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For the Band’s Robbie Robertson, Life Really Was a Carnival

Guitarist and songwriter influenced generations of musicians

spinner image robbie robertson smiles on the red carpet at the vanity fair oscar party in beverly hills california
Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Robbie Robertson once cowrote a song titled Life Is a Carnival, and his own life often resembled just that. A guitarist and songwriter of enormous influence, he helped shape the Band into a critical and commercial success in the 1970s and paved a road that was followed by dozens of folk-rock acts.

Robertson, 80, died Wednesday in Los Angeles “after a long illness,” his publicist, Ray Costa, said in a statement.

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From his youth in Canada, where he spent summers on the Six Nations Reserve with his mother, to his early days in Toronto bar bands, to a chance meeting at age 15 with rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins, Robertson’s early life sometimes looked like the plot from a novel. By the early 1960s, while still a teen, Robertson was on his way to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to join up with Hawkins and his band, the Hawks. Hawkins barnstormed through the U.S. and Canada with an evolving crew of musicians, eventually picking up the players who would become the Band, including another Arkansan in drummer and singer Levon Helm.

The group peeled away from Hawkins in 1963, touring as the Canadian Squires and then getting a historic gig in 1965 backing Bob Dylan, who was shifting away from his acoustic folk singer image. That got them loudly booed on tour almost every night by purists furious that Dylan had evolved from his roots. “I adjusted the strap on my Telecaster so I could release it with a quick thumb movement and use the guitar as a weapon. The concerts were starting to feel that unpredictable,” Robertson wrote in his memoir, Testimony.

Soon after Dylan was injured in a 1966 motorcycle accident and went to Woodstock, New York, to recuperate, the musicians joined him. They were often referred to as Dylan’s band or simply, “the Band,” a name that stuck. In Woodstock, they recorded demo tapes with Dylan that became The Basement Tapes, one of rock’s most famous bootlegs (which eventually was released commercially).

The Band also began working without Dylan, writing songs and practicing in the pink house in which several of them lived. That led to Music From Big Pink, a rock album classic, with songs including “The Weight,” “Tears of Rage” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

The album and subsequent recordings helped spawn the entire subgenre of Americana music — a direct contrast to the heavy, high-volume and psychedelic songs that made up much of rock at the time. It also was a bit of an irony that the group became so associated with an American roots music movement; of its five members, four were Canadian.

spinner image garth hudson robbie robertson levon helm richard manuel and rick danko of the band pose for a group portrait in london
(Left to right) Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of the Band in London in June 1971.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Time magazine put the Band on its cover in 1970, and they became critical darlings and one of rock’s biggest acts. Nationwide tours, including one with Dylan, followed. But by the late 1970s, Robertson in particular was weary of touring.

“I mean, 16 years on the road, the numbers start to scare you,” Robertson said in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz, which chronicled the group’s final concert with Dylan. “I mean, I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.”

That final concert was performed in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. Music royalty joined the Band for that show, including Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John and many more. Called “the single greatest concert movie of all time” by Rolling Stone, “The Last Waltz” also features memorable non-concert scenes of Robertson and other members of the Band simply talking into the camera.

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After the concert, the members drifted apart, although a Robertson-less version of the Band did reunite in 1983 and toured on and off for years. Helm, in particular, expressed bitterness about Robertson’s decision to leave and disputed some of his songwriting credits. They never reconciled; Helm died in 2012.

Robertson went his own way, working on soundtracks for films directed by his friend Scorsese and releasing five solo albums, the last in 2019. Robertson’s work will appear in Scorsese’s highly anticipated film Killers of the Flower Moon, set for release in October. Robertson also appeared in films, including 1980’s Carny, in which he plays a carnival worker.

“People cherish the Band since you can feel it is made by men’s hands. No tricks, just hard work,” Robertson told the Dutch music magazine Oor in 2005.

His fans most likely would agree.

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