Back at the shack with Robbie and the Band
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
On Aug. 9, we lost Robbie Robertson, just a few weeks past his 80th birthday. And in him, we’ve lost the author of the bulk of the Band’s catalog, a body of work that is quite literally like none other in the annals of music.
In homage to Robertson’s 2016 autobiography Testimony and his parting tribute to his Band mates, there goes a kid from Six Nations, who was a hot-shit guitarist by the age of 16, who traveled from Ontario down to the deep South and toured the continent, who hooked up with the reluctant voice of a generation and electrified theaters, who, with his four uber-talented friends, created a timeless body of work, who in his third act helped shaped the music to some of the greatest films of all time. God only made one of those.
But as was the case when we lost Levon Helm in 2012, I can’t help but look inward and think about how much the Band meant to all of us when we were all trying to find our voices in college, and what an ideal the Band represented. There were five guys, all able to seemingly play any instrument they needed to play, and at the center of this ridiculous little world that was so apart from everything else happening in music, certainly then and still now, was Robbie Robertson, writing most of these songs that were so incredible.
And if Robbie wrote up a shack for himself and his mates in “Up on Cripple Creek,” we had a spot we dubbed “The Shack” too where, on more nights than I can remember, we’d pull up with guitars and beers and play and listen to music until the wee hours. It felt special because it was. It was ours, and the Band was at the center of all of this. The Last Waltz played on a near-constant rotation, and when it wasn’t on the screen, we were playing and listening to the songs, breaking down the parts and putting our own weird spin on all of it.
Robertson’s ability to craft these songs with the Band in mind was unparalled, and together, they created a sound unlike any other. He was spun these world weary tales that seemed to take place out of and within any time frame, and place them right within the voices of the other singers. The story of a man coming to the end came to life as Richard Manuel sang “Rockin’ Chair.” The undoing of the old South and all the conflicted lament that came with it was made immortal by Levon Helm on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Almost unspeakable heartbreak was perfectly conveyed in Rick Danko’s vulnerable warble on “It Makes No Difference.”
And then there’s “The Weight,” with every voice chiming in, Garth Hudson’s organ included, creating a world and a myth like no other.
It’s patently ridiculous that anyone could have actually written “The Weight.” It’s a song that should have been passed down through the folk and blues trails with no known author, some legendary tale with roots in the Bible and Africa and Caledonia and everywhere else. But there it is, appearing in 1968 on Music From Big Pink, with everyone in the Band throwing themselves into this cryptic yet accessible tale of traveling through Nazareth and navigating all its twists and trials therein.
“The Weight” carries a bit of a cliche as “the first song every band learns,” but I'm not convinced it's quite the first. Instead, it’s the first real song any band attempts with conviction, and the deeper it gets, the more its mystery is revealed. It’s accessible but deceptively tricky, with those minor chords that can serve as landmines to early guitar players. But when it’s rolling, it’s a blast. Everyone gets a turn at a verse and, if you were like us, you’d start playing it all night, crafting legendary 30-minute versions with new verses that included callouts to everyone and everything in the room, none of it suitable for print. But we remember. On these late nights fueled by beer and jokes and games and way-too-loud laughs, “The Weight” would anchor everything and offer a common bond. No other song could live up to that moment. If there’s a highlight of my musical life in my early twenties, or just in life back then, this is it.
Then we grew up and moved on, and creating moments like that became harder and harder. As it always happens. With every year, the idea or thought of recapturing that moves farther and farther away, to the point that it probably couldn’t be recreated. But the memory lives on with all of us. At least I hope it does.
So in the spirit of not looking back in anger, I’m not interested in rehashing the drama and bad feelings and the controversies that ultimately undid the Band, and the bitterness that remained with its members in the decades that followed. What matters is Robertson wrote these incredible songs, with these incredible musicians ready to bring them to life. And for a little while, the five of them created a world that will never be duplicated.
Last night, I came home from a weekend trip and put The Last Waltz back on the TV. I opened a beer, Danko picked up his pool cue and started playing cutthroat, the opening runs of “Don’t Do It” filled the living room and I let all those memories flow back. I’m glad they’re still there. And I’m glad the music remains to keep all those moments alive, somewhere.
Aug. 14, 2023
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