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Three Dylan Collaborators Remember Working with Robbie Robertson
Harvey Brooks, Louie Kemp, and Richard Alderson pay tribute
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When Robbie Robertson passed away, after listening to Rock of Ages a couple times (and his Rolling Thunder guest appearance a couple times more), I made a few calls.
Two Three people who worked with Bob Dylan and Robbie during their time playing together—one with The Band, one with a band—took the time to share some memories, of Robbie specifically and shows in the Dylan-Hawks/Band era generally.
First up is Harvey Brooks, who played bass on Dylan’s first two electric shows in between the Newport ‘65 kerfuffle and Dylan touring with the Hawks. We talked about these shows extensively in a much longer earlier interview for my book, but suffice to say by way of brief context here that they were at giant stadiums in Forest Hills, NY and Los Angeles with half Hawks (Robbie on guitar, Levon Helm on drums) and half non-Hawks (Harvey on bass, Al Kooper on keyboards).
Following that is Louie Kemp. Again, much more backstory in our first conversation, but cliffs-notes version is: Bob Dylan’s childhood buddy, starts a giant seafood business, they reconnect just before the ‘74 reunion tour and he ends up going on the road with Bob and The Band as a friend (and subsequently returns in a more official capacity, producing the next year’s Rolling Thunder Revue).
[Update: Richard Alderson, 1966 sound engineer who captured all those iconic tapes — including the “Judas” — shares his memories too at the bottom]
I first met Robbie at rehearsal at Carroll rehearsal studio in Manhattan, he and Levon. We rehearsed for two weeks, on and off. I got the word that the other guys [from the Highway 61 sessions] were occupied. Bobby Gregg the drummer, he had lots of dates to do and was tied up. And Michael Bloomfield wanted to stay with Paul Butterfield. He thought that was his thing, the blues. So that left two slots, drums and guitar. Mary Martin, I think, knew about The Hawks. She worked for Albert Grossman, in management.
I had played with Bloomfield on the recordings. Bloomfield's always on edge. Robbie was a lot cleaner, kind of stiffer, more heart in his playing. Bloomfield wasn't concerned with playing on the beat. His excitement— like when you talk to him, he'd run at the mouth, and then could then come back. Just in his phrasing, everything he did was exciting. He could rush the beat somewhat, and he would do that on the Dylan stuff. Robbie, on the other hand, was a very tight guitar player. Bloomfield was wild and soulful, but Robbie's playing was thoughtful and meticulous.
It's the difference between hanging out with the music and getting right on it. And we got to hang out with it a little bit more in that context. Bobby Gregg was right on the money. Levon is around the change, you know, sits behind the beat. Robbie the same way.
Robbie liked to give nicknames to people. At Forest Hills, he said he was gonna call me “Goldie.” My name is Goldstein. Harvey Goldstein Brooks. At that time I was Harvey Goldstein; I hadn't made the Brooks change yet. And that's how he knew me. He thought “Goldie” would be more appropriate. That was just fun and chuckles backstage. He kept calling me that. I don't know if he did to anybody else, but he did to me.
You know, I had my issues about Robbie later on in life, what he did with the business end of The Band, but as far as playing, I really enjoyed his style of playing. He was very musical, so that made it enjoyable. Having thought about the songs in the context of [making the] recordings, the shows were an opportunity to even take them even a little further with the new blood.
I first met Robbie in the fall of 1973 when I was hanging out with Bob in LA after I came back from Alaska. The Band had a place called Shangri-La that they used to hang out in in Malibu, and we went over there a few times.
The sessions were held in a studio in Santa Monica. Bob said to me, "I'm going to be cutting an album, come over whenever you feel like it." So I went there with a girl I was dating while they were recording Planet Waves. Bob said to me, "I just cut this song and I got two versions of it, a fast version and a slow version. Tell me which one you like better." Trying to figure out which one to put on the album.
He said to the engineer, "Play the two 'Forever Young' recordings for Louie to hear." So he played both of them for me and said, "Whaddya think?" I said, "I like them both." So he put them both on the album.
First impressions, I can't tell you, we're talking 49 years ago, but I liked Robbie. You could Robbie was a leader, you know. He was a force. Bob would ask him musical questions. They would talk back and forth. Robbie was a classy guy, very sharp.
I was probably in LA for a month hanging with Bob. And then I said to him, "I gotta go back to Minnesota. We got our season coming up for herring and lutefisk."
He said, "Oh, okay. You know, I'm gonna be doing this tour starting January. If you like, you can come with and hang out." I told him my season was over by then and I could do it. He was renting a house in Malibu. He says, "Come the morning of January 1st. That's when they're going to pick me up to go on the tour."
So I flew in the day before or something and went out to his house. I hung out with him and his family for a while, and then the limo shows up. He says goodbye to Sara and the kids. We go to a private airport. The limo takes us right up onto the tarmac where there was a plane. [Tour promoters] Bill Graham and Barry Imhoff open the door to the limo and Bob gets out. Everybody's very excited. Then two seconds later I get out. Bill says, "Who's this?"
