Robbie Robertson on Bob Dylan and Songwriting

Second in a Three-Part Series

Interview by Michael Laskow, live, onstage at TAXI's Road Rally 2006
bob dylan songwriting
At the time when you guys were approached by Dylan and you first started playing with him, was there any sense that this is historical or, "Oh my God, this is Bob Dylan," or was it, "Oh cool. We get to play with him"? Was he just another musician?

We didn't know a lot about Bob Dylan when we hooked up with him. We weren't folk music savvy. It was interesting; it was almost like a different side of the tracks. We played in some pretty hard-nosed places on the road. And when the folk movement came along, they were playing in coffeehouses where people came and sipped cappuccino. Nobody was sipping cappuccinos where we played.

We were playing this place outside of Atlantic City at the time when his management called and asked if I would come and meet with him. And I did, and I thought, "I don't even know anything about this guy." But there was somebody in Atlantic City who I knew who had a Dylan record, and he played me a song called "Oxford Town," and I really liked that. It was one of those early songs that people ended up calling protest songs. So I went up there just being pretty naive about the whole situation. We talked for a little while, and then we went off somewhere with a couple of guitars and we just started playing, and something happened.

He was still totally acoustic at this point, but he was right on the verge of going electric?

Well, that was the idea—to have a band that knew about that kind of electric stuff. We only knew electric. We thought, "Going electric? What the hell does that mean?" We had never been unplugged. Anyway, we were having a good time and talking about music ideas and things. Then I went back and told the other guys in the Hawks, "This thing is pretty interesting, and there seems to be something happening with this guy. He's already got a big folk following, it might be worth experimenting with just to see where this might go." And that's really what it was, and little did we know that when we would do this experiment, that it would be very upsetting to a lot of people.

When you guys did your first series of gigs with him and he went electric and people were literally booing and getting up and walking out of the shows, that must have been incredibly...

All over the world.

Didn't you want to call it off and say, "OK, the experiment failed"?

We didn't understand exactly what was going on. We didn't understand that this was a musical revolution happening and that we were part of it. We just thought it was just a weird gig. You would go to a place, set up your equipment, people would come in, you'd play, they would boo you and throw shit at you, and then you'd pack up your equipment and you'd go on to the next place, and they would boo you again and throw more shit at you.

We were doing this tour. By then we'd played all over the United States and Canada; we'd played all over Australia; and now we were in Europe. They were filming this part of the gig, so we would listen to... After these jobs we had plenty of time because nobody wanted to hang out with people that were being booed. So we would go back and listen to these tapes from the gigs, and we'd say, "That's not that bad." I mean, you don't need to throw shit. Actually, we got to really like what we were hearing. And this is the first tour in 1966 we were doing that has gone on to become this historical thing and that it changed music forever. There are still records being released from this period.

The last night of that tour we were playing at Albert Hall—there are like the famous Albert Hall tapes from over the years—and we were playing there. In the Albert Hall, there's the audience and then there are all these balconies, and in every balcony there was a different famous group. There was the Who in one balcony, the Stones in another, the Beatles, the Kinks, and on and on and on. They were just coming to see... Were they coming to see us get booed? Or were they coming to hear if we were going to do anything interesting?

Weren't you scared to death to have those super-groups in the balcony?

It was too late by then. It was too late to be affected one way or another. We were thick-skinned by the time we got to the last gig on this thing. We didn't give a shit anymore what anybody thought.

As I was writing these questions the other night, [I was] kind of like shutting my eyes and trying to envision what your life would be like at this phase. Did you ever have a period where you would hang out with Dylan, have a cigarette, a cup of coffee, glass of Scotch, whatever, and he's noodling on a song and you say, "Bob, don't you think it needs a bridge?"

All the time. We did that all the time.

How did he take that?

He'd say, "That's a good idea. How 'bout this?" Boom, boom, boom—and there'd be a bridge, you know. It wasn't like, "Let's think this over. Let's talk about it. Have you got any specific ideas?" It was just, "Yeah, you're good." It was just boom. And on that tour, and other things we did, he would always get this setup—this two-bedroom suite with a living room in the middle, with guitars in it. So we would go and play our gigs, then come back to the hotel and sit around. We could just go into the living room—a couple of guitars would be set up there for us—and we would play. These kinds of thing came up all the time.

