Why Robbie Robertson Never Reunited With the Band
Robbie Robertson did a lot after ending his time in the Band in 1976: five solo albums, 20-odd film soundtracks, a memoir, a documentary about the Band and overseeing both the film and soundtrack for The Last Waltz as well as archival box sets from the group’s vaults.
The one thing he didn't do was play with the Band ever again.
The Band last performed as a quintet on March 1, 1978, for the three-song encore of bassist Rick Danko's solo show at the Roxy in Los Angeles. Robertson's bandmates - Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel - then began performing again as the Band in 1983, pointedly without the singer and guitarist who was regarded as the group's leader. The reason was simple and mutual.
"I just didn't want to," Robertson told this writer during the fall of 1987, as he released his self-titled first solo album. "We called it The Last Waltz ... and to me that was it. The end. It was over. To come out a few years later and say, 'Hey, just kidding' or 'We've changed our mind,' that would be wrong, to me at least. It would be a cheat." (This was in an era before long-term farewells became the norm.)
Robertson did spend time pondering what he wanted to do after the Band, which is why it took him more than a decade to make Robbie Robertson while exploring the film world, mostly with his friend and The Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese and on soundtracks for Raging Bull, The Color of Money, The King of Comedy and Chuck Berry: Hail, Hail Rock 'n' Roll. "I wanted to experiment in different areas and spend some time with my family," he explained. "I wanted to get a little, uh, normal ... and being in a band is anything but normal."
As it turns out, however, at least one of those bandmates did not want him there anyway. "I said, 'Let’s not invite him,'" Helm wrote in his 1993 memoir This Wheel's on Fire. In interviews and the book, Helm expressed considerable animosity toward Robertson, who he felt was unduly portrayed as the Band's mastermind and often contended the guitarist absconded with songwriting credits Helm felt he was due. "I think Rick did call Robbie, and he passed. He told Rick he was afraid when we did The Last Waltz that people would think it was one of those phony showbiz retirements and that we'd be back with the big comeback someday, and he just didn't want to do that."
Watch the Band Perform 'Don't Do It'
Despite Helm's bitterness, other Band members expressed hope that Robertson would ultimately return to the fold. "I'm sure he's going to eat those words," Danko said in 1983. "I'm sure it's going to take him longer than he wants to get involved, but I think he's going to want to get back to it in time." Manuel added that "everybody has to go see [The Last Waltz] again and pay attention. No one even said the band broke up. Robbie was the only one who said he was through with the road."
A Band without Robertson was viewed in some quarters as invalid, but Robertson did not interfere with the group's resumption. "People say they might blemish what the Band had done as a group, even that it's sacrilegious," he told Band biographer Barney Hoskins. "I don't think people should write about it that way. I mean, we're not talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John here. These are just some guys in a rock 'n' roll band who miss it, you know? I hope they have a real good time and don't stay up too late."
The Band's reunion would run until 1999, with three new albums and soldiering through the deaths of Manuel (in 1986) and Danko (1999). Helm died in 2012. Robertson, who died in 2023, told his story in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, and as late as 2021 he expressed sadness about the acrimony Helm felt toward him.
"That was so sad. Levon just got this idea that I had hijacked the narrative of the Band and never got over it," Robertson told UCR while promoting the box set reissue of 1970's Stage Fright. Robertson did visit Helm during his last days and ultimately said that "Levon was probably the most consistent of all of us in the group as far as every night he came out and he played his ass off and he sang these songs that I wrote for him. I knew that I was writing songs that Levon could sing better than anybody. He would just blow my mind every night with how much music was in his body and in his soul. Those songs have been covered a lot over the years, too, and nobody has ever sang them as good as Levon. It made me so proud to be able to do that for Levon ... no matter how he felt about me."