Bob said, "Oh, this is my friend Louie. He's coming on the tour." Just like that. He had never given any indication he was bringing anybody. Bill looked at me and said something to the effect of, "Jeez Bob, the hotel in Chicago's already sold out. There's no more rooms." Bob says, "That's not a problem. Louie can sleep in my suite on the couch." And that's what we did. He had a big suite and I slept on the couch. After that, they didn't have any problems finding a room for me.
When we we got to Chicago, he introduced me to everybody. They had met me at the session, so they knew who I was. They were great guys. Rick Danko and Levon and I got really close, and Robbie, too.
There's that great picture [above] taken on the private plane where we were going from concert to concert. Bob and I would play backgammon or chess. We would do that all the time on the plane together. And then Robbie came over and was talking. My guess is it had something to do with the concerts, you know, the musical part of it.
Robbie was definitely the leader of that, there's no question about it. He was the point guy for the band, making sure everything got done. If you wanted to interface with something about the band, you'd talk to Robbie. Robbie in turn would interface with the guys. Musically, if there was something Bob wanted onstage, or talking about what song they were going to play next, Bob would communicate with Robbie.
He was very friendly and outgoing. You can see from that other picture backstage, as we were walking, how him and Rick were clowning around. That's how they were. Rick was always like that, a real cut-up. But Robbie was into that too.
At the last concert at the Forum in L.A., just before the encore, Bob said "There's somebody who, without him, the tour couldn't have happened and I want to thank him." The lights came up, and David Geffen was sitting on the center, four or five rows back, with Cher, who he was dating at the time. And when Bob said that, David stood up, thinking it was him. Well, David was the force behind the tour. It was David's idea, and he put the whole together because Bob had switched from Columbia to Asylum, which was Geffen's label, but it was Bill Graham who executed. So it could have easily been either one of them. Bob says, "Will Bill Graham please come on stage?"
So Bill comes on stage, and David was noticeably hurt, because he thought it was him. He sat back down. And of course I'm in the rocking chair [see our first interview for discussion of Kemp’s unique onstage perch], so I see everything, right? I saw his first reaction, and then I saw his other reaction when Bill came on stage. David was upset.
When I saw David backstage afterwards, I could see where there were tears on his cheek. They were dried up, but you could see them. That's how strong the impact was on him. So I told Bob what happened, and Bob felt terrible. He said, "Of course, David was a big part, it's just that Bill was at every concert. I wanted to give him a shout out." I said, "Absolutely, he deserved it, but I gotta tell you, David really took it bad."
So he called Robbie over. I told Robbie what happened. He felt bad also. They said, "Okay, we've got to make it up to David." So they actually went to his office later to thank them. They may even have taken out an ad in Variety or someplace to thank him publicly too. Robbie was very sensitive, they both were, they both felt bad.
When he told me about it, I said, "Well, it might be nice if you do some personal gesture." "What should we do?" "I don't know." He said, "Well, get ahold of Cher and asked her what she thinks would be nice to do for David." So I called Cher. She said, "Well, his birthday is coming up very soon. Why don't we throw a surprise birthday party for him?"
I said, "That's a great idea." And Bob said absolutely. He said, "Work with Cher on it, and I'll pay for everything. You guys figure out what to do." So I called Cher back and she said, "Well, I'll pay for half of it, I want to be involved too."
So I worked with her on Bob's behalf and we put this great party together at the ballroom at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It was like a carnival party. We had jugglers, fire eaters, sumo wrestlers. There's a great picture at that party where David’s cutting the cake and Cher and Bob and me, we're all singing happy birthday to them.
I knew Robbie before the tour. He was broke and he selling pot out of his apartment to supplement his income. I knew he was a musician, but I didn't know anything about the music he made.
All along the tour, Robbie was listening to the tapes from Nashville [the Blonde on Blonde sessions they had just done]. Bob was listening to them steadily with Robbie. Robbie was a big critic. He liked it fine, but it wasn't his kind of music. He was an outlaw, and he was mostly R&B, not country.
It was Robbie who thought that Dylan was going to be a rock star. People didn't understand what they were doing at all. [The booing] definitely threw Dylan. I don't know if it threw Robbie, but he was so tied to Dylan, I'd be amazed if it didn't. He was totally into the music and couldn't understand why anybody wouldn't like it.
Garth [Hudson] was my roommate through most of the tour. He was a narcoleptic, and he would fall asleep at the weirdest times. Between solos he would fall asleep, but he would always wake up on cue and perform his solo impeccably. In Copenhagen, Garth rented a taxi to take a tour, and he fell asleep right at the beginning. I was the only one who experienced the tour, even though Garth paid for it. He exited the taxi back at the hotel and went back to sleep.
Robbie's guitar playing was incandescent. It is very difficult to explain why I thought Robbie's playing was so great, but as I walked the halls we played in to check the sound, it just was. His solos were the best rock and roll guitar I've ever heard. And I knew Jimi Hendrix, and most of the great guitar players. They're all on the live recordings from Europe, particularly Liverpool. Liverpool was the greatest. "Tom Thumb's Blues" was issued by Dylan and Columbia on the B-side of "I Want You." Nobody could figure out what "Tom Thumb's Blues" was about. I can't figure out what it's about, but Robbie played a great solo on that song.
My new book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members is out now! Find a whole bunch of places to buy it here:
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