Are some people just born to be great writers, or do you have to work at the craft in order to elevate yourself? Did you have to master the craft of writing before you could just go from the gut?

People have different knacks, just to use a very loose word. But it's true. Some people are good at this part of songwriting; some people are good at that part of songwriting. That's why there were a lot of songwriting teams. This guy did the music, this guy did the words. Let's take Burt Bacharach. He wrote amazing melodies and chord changes and never wrote a word. And then this other guy could figure out what lyrics would really go great with this music. A lot of the Tin Pan Alley writers were like that too. Then, over time, that evolved into this singer/songwriter thing where people wrote the music and the lyrics, but the songs didn't have to be as musically complex. With some of those older songwriters, the chord changes were very sophisticated. It went from a very sophisticated thing to a much more simplified, down-to-earth kind of thing, where I'm just gonna try to find a beautiful simplicity that you just can't resist in the song, what it's about, and just the way the music moves, that that's going to find its own place and rise above all of that sophistication that came before.

If you stood back and looked back at the whole history in the 1900s of the evolution of songwriting, you would think—like classical music—it would keep going further and further and further. But songwriting didn't do that. In the 1920s and the 1930s, they were writing songs that much more complicated than songs that they were writing in the '50s and '60s.

Do you think that they intentionally dumbed it down because the public needed it dumbed-down?

I don't know, because a lot of early songs were dumb in another kind of way—dumb rhythmically, kind of dorky, and the ideas so cute—but they had chord changes and things that went places that were unexpected. So I don't think it was dumbed-down. I think that the folk movement had something to do with that too, because folk music never ever claimed to be musically complex. It was supposed to be down-to-earth. And what a tremendous effect Blues had on Rock 'n' Roll.

So the rules changed, just got turned upside-down. But in the course of that upside-down thing where someone was saying, "Wow, look at George Gershwin—he did this musically, and it's so great. What's the next step?" It went to a place where it was just like, "I don't know. It's just beyond this point, maybe it's getting too complicated," or something. "Maybe it needs to be simplified." But people like Burt Bacharach kept moving the thing forward, and it is complicated chord changes and melodies. But the whole idea of trying to figure out what songwriting is... It is such a broad horizon.

What's worked for you? What's your process? Do you wake up in the morning, have your cup of coffee and go, "OK, I need to sit down and focus on writing a song today." Or, while driving on the 405 and you see someone in the car next to you that triggers a thought or an emotion, do you scribble something on a notepad on your knee. Where does it come from?

Well, I am a notepad person. I've always done that. But I don't have any formula, and it comes from wherever it comes from. And you'll say, "Is it something that you studied or you perfected?" I don't read a note of music, but I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm doing on my own terms in this.

Dylan called you a 'mathematical guitar genius.' I assume that that had something to do with scales. What did he mean?

Oh, he was just trying to think of something to say. He said way too much anyway. (laughs)

It's funny. We had some of our successful members up here on the dais yesterday, and somebody else today. Humility seems to run rampant in people who've been successful. I think that you're being too modest about that.

No, I think you stand in awe of the whole thing because you never really understand it. It doesn't matter what you do with it, you don't know where these things come from. They come from somewhere else. People say, "Oh, I'm just the messenger." I don't know about any of that. I know that a big part of it is called really hard work. There are no tricks—that's what I do know.

In the case of Bob, he works really hard in figuring out songs. There is just no excuse for not giving it—if you love it that much—just giving it everything you can pull out. Is it great to learn more music and have a broader musical horizon? Of course it is. Is it good to study other people and what they do so you learn from them what they did right and what they did wrong? Of course it is. There is no downside to becoming better at your craft, that's for sure. But, a lot of times—and if there are songwriters here—you know that sometimes it just isn't there, or that you'll do something and you're not satisfied with it, and you'll think, "OK, OK, I'll come back later when it least expects me to." You have all kinds of little games you play with that, but it's called "beat that sucker to the ground, and get the best out of it that you possibly can." Or I'll find out that it just wasn't meant to be, and know well enough when to let it go, and say, "Don't think I'm done with you yet, but I've got something else to do right now."

How important is it for you to have hooks in your songs?

