Robbie Robertson: “My teenage self wouldn’t believe the life I’ve had”

The legendary guitarist and songwriter of The Band reminisces his improbable, incredible rise to stardom, his friendship with Martin Scorsese and helping Dylan go electric

Not long ago I wrote a song called Dead End Kid. And it’s about when I was 16 and I had this ambition, this musical dream. I was growing up in Toronto, living between the city of Toronto and the six-nation Indian reserve, where my mother was born and raised in the Mohawk nation. And in that world when I talked about my ambitions and my dreams, everybody said, none of these things are gonna happen to you. You’re probably gonna just end up in trouble. You’re just a dead end kid. But I couldn’t hear them. I could not understand these limitations, or this lack of imagination, or ambition. I knew I was going to go out into the world and make music. And I was dead serious. So when I was 16 I went from Canada down to the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas, and I joined up with a rock’n’roll band [Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks]. And I began my journey.

My mother thought whatever I wanted to do, whatever my dream was, it must be good. I was an only child and she just went along with my imagination. And as it turned out, she wasn’t that wrong. But I still had to do some convincing, that I could leave school and go off to join a band. I said, if I don’t do this, if I don’t try, I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life. You gotta let me go. And she said, right, but you have to promise me if it doesn’t work out, that you’ll come back and go to school. It was emotional, but she always knew I was somebody who wasn’t gonna be hanging around the house.

My teenage self wouldn’t believe the life I’ve had. Nobody would. It’s such a phenomenal story. Right from the start with Ronnie Hawkins, the experiences – you couldn’t make this stuff up. We toured from Mississippi down to Texas, all the way up to Canada. We were gathering music into our souls. And it was getting deeper and deeper. Then we outgrew Ronnie Hawkins and went out on our own and Bob Dylan heard us, and asked us to come and hook up with him. And that turned into being part of a musical revolution. I went from playing these joints where you were lucky if you got out alive when I was 16 to playing the biggest concert in the world, to 650,000 people at Watkins Glen in 1973, with the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and The Band. The world had never seen anything like it. So all of those things I dreamt of at a very young age, they actually came true. I would say to my younger self, see – I was right. I wasn’t kidding. I meant what I said.

There is a certain power and strength in music. I still believe that

Things got so big in the late Sixties. I went from thinking, I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do, I am going to control my own destiny, to realising the winds of change were so strong that I was now part of a movement. I was making music that was the voice of a generation. And I’m kind of grateful for that. We didn’t know it then but it was a unique experience. There’s a lot of great music today but it’s certainly not the voice of a generation. Nobody listens to music and says, “You know what? That is a force. We’re going to change the government. We’re going to change the world. And there’s a war going on and we’re gonna stop that war.”

Playing those electric shows with Bob Dylan in the Sixties, I did think at the time, I’ve never heard of anybody doing this kind of thing before. Someone on the scale that he was – the king of folk music, the voice, the guy that could write songs that caused armies to join together – suddenly changing everything and going in a different direction. I’d never heard of that in history and I’ve never heard of it to this day. And the way that people reacted; we got booed all over the world. And while it was happening, part of it you could laugh at, and part of it you could cry. But for us, it was about saying, “You know what? This music we’re making, it’s really good.” And we didn’t change, the world changed. The world came round to us. That was a powerful feeling. There is a certain power and strength in music. I still believe that.

The Last Waltz [the 1976 concert featuring The Band, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as a movie in 1978] was really about capturing The Band before my worst fears came true about where everyone was heading [a number of The Band developed heroin, cocaine and alcohol addictions]. Right from the start that brotherhood was such a powerful force. When we were really young we were our own gang. But as you grow up, you start raising families, one guy goes here, one guy goes there and things separate. It’s very natural. You encourage one another to go out and do something cool. You still want the brotherhood, but as time goes on destiny sets in. You can’t predict that but you can have a gut feeling. By the late Seventies I thought, we’ve got to get off the road. Somebody’s going to die. And eventually, Richard died [Manuel took his own life in 1986]. And then Rick [Danko] died. And then Levon [Helm] died. It was my worst fear. And I am heartbroken to say that fear came true.

I was no angel, but I didn’t want to hit a wall.I didn’t want to destroy what I had built. With the other guys, we started to understand something that we had very little knowledge of, and it was called addiction. It wasn’t about them rebelling, it’s because they couldn’t help it. And you say, hey, if you do that any more, I’m going to be really upset with you. But it doesn’t mean anything. And you realise, whoa, wait a minute, what’s going on here? This is bigger than me.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Martin Scorsese and I have a completely unique working relationship and friendship [Robertson worked on the score for many Scorsese movies including Raging Bull, King of Comedyand The Irishman]. We’re on the same wavelength. A lot of people in our age group run out of ideas, but we’re just getting our groove on. We were talking about this today, the next movie that we’re working on, an American-Indian story based on the book Killers of the Flower Moon. My friendship with Martin is an ongoing thing and I hope it never ends.

If I could have one last conversation with anybody it would be with my father. He got killed before I was born. [Robertson was 12 when he found out his real father was professional gambler Alexander Klegerman, who died in a hit-and-run accident in 1943]. Everybody has told me that he was a fantastic character. And I’ve lived all my life with the idea that I missed out on that. When I found out about him I was, in my own way, in shock. But it was when I learned, I can’t show it. I’ve just got to not let life freak me out. I knew what my calling was and I knew I was going to have to be tough inside.

If I could relive any time in my life it would be when I went from Canada to the Mississippi hoping, praying, begging Ronnie Hawkins to hire me. It was impossible. Because I was 16. I was too young to play in the places that they play. You had to be 21. And I wasn’t experienced enough or a good enough guitar player yet to be in this group. So I had to convince them that I was a force of nature. I showed Ronnie there was no competition for who was going to work harder. I slept with my guitar. He could see I truly was somebody on a mission. And he said to me, son, I’m going to give you a shot. I see something in you. That was like, holy shit. That was the first moment in my life that I ever thought, I’ve made it. I said, Oh my god, you’re gonna hire me – how much money am I gonna make? And he said, you won’t make much money but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is released in the US on February 21, with a UK release to follow soon.