Saturday, October 26, 2019

And with this, I say so long....

This is my last day at the writer's desk, although if the pictures from Facebook are any indication, either Sal won't be back any time soon, or Burning Wood is going to be written in French.

So I had a few ideas of things I thought might be interesting. Alas, none of them are included below.

A friend on FB recently posted that he was reading Robbie Robertson's book and was loving it. I responded that I thought it was a bit too cold for me, well-reported, but bloodless. My buddy thought he answered Levon's complaints pretty well in regard to Levon's beef over song credits and royalties, especially in regard to "The Weight" for which Robbie claimed sole authorship.

It seemed to me though that Levon was on to something when pointing out that the characters in The Weight were all people the members of the band knew down South. I don't know if there's a standard for who writes what, but this is what I do know: if you consider yourselves brothers; if you see the life on the road taking its toll on the others, if the brothers you speak so warmly about contributed to the music in a real way, then if you have a decent bone in your body you give them a piece of those songs. He didn't. I can name nearly every song that appeared on Band albums but would be hard pressed to name more than three on Robbie's solo records, the point being that something was seriously lost in his songwriting when they broke up. What that was, besides the magisterial singing voices, was a lot of authenticity in his songs. (I listened to Robbie's new record, Sinematic. Once was enough for me).

The reason why this is slightly relevant is that Robbie is the central figure in a new documentary on the Band, "Once Were Brothers." It opened in Toronto, and the movie really made at least one reviewer squirm. I thought the review was worth a link, because he deals with these questions about Robbie's relationship with the others and really the whole Rashomon-like history of The Band.

Funny thing about fame and what it does to you and your memory (not something I have much experience with, although I was famous for a week in NYC back in 1989 when my first book was published; I was interviewed so many times I actually started to believe the bullshit I was saying), Van Morrison sings about fame on his new album, "Three Chords and the Truth."  There are some great cuts on this his 1,123rd record. My favorite is "Fame Will Eat the Soul." The other voice on the song is Bill Medley's. Here's a link. And that got me to thinking about one of my favorite songs about fame, in part because of the boldness of the title. The songwriter is Bart Davenport, and the title really is a great one. It's called "Fuck Fame."

Yeah, fuck fame. Who needs the riches of LeBron James or more women than Sean Connery. Not me, and with that I say goodbye. Thanks for watching, and now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

(And look for my book on the Alger Hiss case sometime next spring).


Slidewell said...

Jeff, a wise assessment of the whole post-Band, Robbie vs Levon farrago. Robbie's albums lack more than his bandmate's amazing voices. His solo songs (not to mention his own singing) just aren't very good. Having said all that, still, who knows how it truly went down between the five of them? Incredibly sad how things have turned out for Rick's widow. Should Robbie be helping her out? I don't know, is he, in some fashion? Fame changes people, but it's probably money that does the most damage to relationships.

Ken D said...

Thanks for pinch-hitting. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Levon's autobiography rang true to me. Appreciate the view from NY.

Joe said...


Robbie's new record didn't last longer than a few spins. Not sure why. I liked most of his first two solo records and then lost interest.

I always wonder how much influence Albert Grossman had on the business end of The Band and the way songwriting credits were apportioned. I have no idea, so I will not speculate.

The one thing that I do know, is that The Band records would not have sounded the same without all five of them.

Jim G said...

Thanks for the post and the review link. No fan of Robbie here, I find him pretentious and self serving (and of course he can't sing at all), but except for a couple of songs on Rick's solo album, none of the rest of the Band came up with any good songs after the split, so your point about the quality of Robbie's output applies to his bandmates as well. There's a very telling scene in the Levon doc Ain't In It For My Health where Larry Campbell tries to interest Levon in writing/contributing to a song, to Levon's complete disinterest. That level of complacency and the well documented substance problems of Levon, Rick and Richard contributed the most, I think to Robbie's dominance of the songwriting and accompanying rewards. At one point in the 70's when they were presumably still making some money, the others all sold him their rights to the few songs to which they had contributed, a very short sighted decision. Agree that Robbie probably could have helped out struggling family members/ bandmates financially, though.

Anonymous said...

I reread Levon's book about a year before reading Robbie's book. In sympathy with the story Levon tells, I didn't want to like Robbie's book at all. But I did. I can't gauge how accurately, but Robbie brought the people to life. This was particularly appreciated when he covered a fascinating time that Levon couldn't cover because Levon had left the group and gone back south. Robbie tells firsthand the story of the move to Woodstock and how Big Pink became the petri dish for the Basement Tapes songs before Levon returned to the fold. My sympathies are still with Levon regarding song credits, frustration with The Last Waltz, and how Robbie's singing kinda sucks. And no post-Band Robertson song has ever stuck with me. I play Levon's last album regularly, though. I recommend both books.
Hey-Its Mike

Bill said...

I think REM got it right regarding songwriting credits, with all 4 members being listed on every song. They avoided a lot of battles and bad blood by deciding from the very beginning how they were going to divvy up the credits (and thus, money).

Great post.

jeff said...

Jim, I think you're right about the other Band members and their songwriting, although an occasional good one popped up either on Rick's early albums, as you point out, or on the latter version of the Band's records. I think Levon got partial credit on one or more of the songs on "Jericho," my favorite post-Robbie band record. and yes we agree about sharing credit. We're really talking about The Weight, and there's no question the others contributed. Richard was clearly a talented songwriter but alcoholism sapped his skills, what a shame.

There is one Robbie song I absolutely loved. "Between Trains", which appears on the King of Comedy Soundtrack. I think Garth, and Rick play on the record. I'm guessing it was laying around on the pile from the Band days. Here's a link:

Jim G said...


That is a pretty good song. The synths and electronic drums diminish it a bit for me, but a nice song and would have fit well on any of the later albums. And I do enjoy the post Robbie albums, Jericho in particular. I think they picked great songs to cover (Atlantic City, yes!) but out of necessity. Its obvious they weren't up to carrying the songwriting load on their own. Nevertheless, I'm glad to own the latter day albums. Not being on a major label, I think the pressure was off and they came up with some enjoyable music. On the whole, I like Jericho better than anything they did after Stage Fright.