Once Were Brothers
Robbie Robertson and The Band
May be free on Kanopy, depending on your public library. It’s on mine.
Disclaimer: this movie is purely from Robbie’s point of view. If you’re one of those people who don’t like him, this may not be for you.
The Band came along in the very height of the counterculture, and yet they were nothing at all like anyone else. Their songs didn’t resemble anyone else’s. They even put their parents on an album cover, for God’s sake, at a time when everyone was supposed to hate and despise their old-fashioned parents.
Although they did act as a unit (The Band!), Robbie Robertson was always seen as the leader, although he didn’t sing most of the songs His guitar was a part of the songs but it didn’t dominate them He wrote nearly all the songs, which meant that he got most of the songwriting royalties, and that’s a recurring issue with musicians from popular bands of long ago: if you don’t write, forty years later you’ll be bitter that you missed the big payday. Just contributing to the arrangement doesn’t count; it has to be the melody and/or the lyrics.
Nowadays, modern singers are wise to this, and independent songwriters accuse them of making trivial changes to their songs in order to share the songwriting royalties. “Change a word, get a third” is their saying.
The movie is narrated by Robertson. He was raised partly in Toronto and partly in the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, since his mother was Cayuga and Mohawk. The rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 50’s bit him hard and never let go. He got a guitar at an early age and started playing in bands around Toronto. His band was selected to open for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, an early rockabilly band that was quite successful in its day. At the age of 16, he got invited to go down to Fayetteville, Arkansas to audition to be in the Hawks. Heaven for a young rock ‘n’ roller! He sold his Fender Stratocaster and took a train to the heart of the blues.
Levon Helm, the drummer and singer on Up on Cripple Creek, among many other songs, was already a drummer with the Hawks. Robbie and Levon became inseparable. The Hawks were initially all Arkansas boys, but as each one quit, Ronnie took his guidance from Robbie and Levon, and replaced them with a Canadian musician. Eventually, Levon was the only American in the band.
These guys worked constantly, until they were one of the best white rock bands around. Ronnie Hawkins admits that eventually they became too good for him, and they went out on their own
But Robbie said, “We didn’t want to be a bar band.”
One day they were in a studio at Columbia Records in New York with their friend John Hammond, Jr., and he introduced them to Bob Dylan. Dylan wanted to go electric and he wanted to do it with the best musicians he could find. There they were. He hired them. Here’s Robbie to the right of Bob:
Robbie explains that Dylan was almost the only person who thought this “Dylan music, but with a rock beat” thing was a good idea. Everywhere they went, people boo’ed them. In Europe, where they initially hoped, “Well, maybe they’ll like it here!” — no, the Europeans hated it too. But Robbie met his future wife in Paris. Her knowledge of French literature and poetry rubbed off on him, he says.
Back in New York, Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman had a place in Woodstock, and he invited the guys to come up there where no one would bother them. Robbie says, “Rick found us this ugly pink house” (which you can now rent on Vrbo, for only $725 a night!):
They set up a studio of sorts in the basement and took to playing and recording there. Bob Dylan came over every day and worked on his songs with them. Levon Helm, who had left the Hawks and gone to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, came back to be their drummer. This eventually led to the “the basement tapes” which early rock critic Greil Marcus wrote about, extensively.
In Woodstock, they were only minor celebrities in the town
The townspeople used to say, “Oh, those guys, they play with Bob. They’re in the band.” The name “The Band” stuck.
Robbie talks about how he wrote one of his most famous songs, The Weight (which has been covered by nearly everyone including Bruce Springsteen): he looked inside his Martin guitar, and it said, “Made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.” Thus the lyrics, “I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling about half past dead.”
The guys listened to the playback and they kinda liked it. They played it for Dylan, and he said to Robbie, “YOU wrote that?” The album “Music from Big Pink” came out, and the world changed. Springsteen says, about the moment he first heard it:
This is the middle of the psychedelic era in popular music. Something comes on that’s the antithesis of where music had been moving. Here come all these voices that sound like you’ve never them before, and like they’ve always been there, forever and ever.
These four Canadians and one American had managed to capture what Greil Marcus calls “the old weird America.” Martin Scorcese said they reminded him of some 19th century American literature, like Herman Melville.
Eric Clapton went up to Woodstock hoping he could join The Band. He said to them, “Let’s jam!” and they said, “We don’t jam.” They were a songwriting outfit. Clapton wasn’t invited to join.
Robbie had kids now with Dominique, his wife, but the other guys were still single, and they drank a lot and wrecked cars, and experimented with heroin. It’s an old, familiar story with musicians who hit it big, unfortunately.
David Geffen, a music executive, saw Robbie as his gateway to Bob Dylan, and signing him would really make Geffen the king of the music business. He convinced Robbie to move to Malibu, and then he came up with the idea of The Band and Dylan going on tour, playing together again.
But the hard drugs were still there. Richard Manuel actually missed a concert in Cleveland because he’d lost his stash and couldn’t go on. It wasn’t fun anymore. Robbie’s idea was to bring it to a culmination with one last concert, a celebration of an era, which you can see immortalized in The Last Waltz, a brilliant concert movie directed by Martin Scorcese. It had Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, and a host of other stars, and is one of the best music movies ever made.
Scorcese explains how meticulously he prepared the movie, with charts of which camera would be on which musician, for which lyric, and how he decided to never show the audience’s reaction. I’d never realized this until now, but isn’t it tedious to see those audience reaction shots interrupting the music, with people clapping over their heads and yelling? The master director did it right. Now go and watch that movie.