An Interview With Robbie Robertson About The Band’s Iconic Debut Album, ‘Music From Big Pink’

Crown Archetype

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

With an off-putting shade of Pepto Bismol paint covering up its face the quaint pink house in Saugerties, New York isn’t much too look at. Nevertheless, it was from here, 50 years ago, that an explosion of musical ideas erupted that the world is still attempting to wrap its head around to this day. Deep in the house’s basement, six men toiled for hours, days, and weeks on end, writing and recording a collection of songs that captured the spirit and history of America itself in all of its glory and all of its ugliness, all its pride and all its shame.

Much of that material would make its way out on the black market, before getting cleaned up and issued as The Basement Tapes in years hence. But it was right here also, that five of those men finally stepped out of the shadow of the era’s leading man and discovered their collective identity. It was here that The Band came together and wrote the material that would come to comprise their earthquaking debut album Music From Big Pink.

From the minute he first laid eyes on the pink house back in 1967 Robbie Robertson, the chief songwriter and lead guitarist of the group then known as The Hawks, recognized its potential. “This was a dream of mine for years,” he said. “I talked to the guys about it. I talked to Bob [Dylan] about it. I said, ‘I want to have a workshop. I want to have a clubhouse. I want to have a place like the Bowery Boys had, that they go every day and they do what they do. And they have this collaboration. We’re gonna be like a street gang that has a clubhouse that we go to, but instead of us going out and fighting, we’re gonna go out and play music.'”

The Hawks were a group made up of four Canadians that included Robertson, Garth Hudson on organ, Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano and vocals, and a wily drummer-singer from Arkansas named Levon Helm. They had recently come off a vicious tour of Europe backing Bob Dylan where he’d been labeled a “Judas” by concert-goers averse to his new amplified sound heard on albums like Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Helm actually skipped out of the tour before it went overseas to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico instead. Everyone was eyeing their next moves when Dylan crashed his motorcycle in Upstate New York, throwing their future into doubt. Robertson himself was living in New York City at the time, but at the behest of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, he decided to take a look around Woodstock and see if he liked what he saw. He clearly did.

Eventually, most of the members of what we’d ultimately know as The Band, relocated in and around that Big Pink house, and set up a rudimentary recording studio in the home’s basement. “I showed the setup to Bob Dylan… and he’s like, ‘Whoa,'” Robertson remembered. “He said, ‘You can do anything in here, right?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’ He said, ‘Is it possible that we could even tape some music in here?’ I said, ‘That’s what it’s set up for.’ We got a little cheap tape recorder there. But at least we can put ideas down and see if they’re coming together, and we can experiment freely and not be embarrassed about doing something that doesn’t fit into whatever it’s supposed to fit into.”

The songs poured out at an astonishing clip. “Tears Of Rage,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “I Shall Be Released,” and so many more. While The Band drank, and smoked, and played music, Dylan sat nearby, hunched over a typewriter, furiously stringing new ideas and thoughts together, while blocking out the world around him. “We started doing this stuff with Bob during the day and then in the evening we would work on our stuff,” Robertson said. “And it was just such a great feeling of freedom, a musical freedom. We thought nobody will ever hear these. This is just for us, and we’re just having a great time doing this… we’re doing whatever the hell we want to do. And out of that comes this tremendous freedom of what the Basement Tapes were. And we had no idea that this was going to end up going out into the world and people would hear this.”

At the same time, Robertson was refining his own songwriting abilities, working out eventual classics like the towering, gothic romper, “Chest Fever,” and perhaps his most well-known song, “The Weight. With the former composition, “The feel for that was something that I found on the guitar,” he explained. “It was a tempo, it was feel. And I liked the way it felt, and I thought, ‘I want to write some lyrics to this in the tradition of the Basement Tapes… kind of surreal. They weren’t trying to fit into any mold or anything that came before. This was some other place to reach for. And so, some of it is like I don’t even understand what I’m doing, but it feels good.”

“The Weight” was Robbie’s attempt to tell a story based on some of the films he’d recently seen. “I had a theme that I got from watching Luis Bunuel movies,” he said. “This theme of an impossibility of sainthood, and that somebody just wants to do the right thing. They’re just trying to be a good guy. And someone says, ‘Listen, could you do me a favor?’ And you say, ‘Of course.’ And you go to do this, and you get deeper and deeper in quicksand with these characters that you’re just trying to just do something so ordinary and it turns into something so bizarre, so outside of anything that you could’ve imagined.”

One person who was privy to the Band sonic experiments and was definitely intrigued by what he heard was Grossman, who took the group under his wing and secured a deal for them with Capitol Records. The Band set up some meetings with potential producers before settling on John Simon, who booked time in New York’s A&R Studios. The central relationship in The Band was between Robertson and Helm. The former considered the latter as close as a brother, having performed alongside him while they were both members of Ronnie Hawkin’s backing group from the time he was a teenager. As they worked toward their first record, Robertson knew he had to get Helm back in the group.

