Robbie Robertson, 1943-2023

the music comes from the land.

Robbie Robertson, 1943-2023

Onstage at The Last Waltz is how I first saw him, this is how I will always remember him. I remember sitting in that movie theater when The Last Waltz came out and not entirely understanding why this was so important but I walked out of the theater both understanding and also feeling like this was part of my history and my cultural lineage and knowing that I had so much to learn, and was incredibly excited for the journey that was ahead of me.

I’m out in California this week doing a little Patti Smith-related roadtrip with a friend and I remembered I had this piece I wrote late one night in New Orleans in a year I was re-listening to all of The Band’s records in order. I had walked down to the Quarter and had some oysters and then went over to the Mississippi and came back to the hotel and wrote this. I’d been saving it for something, this seems as good a time as any.

“Chest Fever” - the chords are ancient, all knowing - the music comes from the land - it comes from the air, the stars, the dirt, the forests, the haze of the sunset, the fog rising off the hills.

There is something that happens when people not from a place want to be of that place. Maybe they were, once upon a time, from that place; maybe pieces of their cellular structure drifted through the cosmos, giving them that physical connection. Who can say why a piece of music or a style of music or a song or a guitar riff or a lyric speaks to someone so strongly that it overpowers common sense, that it awakens something inside you you can’t quite name. It is the drive to name it, to define it, to figure out what is connecting to you that is what drives artists to create art, write songs, chisel into giant slabs of granite, splash paints across a canvas.

In the case of the Band, it was everything that pulled them together, those improbable coincidences that put these six men in the right place at the right time and made them all fit together as though they were born to do this. As though, except that - they were.

“Chest Fever” is the Band’s second most-covered song, after “The Weight.” That seems brave, daring, optimistic. I wouldn’t even try. But I think all of this is why it speaks so loudly to so many.

We continue to edge closer to a world in which the people who wrote the music that I don’t remember existing without will be taking their leave of this planet. I bought this photo last year, because I had no idea that it was something I could own, because it was so formative, so transformational, so indelible an event for my young self.

Travel well, Robbie. May his memory be for a blessing.