For a long time, Robbie Robertson kept his distance from the Band. The group's guitarist and songwriter, Robertson opted out when the other four original members reunited seven years after 1976's supposed swan song, "The Last Waltz." He also declined to participate on any of the three albums released by the Band during the '90s. But recently, Robertson, 63, has decided to revisit his best-known music, contributing audio commentary to the 2002 DVD edition of "The Last Waltz," overseeing the release of 2005's career-defining box set, "The Band: A Musical History," and cherry-picking the best of that collection for a newly released single-disc compilation, "The Best of a Musical History."
Calling from Los Angeles, Robertson spoke with Salon about reconnecting with his old music and touched on his relationship with former band mate Levon Helm, who, in the past, has accused Robertson of unfairly taking the lion's share of songwriting credit for a catalog loaded with classics like "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek."
What compelled you to get involved again with the Band?
I just really wanted to get the story right. There had been things done by the record company years ago -- they would just take it upon themselves to put together greatest-hits albums. I wasn't happy with what they had been doing. Plus, a lot of the things on the new album were only recently discovered; there were a tremendous amount of unreleased tracks lying around. But mostly I was just thinking that I didn't want to leave this up to somebody else to get wrong. I wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it. These are the musical choices I wanted to make. This is the artwork I like -- I got my friend Ed Ruscha to do the cover art for the box set. I just wanted to get it right.
Did anything surprise you when you went back and listened to the music?
I don't listen to my old music; it's just not what I do. But I had to listen to it in putting this album together, and what came back to me was that the whole story, the whole musical journey of the Band, was really unique. When the first album [1968's "Music From Big Pink"] came out, people acted like, "Where did these guys come from? Did they just step out of another world?" But they didn't realize that our music was the result of being out there as a traveling band and knowing the code of the road and playing the Chitlin' Circuit and paying our dues. And going from Canada down to play in the South made such a vivid impression upon me too. That's how someone who grew up on the Six Nations Indian reservation near Toronto could write "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." I felt like I was in the holy land of rock 'n' roll when I went down there, and that feeling came out in the music.
Is it bittersweet to look back on the Band's career given your relationship with Levon Helm?
I don't have any issues with Levon. I just haven't been in touch with him. I know he's upset about something. It just reached a certain point a long time ago where it seemed like he was always upset, so I stopped paying attention to him. I don't have any issues. I think Levon did a great job playing and singing some songs that I wrote.
-- David Marchese