In 1968, the Band recorded “The Weight,” a song full of images and characters that Robbie Robertson said he had been storing in his imagination for years. Robertson admits in his autobiography, Testimony, that he struggled to articulate to producer John Simon what the song was even about, but it’s become the Band’s most well-known classic, and it still echoes loudly today. Playing for Change, a group dedicated to “opening up how people see the world through the lens of music and art,” recently spent two years filming artists around the world, from Japan to Bahrain to Los Angeles, performing the song. Robertson takes part, and so does Ringo Starr. Web traffic for the video has surged in recent days as the world confronts the coronavirus, and it has been a top story on RollingStone.com.
We spoke to Robertson, who called from his home in L.A., about the video, how he’s been self-isolating, plus other projects, including his work on the next Martin Scorsese film, a Stage Fright box set, and his recent appearance at a Last Waltz tribute concert in Nashville late last year.
Once Were Brothers, a film about Robertson’s life directed by Daniel Rohr, hit theaters just as they were shutting down. Now, the film will be available online earlier than planned, streaming on Apple and Amazon on April 3rd.
How have you been spending your time hunkering down?
I’m writing volume two of my autobiography. I’m somewhat buried in that. I have some artwork as well that I have to sort out. And although everything’s been delayed, I’ve even started some early discovery and thinking of the music for Martin Scorsese’s next movie, Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s an American Indian story, so I’ve got a lot to do on this. And the rest of it, I guess, is just really kind of adapting and dealing with being on house arrest.
I wanted to ask about the Playing for Change cover of “The Weight” that you performed on. It has 6 million views, and it’s been a top story on our site for the past few days, even though it’s been out for several months. Why do you think the song is resonating right now?
The number of people that I know that have responded to this, and some people that I barely know that have come out of the woodwork … it’s almost like it’s good medicine. And it’s so suitable right now. I thought to my myself, “This is definitely the ultimate in global self-distancing.” This is a way to protect yourself from anything: playing music with people around the world. My son, Sebastian, was behind this. When he mentioned this to me, I was kind of like, “Oh, OK, if you want to do it, of course I’ll cooperate.” But I didn’t know what they were going to do. One day they said, “Will you come and play a little bit?” So I took an hour and went over, and then it slipped my mind. And then they sent me a rough cut of it, and I got chills. The unity that it conveys, not only here but around the world, that is such good medicine.
The people in it are just fantastic. Ringo is such a great sport to be part of this. And Ringo doesn’t like to be a part of anything. He’s like, “Peace and love. Don’t bother me.” And he did this, and he did it with such charm.
When it came out, there was a really nice response to it, but it’s just grown and grown. In the last week or something, it got a million more views on it. And people are sending me messages from Cambodia. I’m just delighted it’s serving a purpose today. This was an idea that I had to write this song many years ago. And so it’s such a blessing that something like this can make a contribution this many decades later. I couldn’t be happier.
Ringo’s drumming sounds like an old friend, the same way Levon Helm’s drumming felt. They’re maybe the two greatest drummers in rock & roll.
In their own way, you’re absolutely right. There was something that Levon did in a stripped-down, simple but complex kind of manner that other drummers couldn’t do. There was a thing about his playing that was so straight between the eyes, that you thought, “Oh, it’s just that.” And then when you go to do that, it doesn’t have that quality. One of the people that understood that better than anybody else was Ringo. And Ringo has that quality as well. When he plays with that group, there is no acrobatics. He’s not trying to do anything. He’s playing the song. He is really there in service of the song. And they both had that to such a beautiful extreme, and they never, ever sounded like session drummers.
It’s amazing this song can translate to places around the world, onto instruments that a lot of people here have never seen before.
I felt the same way. There’s a guy on a sitar! There’s a guy playing an oud, one of my favorite instruments. Those girls Larkin Poe did a song of mine, “Ophelia.” They’re in the video. Somebody sent me their version of my song “Ophelia” a while back. And they did a hell of a version of it. They’re from Tennessee or somewhere, I don’t know. Then I heard another track of theirs, and I thought “They’re really good.” And then they end up playing on this track. That made me feel good. And Lukas Nelson is terrific, an amazing musician. So anyway, I don’t know, it’s just pretty magical.
What does it feel like to have written that song? Do you feel like the person who wrote “The Weight,” or does it feel like it was around before you?
After I wrote it and we recorded it, it did have a sense to me of a timeless quality. Because it wasn’t obvious in the storytelling. It’s kind of lost in time in the most wonderful way. And when I heard this version of it, I thought, “This still sounds like that.” It doesn’t sound old. It just sounds like it’s got this quality to it, that it could be new, or from 100 years ago. And that was one of the signature things of the Band — that this music did live in its own time zone, and I was always proud of that. Consciously or subconsciously, I always reached for that in writing when I could.
What kind of music are you listening to right now? When something like this is happening in the world, what music do you turn to?
It’s all for me about discovery and research. So I was listening to some of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony earlier today, because of something that I’m writing. I was listening to some American Indian Western music from the 1920s a couple of days ago, thinking about Killers of the Flower Moon. I have a very curious ear, so I’m always interested in new stuff that’s going on. It’s scattered all over the place. I don’t have a playlist. I don’t have anything that I’m devoted to.
