Robbie Robertson, the legendary songwriter, guitarist and member of The Band, made a surprise appearance at “Breakfast of Champions” during The 2017 NAMM Show. NAMM President and CEO Joe Lamond spoke with Robertson about his career highlights, the importance of trusting your gut and the role instruments have played in inspiring him as a songwriter. He also received NAMM’s 2017 Music for Life Award.
Here are highlights. (Watch the video for the full interview.)
On paying his dues during his early career:
“It was really about absorbing everything. The idea of coming from Canada and down to the Mississippi Delta, to me this was like going down to the fountainhead.
“We called it woodshedding. And it was paying your dues. It was learning your craft. And one of the big things that I think separated The Band and The Hawks [the first version of The Band] from other groups was that it was a real band in that sense. That all five members, we were all on a mission to absorb and to take this in and become better and better every day. And before we made ‘Music From Big Pink,’ our first album, we’d been together for six or seven years and done all this woodshedding and paying our dues. And so that’s why, when that record came out, it had maybe a certain kind of depth to it—a certain kind of something to it that separated us from the pack.”
On Bob Dylan going electric and being booed night after night:
“It was unimaginable. I had never heard of anything like this. I’d never seen anything like this. But we played all over North America [in Bob Dylan’s band], all over Australia, all over Europe, and every night, people booed us, threw stuff at us, and generally disinvited us to the party. For a while in this, you think, ‘Well, you know what? I’m just going to pretend this isn’t happening. I’m just going to put my head down.’ And then, after a while, you start thinking, ‘Usually, when something like this happens, you get together, and you say it doesn’t seem to be working very well. Maybe we should make some changes.’ No. That wasn’t even on the to-do list, to change anything.
“And if there was anything that we were going to adjust, it was to play bolder, harder and faster. Because we had nothing to compare this to. And at some point in that tour, we, after one of our concerts in the hotel room, were listening to the tape of what we had just done. And I specifically remember saying to the other guys in The Hawks and Bob Dylan, ‘They’re wrong. The world is wrong. This is really good. I’m sorry, but this is really good. And they’re going to have to get used to it.’
“But talk about building thick skin.
“This was an extraordinary experience—and in the midst of it realizing that you were in the midst of a musical revolution, this is what happens when things change, when the world isn’t ready for this. And in the course of that experience that went on for months of every night, this happening all over the world, at some point, you think, ‘You know what? I don’t know if we’re going to win this battle, but at the end of the day, we’re going to win this war. Because this is good.’ And thankfully, it did work out OK.”
On trusting your instincts as an artist:
“You try to be smart. You try to think, ‘This would be good. They’re doing this. We should do that.’ And all of that stuff. Really, your own path is what you see in front of you. And you’re following that path, and it takes you somewhere. And a lot of times you think, ‘It takes me where I need to go. I know I’m trying to outsmart this. I’m trying to be wise and use my experience and all of this.’ But so much of it just really comes from your instincts or your gut.”
On writing The Band’s classic song ‘The Weight’:
“You sit down and you think, ‘OK, I’m going to catch myself off guard here.’ Pick up that guitar and start playing, and it sounds awful. It’s just not working. Everything you try, you think, ‘I think I’ve already done that, or somebody’s done it.’ It’s just not happening, and you think, ‘God, where’s the mojo in this?’ And I’m sitting there, and I’m wracking my head. And the guitar’s sitting on my lap. And I look into the soundhole on this Martin guitar, and it says ‘Nazareth.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that has a sound to it. Nazareth.’ This is in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
“And so I pick up the guitar, and I wrote the first line of this song called ‘The Weight,’ and the next line came, and the next line came. And it was almost comfortable and easy. And I just thought, ‘What if I hadn’t looked in that soundhole that day? Would that song every exist?’ So it just shows you that there’s a certain kind of magic and an unknown and a mystery to all of that that we really can’t quite put our finger on, but that’s part of the beauty to it, too.”