Like Bob said ‘should we do a Johnny Cash song?’ And he would start singing a Johnny song and we all knew this was never gonna fly. But it would be fun to play it. We’d play through it and say. ‘Naw.’ But all of this stuff, it was really like throwing things up in the air and see where they would fall. But Bob said, ‘you know one song I think we should do is ‘Hazel.’ We were like ‘Really? OK. Let’s do it. And we ran through it and it felt pretty good. ‘All right.’ But we knew we wanted to do ‘Forever Young,’ because it connected to the occasion with all the people there and this generation and all of this stuff like Dr. John singing ‘Such a Night.’
“We had to make sacrifices originally, obviously, in the movie, because it’s a movie, and you have to edit a movie so it plays. But on the record we had a limited amount of space, too. And I was always taken by Bob’s performance on ‘Hazel.’ I thought he did an amazing performance on it and poured such passion into this song.
“This is the real thing in a setting of such respectful elegance and everything that when I was working on it I did think, ‘My God, I’ve known Van Morrison for all these years, I’ve seen him perform many, many times and I never saw him do what he did.’ Muddy Waters coming out there between all of these people and rock the very foundation of music in that whole place that night. This was like an outstanding experience. Sometimes I had to just catch myself not to be standing there with my mouth open.”
In my 2004 interview with Robertson I touted Muddy Waters’ appearance in The Last Waltz which was staggering.
Robbie marveled as well, “Because now when I’m watching it I’m also hearing it that way and the power of it. And what this man, and you look at him and say, ‘this guy…I don’t know what the Rolling Stones would have done, or a lot of music would have existed if it hadn’t been for this guy.’ And look at him, and can’t you see why?
“It is one of the high points for me in this. And just talking about pedal to the metal, and pulling the trigger, and he must have been about 65 or so, he came out and he was the daddy of the whole Delta blues scene for sure, but such a gentleman. He came out there with people who are so large and their own music, and held his own at 64, or 65, and didn’t take a step backwards. There’s a true master.”
I was invited to The Last Waltz movie premiere in 1978 at the Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood and found myself sitting in the balcony with Liza Minelli and Martin Scorsese.
During ’78 when I was West Coast Director of A&R for MCA Records I had been in a discussion with Minelli and her representatives about producing a live album for the label culled from her engagement at the Universal Ampitheater.
In February 2020 the real estate section of The Los Angeles Times reported that the former residence of Sammy Davis Jr. was for sale and listed at $6.129 million. Actress/singer Judy Garland and her husband director Vincente Minnelli lived there in the mid-1940s with young daughter Liza. The property was then owned by actor Wally Cox and purchased by Davis in 1955.
In 2017 I asked a Robertson a question about revisiting the catalog of The Band.
“I just feel extremely proud in the choice that we made to work together. I absolutely feel there are moments when I think…Whew…He’s the business. What talent. What an amazing emotional musical choice was made right there. I do feel those things,” disclosed Robbie.
(Harvey Kubernik is an award winning author of 16 books. His literary music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection Vol. 1, was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik’s The Doors Summer’s Gone was published by Other World Cottage Industries in February 2018. Harvey’s The Doors: Summer’s Gone has been nominated for the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.
During November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published Kubernik’s The Story of The Band From Big Pink to the Last Waltz.
In 2020 The National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. displayed Harvey’s essay on the landmark The Band album, that celebrated a 50th anniversary in 2019. In 2006 Kubernik spoke at the special hearings initiated by The Library of Congress that were held in Hollywood, California, discussing archiving practices and audiotape preservation.
Kubernik is writing a book on Jimi Hendrix for Sterling/Barnes and Noble scheduled for publication last quarter of 2020.
In 2020 Harvey Kubernik served as Consultant on a new 2-part documentary Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time directed by Alison Ellwood.