What impact do you think [coronavirus] will have on musicians? They’ve lost a couple of months of dates already. David Crosby said he might lose his house if this goes on any longer. It must be very difficult on anyone who makes a living as a performer.
Yeah, that’s very true. When this industry kind of went into a tailspin, everything led to live performance being a business that people could make a living at. And when it hits a wall like this, it’s going to be a realization, just like so many other millions of businesses. I’m hoping that it’s just like, “Wait a minute, we’re just on pause. We’re going to push ‘play’ here again as soon as we possibly can.” But right now, everybody has to take a deep breath and say, “We’re on pause. And don’t take my house right now, please.” You’re absolutely right. I don’t live in that zone of live performance. I’m in a different line of work. But I can certainly relate to that. I spent a great part of my life there as a road dog. But right know we’re just holding our breath.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. This is a throwback, and a poison has risen to the surface.”
Does our current moment remind you of any other time that you have lived through?
No. I’ve never seen anything like this. That’s why for a while I was thinking, “Well, somebody’s just going to have to wake me up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, my God, you were having a bad dream.’ ” And then after a few days, I realized that wasn’t gonna happen. So this is the unknown. And right now it’s just darkness. And at some point, we just want to see a light come shining through and get brighter and brighter.
That’s what I was getting at before: Right now, we can only see what this is preventing life from being, and trying our best to adapt to that. But out of these things, there’s always been something spiritual, magical, unsuspecting, that could possibly come from this. And I think that’s what we’re all secretly hoping for: that this could bring some people closer together. This country, I’ve never felt this kind of division. I’m from Canada, too, I look at it through just a little bit of a different eye. And I’ve never seen this kind of ugliness. I haven’t seen anything like this since George Wallace. This is a throwback, and a poison has risen to the surface, in these times, that we can’t can imagine, and it is everywhere. And it’s like, “Oh, no, this was there. It was just sleeping. And it ain’t sleeping anymore.” And it’s really, really sad to see this kind of regression, and this kind of fallback into such anger. It’s all built on anger, and that just leads us to the most ugly place. And so, maybe out of this thing, there can be some kind of feeling of unity. And that’s why the song, the Playing for Change [version of] “The Weight” — if anything screams of unity, that does. And I hope it spreads.
Are you are you thinking of doing a 50th-anniversary edition of Stage Fright in line with the Music From Big Pink and The Band box sets?
Yes, I am. I started on this, but there’s some things too that I’m trying to do, some artwork and some pieces of that period that I’m trying to put my hands on, and some stuff that I would like to do musically for this. And there’s some things that have been buried in the archive for a long time that fit with this really well. So, yeah, I’ve got ideas. Doing these these celebrations, doing the Music from Big Pink box set and doing The Band box set, and now doing this, it really feels good. I like the celebrating of the music, and doing something fresh, and doing things that we couldn’t do back then. I’m really enjoying that process.
Were you were you planning to play more Last Waltz shows before all the live music got shut down?
Well, they were talking about doing Jazz Fest. And they were asking me if I would participate in it. I went to the one in Nashville, which was the end of their last tour, that they had at the big arena in Nashville. And it was incredible. It was just an amazing array of talent. The guys putting together the show told me, “You’re not gonna believe the audiences that come to this.” So I thought, “Well that sounds good. It sounds like people are enjoying it and everything.” No, no no. It was like a religious experience, and so much fun. And so, anyway, at the end, I got up and sat in with them. The people were just so, so appreciative, and consequently so was I. So they asked me if I would do Jazz Fest, and I was like, “I don’t know. I’m not really looking to make this a part of my everyday life.” So I was thinking about it, and then the [coronavirus] came up. They were just about to announce whether I was going to participate in it, and then it had to get bumped. So we’ll have to see what happens in the fall.
It must be interesting for you, for people to be re-creating a concert you played 40 years ago.
And there’s people that do this around the world, in Scandinavia, Australia, and Japan, and all places. And I didn’t know, that’s pretty special. I don’t remember many concerts that people do that for.
I just was reminded of Bill Graham’s book. There’s an anecdote that said you did not want them serving Thanksgiving dinner during the filming of The Last Waltz. Is that true or false?
Well, you know, I was so busy thinking about playing music with all these different artists and not screwing up, and the filming of it with Marty. Marty was depending on me for so much in this. And so there was so much going on in an impossible period of time to pull this off. There was 100 things that could go wrong, and a few things that could go right. And Bill Graham comes to me and says, “I’ve ordered 5,000 pounds of mashed potatoes and turkey,” and I’m like, “You’re what? There’s gonna be gravy everywhere?” So in the beginning, I just thought, “This is just in the way of what I’m trying to do here.” And Bill said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll handle it. I’m going to serve Thanksgiving dinner to 5,000 people. You don’t have to do a thing.” And I was like, “OK, let’s not talk about it anymore. But if you can do it …” And he says, “I know how to do this.” And I just had confidence in Bill. But you can imagine when he told me about how many gallons of gravy they were going to need, this was the last thing that I needed to hear.