For fans of The Band, the recently released movie, Once Were Brothers, is more than just a fun romp through the group’s catalog and mythology. It’s also first-person testimony in the long-running debate over whether or not The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson is an asshole.
That charge was made in round terms over the years by his late band mates Levon Helm and Rick Danko, most pointedly in Levon’s 1993 biography, This Wheel’s on Fire. Money was a central issue. As the writer of most of The Band’s original songs, Robbie gets most of the songwriting royalties from a catalog that includes cultural touchstones like “The Weight.” Levon claimed the songs were collaborations, so he should get royalties, too—a claim that became especially poignant when he went into bankruptcy after a tragic house fire.
How would this movie color my view of the feud? I admit I came in with my guard up. Brothers is a Robbie-driven narrative, and I wasn’t a fan of his contributions to The Band’s acclaimed 1978 movie, The Last Waltz. Too many woe-is-me stories about “The Road.” Too many glamour shots of the maestro passionately coaxing magic from his Fender. Still, I bought the DVD, thinking the musical segments would be worth it. But even the music sometimes comes up short, literally, as verses were edited out of several of their songs—not what I expect from a concert film.
At any rate, I’m relieved to report that in Brothers, Robbie was more likable. Rather than complain about the road, he spoke of his upbringing and the joy he found in the music he heard during visits to the Native American reservation where his mother was raised. And how he found inspiration for writing “The Weight” by reading the manufacturing sticker inside his Martin guitar, “made in Nazareth, Pa.,” hence the opening line, “I pulled into Nazareth.” Like how George Harrison’s “Handle Me With Care” was inspired by a packing carton. (Note to myself: Read more labels!)
A Lot To Like
Mixing such anecdotes with strong musical performances and vintage footage and photos, this film has a lot to like. And I gained new sympathy for Robbie. He was the most ambitious Band member, the one who kept pushing them, the one who was first to marry and have kids, the one who behaved most responsibly. When some members got lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, I empathized with Robbie’s frustration.
And yet, the movie still plays like Robbie’s attempt at controlling The Band’s narrative. His discussion of The Last Waltz seems revisionist, for example. Other Band members have claimed the film was Robbie’s project, and they went along with only partial awareness of its scope. But in this movie Robbie calls it a group effort and claims his intent was that The Band could still get back together. I checked though, and in the Last Waltz he was definitive that this was their last show, that he was done touring.
Robbie also makes the preposterous claim in Brothers that it would have been impossible for The Band to get back together. News flash: the other four did reform in 1983, continued after Richard Manual’s death in 1986 and stayed together until Rick Danko’s death in 1999. That’s a 16-year stretch—as long as the original group was together as The Band, The Hawks and the other names they concocted. Robbie was the only one who didn’t participate in this second life. Brothers makes no mention of the post-Robbie Band, nor that one of the brothers, Richard Manual, hung himself while touring with that outfit, a rather glaring omission.
Who Wrote the Songs?
The movie briefly addresses the songwriting controversy as part of its passing mention of Levon’s later-life contempt for Robbie—and it was pretty much dismissed as a “Get-off-my-lawn!” argument.
I’ve always sympathized with Levon and his big-hearted approach to the music, and I initially supported his songwriting claim. But as I looked more closely, I found myself on Robbie’s side. No one disputes that he brought the songs in. If others then contributed to the bones of the song—the lyrics, the melody, the hooks—then they are co-writers. But nothing I’ve heard from Levon rises up to that level. His descriptions are more about arranging, not co-writing.
Robbie has defended himself by pointing out that Levon rarely has songwriting credits even in his solo recordings. Of course, if Levon were here, he might point out that Robbie’s only hit songs are the ones Levon and his Band mates sing. Touché!
And that’s where this controversy has settled. The mechanisms for paying the group’s members didn’t match the influence each had. And rather than find an innovative way to achieve equitable pay, Robbie hid in his technical correctness, while Levon made songwriting-credit claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny.
‘One or the Other‘
Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a dysfunctional family mess, as Robbie did. Of course, you like to think that a real hero, a real brother, would find a way to help a brother in need. Robbie apparently never stepped up, nor did he appear to reconcile with Levon. In Brothers, Robbie says that when he got word of Levon’s impending death, he visited, but arrived too late. Levon was in a coma and didn’t reawaken. So Robbie prayed for him. Evidently that was as close as they came to reconciliation.
Ruminating on the movie after getting home, I stumbled upon an earlier brotherly reference from the Stage Fright album they were working on when the drug issues surfaced. Richard sings this Robbie-written lyric in “The Shape I’m In:” “Save your neck, or save your brother. Looks like it’s one or the other.”
How personal—and prescient—those lines now seem.
Photo at the top of the page © David Gahr.