“Once we got set up at Big Pink, Grossman said, ‘Well, listen, I want to make you guys a record deal,'” Robertson said. “So he said, ‘Let’s go in and cut a couple of demos.” And we went in and cut a couple of demos with a studio drummer. And I said to the other guys, “It’s time. We have to call Levon. This doesn’t fit. This doesn’t work. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we sound like. That’s not how we play.”

Rick Danko was the one who actually made the call to Helm, and the drummer jumped at the chance to make music with his old buddies once again. “A couple of days later he was back and it was like he never left,” Robertson said. “[It] was like a table with one leg missing when he was gone… and that is when we really knew that we had what we needed to be who we could become.”

When it came time to record on a professional level, Robertson had definite ideas for how he wanted The Band’s debut to sound. “I’ve always been somebody that appreciated records that were sonically mind-blowing,” he explained, while citing Phil Spector, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and the albums cooked up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama as primary examples of particularly pristine recordings. “They would make a record and the record was something to behold in itself. It might have been a good song, but the sound of the record was incredible too. So, I wanted that.”

When they got into A&R however, the setup itself wasn’t very conducive to the Band’s general vibe. “We’d go in and they’d tell us what to do,” Robertson explained. “‘Here’s where you set up the drums. Here’s where you go. This is where that.’ And that’s how we get such a great sound. So we did exactly what they said. We set up and we started to play. We started to work on the first song we were gonna record, and I stopped it and I said, ‘Wait a minute, guys. This doesn’t work. We can’t play music like this.'”

The individualistic recording approach, separating different members of The Band into different baffled sections of the studio undercut the chemistry they’d honed over years playing together, so before breaking into “Tears Of Rage,” Robertson made the call. “I said, ‘No, no, we can’t do this. We have to set up in a circle. We can’t see one another’ So much of what we do is communicated through our eyes, through gestures, through whatever it takes to get across to one another what we’re striving for in a performance. We have to be able to set up in a circle and see one another. And they said, ‘Well, it’s gonna sound like crap.’ So we said, ‘I know, but we have to do that.'”

Despite the seasoned engineer’s warnings, the baffles came down, and they tried it again while using some innovative mic choice and placements by John Simon. “They set it up with these very inexpensive microphones, these RE 15 Electro Voice mics. And we put them on everything, on the vocals, on the drums, on the piano, on everything. And we started playing, and we started getting comfortable in our setup, in looking at one another, and in the room we were settling in, and we were enjoying each other’s company, musical company. In the control room, the engineer was saying, “This is starting to come together. We might be able to save this.”

When they finally heard the playback, everyone was stunned. “John says, ‘Guys, you should come in and hear this and see if there’s any last adjustments you want to make because I think we’re getting somewhere.’ And he said, “I think we’re really getting somewhere.” So we go in. And this was the first time we heard the sound of The Band.” After a few tweaks here and there, they nailed the track perfect, stunning not just the guys in the booth, but also themselves.

“It didn’t resemble anything we had done with Ronnie Hawkins. It didn’t resemble anything we did as The Hawks, it didn’t resemble anything we had done on the tour with Bob Dylan, or in the studio with Bob Dylan,” Robertson recalled with a bit of wistfulness in his voice. “It was a different animal, a different sound, a different sonic experience, a different emotion… it is on a different wavelength completely from anything that we’ve ever done, or anything that anybody else was doing at the time.”

After some additional recording in Los Angeles, Music From Big Pink was finished and finally released around the beginning of July, 1968. Its impact was felt immediately, garnering massive plaudits in both the critical and artistic community. Eric Clapton was so stricken by Music From Big Pink that it caused him to re-evaluate his entire career, and break-up his own supergroup Cream. “Here was a band that was really doing it right, incorporating influences from country music, blues, jazz, and rock, and writing great songs,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Listening to that album, as great as it was, just made me feel that we were stuck, and I wanted out.”

For the 50th anniversary, Robertson returned to the Big Pink tapes, allowing mastering wizard Bob Clearmountain to work his magic over them, producing an even cleaner and clearer sound, the one the guitarist had maybe been chasing decades earlier, for new and old fans alike to enjoy.

“I found that what Bob was able to do was to make it feel like it had more depth to it, that the music was wrapping around you more and it wasn’t so standoffish,” Robertson noted. “Back then, a lot of that record was recorded on four tracks, so you had to make really definitive decisions. Those decisions that were made at those times with the sonic abilities that one had turned out to be a blessing. And coming back to this music now, and giving it this other dimension… this sonic depth, I don’t know, It is so rewarding. And that we are able to do something and not too much is, I think, a gift in the end.”

The Music From Big Pink reissue is available via Capitol Records on August 31. You can pre-order your copy here.