When Good Albums Happen to Bad People: Robbie Robertson, “Robbie Robertson”
Robbie Robertson’s recorded output with his legendary band — that is, The Band — and his solo career would seem like different beasts on the surface. While The Band was known for its exploration of the various forms of American roots music — folk, country, and rhythm and blues — his solo recordings have aimed for a more expansive sound, incorporating electronic instrumentation, prog-rock arrangements, and even dance remixes. But beyond that, Robertson’s solo career actually follows a similar level of output as The Band: two good albums (or in the case of The Band’s first two, great albums), followed by a few more middling works, and then absolutely nothing for at least a decade. Eleven years passed between The Last Waltz and Robbie Robertson, and it was ten years this March that Robertson’s most recent record (Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy) came out. Don’t expect that drought to be broken any time soon: The only times in the last few years that Robertson has been attached to music was to help oversee The Band’s 2005 retrospective box set, and to make an abbreviated appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads guitar festival last year.
Robertson’s solo career also follows a similar pattern as to his time both within The Band, and after their breakup: the pattern of being thought of as a flaming jag-off. How much a jerk you believe Robertson to be is usually inversely proportional to how much you like his former Band-mate, Levon Helm, since most of the more juicy tales about Robertson are tied to the decades-long feud between the two men.
-Both seemed to blame the other for the suicide of The Band’s Richard Manuel. Robertson loathed the road, seeing it as a killer and “a goddamn impossible way of life“, and apparently blamed Helm because Helm supposedly dragged Manuel along on the sans-Robertson incarnation of The Band, putting more pressure on the depressed and alcoholic Manuel until he got to the breaking point and hung himself in his Florida hotel room during a 1986 tour. Helm blames Robertson for breaking up The Band via his unilateral decision, and leading Manuel to be in no financial position to to afford proper treatment (since Robertson controlled almost all the songwriting and publishing royalties), and contends that re-forming The Band actually allowed Manuel to survive longer, regardless of his tragic end coming on tour. Robertson would eulogize Manuel on the opening track of his first solo album, “Fallen Angel” (download).
-As for the issue of royalties, while most of The Band’s songs — especially after their first album — are listed as Robertson solo compositions, Helm says that there was much more of a group dynamic to the musical construction of the songs, but that due to some boilerplate in their recording contract, Robertson ended up able to claim full credit for both the lyrics and music after a certain point. Helm says that this became more and more a point of contention as The Band continued on, especially when other artists started covering Band songs. On top of that, the other four members of the band had seemingly no power to renegotiate the contract, nor was their any desire from Robertson to help his other band members out. This argument continues to this day, as just last year Helm sued Cingular Wireless for using “The Weight” in one of their commercials. Apparently, they got consent to use the tune from Capitol Records and Robertson, but didn’t bother talking to the other two living members of The Band (Helm and Garth Hudson) before using the original recording in the commercial. Helm’s statement to a journalist on the ad — “It was just a complete, damn sellout of The Band; its reputation, its music; just as much disrespect as you could pour on Richard and Rick’s tombstones” — seems to also say that someone (hint: initials RR) cared so much about making money that he couldn’t be bothered asking what his former bandmates wanted, and in doing that, he was basically pissing on another two men’s graves. [2012 update: Helm lost the lawsuit.]
-As to the breakup of The Band, it generally seems to be accepted that it was Robertson’s unilateral decision that The Last Waltz was the end of the line, though Robertson has also said that he had wanted the group to continue on as a studio unit, like what The Beatles did after Revolver. Even if that was Robertson’s original notion, it didn’t hold true, as he became more interested in living a Hollywood lifestyle afforded by both his exposure in the film and his Band royalties: hanging and partying with his new best friend Martin Scorsese, being musical “selector” for films, taking copious amounts of cocaine, and spinning off his leading-man good looks into the occasional acting gig. Helm, meanwhile, has disassociated himself from The Last Waltz, calling it a disaster, what with the WTF? appearance of Neil Diamond, and nary a shot of Richard Manuel throughout the film. More than that, though, it promoted the false mythology that Robertson was a true leader/director of the band, and the other four were really his backup. Helm talks of seeing the completed film at a preview: “For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost entirely on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone.”
This is a feud for the ages which nothing has or likely will ever lessen: not Manuel’s death, not the induction of The Band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Robertson, it seemed, didn’t want to perform on the same stage as Helm at the induction concert, and played instead with a session drummer and the other two (at the time) living members of The Band), and not through either Levon’s throat cancer, or the pancreatic cancer that nearly fell Ronnie Hawkins, who The Band fronted before they went on to backup Bob Dylan. These dudes just hate each other. It would not be surprising to discover that the opening salvo of Robertson’s “Showdown at Big Sky” (download) was based not just on Robertson’s view of American history, but his history with Helm, the only American in The Band: “Soldier of fortune / He’s a man of war / Just can’t remember / What he’s fighting for.” [2012 Update: Robertson finally visited Helm in April 2012 as Helm was about to succumb to his cancer.]
Who to side with? Should this post actually be about Levon Helm and his comeback album Dirt Farmer (the second-best album I heard last year)? Perhaps, but the tiebreaker, for me, is how both the general public and former colleagues tend to view each of the men, and on that basis, Helm comes out on top. Even Bob Dylan, in his autobiography Chronicles, Vol. 1, has negative words for Robertson, while on fan sites for The Band and guitar-related chat boards, people praise Robertson as being a great guitarist and good composer….in spite of him being an asshole. Meanwhile, nary an unkind word is to be found about Helm from the same crowds.
Finally, that great social arbiter Google has this to say: search for the phrase “Robbie Robertson is an asshole” and you get four exact matches. Search for “Robbie Robertson” with either the word “asshole” or “jerk” nearby, and you get a few more matches about him being one or the other. Do the same searches, but using “Levon Helm” instead: nothing.