Yesterday – August 9, 2023 – was a sad day for me. One of the greatest musicians and songwriters went to the Big Sky.
I didn’t know about Robbie Robertson because of his critical contribution to the evolution of rock and roll in it’s early days. I was too young to appreciate the licks and grooves developed during the Ronnie Hawkins days, but I did read Testimony and felt like I had been bathed in the 1950s. Robbie Robertson wrote with a passion and attention to detail, along with an array of anecdotes that made me wish I was along for the ride.
The Band – as in, Bob Dylan’s band – became a cornerstone of an emerging hybrid style of rockabilly, Appalachian folk and innovative styles that they could call their own and that many would try to copy. Their music belongs deep in the hearts of many baby boomers and subsequent generations that enjoyed their approach to songwriting and performance. Many soundtracks carry The Weight through their stories and they wouldn’t be the same without the lyrics and ideas of Robbie Robertson.
But I didn’t know all of that when I was a late teen in 1987.
Robbie Robertson and I started our relationship of musician and fan when he released his solo album that year. Here was ‘this guy’ puling together the incredible weight and talents of U2, Peter Gabriel and many others singing songs about stuff that I was into: Steinbeck’s East of Eden, references to the Bible, cult heroes like James Dean, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and much more.
There were lots of other virtuosos that I clung to in these days of teen growth, angst and rebellion. Again, U2, Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, the Police, Tears for Fears, the Smiths, the Cure, REM and a host of others were constantly entering my frame of reference, but I connected with Robbie Robertson’s inaugural solo album like none other because a song called ‘Fallen Angel’ helped me cope with the death of a friend.
Can a song change your life? Can a song save your life? I think it did for me.
His words, his music and his invitation to embrace life resonated loudly as he paid homage to his friend and former bandmate, Richard Manuel.
One day, I hope to make that kind of connection with someone else: a specific moment in time forever locked in an embrace of memory and thoughts about a specific person or place.
Later, he moved away from the spotlight and turned it to issues related to First Nations wow and challenges. I don’t listen to Ghostdance when anyone is around as I don’t want to risk shedding a tear in public. I don’t know why, but that’s the kind of visceral style he delivered through his whole career as an artist.
You were a great storyteller and passionate creator of great things.