It Is A Good Day To Die: Robbie Robertson, R.I.P.

And then there was one. Garth Hudson is the last  surviving member of The Band after the death of Robbie Robertson at the age of 80.

In case you’re wondering about the post title, wonder no more:

I grew up on Robbie Robertson’s music. It was a steady presence in my life even during times of upheaval and turmoil. That’s why this hit so hard despite his advanced years.

The details elude me but one of my first rock concerts was headlined by The Band. That experience and their music helped shape who I was and who I was to become. The term “the soundtrack of my life” is something of a cliché. I try to avoid cliches but it’s true in this case. Robbie was always there and now he’s gone.

I think of Robbie and The Band every fall as Thanksgiving approaches. It reminds me of attending The Last Waltz. I had to do some fast  talking to convince my parents it was okay to miss Thanksgiving dinner with the family. I’ve written about the importance of that holiday to my mother. I was able to convince her that this was a once in a lifetime chance. It was a good thing as I’d already paid for tickets.

Robbie’s passing reminds me of my own mortality. It’s hard to believe but The Last Waltz took place nearly half-a-century ago. I was a different person living in a different time in a different place. It was, well, different.

The Last Waltz led to the second phase of Robbie Robertson’s musical journey. He’d long been a film buff and he started to work in the movies via Martin Scorsese. Robbie composed several sound tracks and served as the music producer on some of Scorsese’s finest films. They were so linked in my mind that I used this as the featured image of the Martin Scorsese Dozen:

Hollywood, baby.

Robbie didn’t release his first solo album until 1987. It took that long because, while Robbie was a confident guitarist and songwriter, he was not a confident singer. He lacked the range of his colleagues Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm. His voice made up in soul and emotion for what it lacked in range.

Robbie’s first three solo albums were superb. He explored his Mohawk roots on his eponymous debut and Music From The Native Americans. The latter was a soundtrack album but contains some of Robbie’s best songs.

Then there was 1991’s Storyville. It explored his love of New Orleans and its music, which bound us even closer together even though only one of us knew it. Call it the wages of fandom. FYI, this post’s featured image is the cover of that fine album.

Robbie’s later solo albums focused on atmospherics and storytelling without the guitar virtuosity of his youth. His songwriting remained strong: As he aged, he wrote more and more about mortality. He saw the inevitable end looming and wanted to explore his feelings about death but in a reflective, not morbid way.

I must admit to being mildly irked by those who focused on the Robertson-Dylan connection immediately after Robbie’s death. It was an important part of Robbie’s life, but it was a long time ago. Oh well, people gotta say something.

The most important part of a tribute to any musician is the music itself. I’ve already done The Band Dozen, so I’m not repeating any of those songs. Apart from Stage Fright, I’m focusing on lesser-known album tracks presented in chronological order with two live versions to reinforce this point: The Band were one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.

The narrative will resume after five numbers by The Band: four with Rick Danko on lead vox and one with Richard Manuel singing lead.

Since many haven’t heard the full range of Robbie’s solo work, I’m presenting ten examples in chronological order: including the theme for Scorsese’s 2019 film, The Irishman. The narrative will resume after the last video.

The song Once Were Brothers was inspired by Robbie’s wonderful 2019 documentary of the same name. It was an ode to The Band as well as a lament for the painful collapse of his relationship with Levon Helm. Here’s what I said about that last August:

“It’s a shame that Robbie and Levon weren’t able to patch things up before Levon’s death. In the fine documentary Once Were Brothers, Robbie describes sitting with Levon in his hospital room as he lay dying. Levon was unconscious and didn’t know Robbie was there, but it was important for his former bandmate to represent. R.I.P. to Levon, Richard, and Rick.”

You can add Robbie to that honor roll of the dearly departed. Garth Hudson is still with us: He turned 86 on August 2nd. Stay well, sir.

You may have noticed the omission of Fallen Angel, Robbie’s tribute to the first of his musical brothers to die, Richard Manuel. It fit better at the end of this long tribute:

The last word goes to this haunting image of The Band taken by Richard Avedon for the back cover of Cahoots.

UPDATE: Please be sure to read Jamie O’s great piece, Robbie Robertson’s Native Side. He even says nice things about me. Go figure.

2 thoughts on “It Is A Good Day To Die: Robbie Robertson, R.I.P.

  1. I’ve never read a biography, so was wondering (again) last night if he heard Ain’t Got No Home on the radio or here, in New Orleans.

  2. I’ve never seen him comment on it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Levon brought that song to The Band.

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