Most of the songs I wrote, I didn't know the word hooks. I just like a place to come back to thematically, you know, that makes it so there is something that stays with me, that rumbles around inside. When you get to that part of the song that people call hooks, it's because there's a feeling in that part of the song and what happens there between some words and what you do with the melody that you just rejoice in and just love coming back to it and it lets you know what everything else is revolving around in this song idea. There's a center.

Do you know when you've written a great song or hook, or do you need feedback from someone else?

Sometimes I've got a pretty good idea that I'm on to something. And a lot of the times for me, it's been either an idea that's a standout idea, an approach to a song that isn't just the old formula that everybody else is... Like, I just feel I came in another door here, you know, and I find that exciting. Then, sometimes, writing a song just like what everybody else writes but having another spin on it that just reinvents it. It feels like you're almost reinventing a beautiful simplicity. It's very exciting.

One time Bono from U2 asked me, "Where in the hell did you think to write the song "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down"? Where in the hell did that come from? Good Lord, of all of the things to write a song about. Where in the world does someone come up with that?" Because it was him asking me, I was really trying to think of a smart answer because he asked with such sincerity and curiosity, and I struck out. All I could tell him was, "That's all I could think of at the time."

What do you think of where songwriting is today?

If you took like the 10 most successful songwriters out there right now—or 20, whatever—and say, what do these things have in common, you'd probably see that they are very formula-type songs. I don't have anything against any kind of song. I just either like it or I don't like it; I relate to it or I don't relate to it—just like all of you do. But I see these formulas and I think if it were me—and I'm lucky that I don't necessarily have to compete in that place anymore, that I can do whatever the hell I want. That's what happens. After a while you do it and then you think, "Well, I've earned the goddamn right to do whatever I want." You convince yourself of that. And then it can be fun just to play with the whole system and everything. Now, I make records with Native American themes; I make things to do with movies. I just don't have to follow the path is all I'm saying. But for a long time, you have to be competitive in this thing.

I remember when I was writing songs with the Band. At that time there were all these songwriters—the Beatles were doing really good, and Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and on and on and on—and it made me think, "I'd better step up. I'd better do something here just to be in the game and play this, and I want to do something just in the way that this person's songwriting is impressing me. I want to do something that's gonna catch them off-guard too."

Ironically, you're talking about you wanting to impress them—but maybe you don't realize this about yourself—maybe one of the reasons that I think you are legendary is that you've got so much cool, for lack of a better word, that they all wanted to be you. Bob Dylan sought you out when you were a teenager, so you must have been doing something pretty right.

Luck. Luck.

Yeah, I'm sure. And then there's the humility thing again.

You mentioned the word smell before, and it kind of lit me up.

Your collaboration with Martin Scorsese is legendary, and I've come to realize as I was preparing for this interview, that there's a kind of connection between the two of you. That connection is that his movies are about very American characters typically, and that you can almost smell them. You can literally watch his movies and you can smell the sweat on DeNiro in Raging Bull. Your music smells, if you know what I mean.

...and proud of it!

It doesn't stink! But you can listen to your songs and they evoke a sense of being in the room with what or whom you've written about. You can taste it, you can smell them, and that's pretty powerful in a song. Your songs are typically kind of like an old, favorite pair of Levi's and that leather jacket that you've smoked a couple cigarettes too many in. That's cool that you mentioned smell... It's another sense that you touch with your ears. The sound comes in here (points to ears), but it makes you smell that leather jacket and feel comfortable about those old jeans.

It's part of the senses in music. As we all know, you hear a song and all of a sudden you're thinking—and it's got nothing to do with that—but all of a sudden Coney Island goes drifting by or something, and everything that comes with it. Music can do that. It can summon those things through your senses, and all of a sudden you're seeing things. So all of your senses come into... And that's part of the excitement.

I think when you're talking about hooks, or you're talking about tricks, or how to do this, or how to make that... I've always thought with a lot of songs that when you're on to something, when you can say, "Ahh. I think we're on to the chill factor here. I think that this could give you chills, and if I can just figure out how to perform this right with this idea, it has that kind of potential that it could touch you in that way," that's the hook to me. I don't know about hook things, because a lot of those things are a little bit dumbed-down. And I think it's fine for some people. I just know for my taste, you know, I'm much more interested in something that gives me chills. There's something really powerful and really good about that. That's my barometer.

Don't miss the final part of this incredible interview next month! —ML

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