Robbie Robertson Open to Cleaning The Band's 'Basement Tapes' With Bob Dylan
The Band's storied past has been mined on two significant late-summer projects, and Robbie Robertson thinks more might be coming in the near future.
Robertson himself helmed the just-released box set "Live at the Academy of Music 1971," a four-CD and one-DVD collection from The Band's legendary Dec. 28-31 stand in New York that became the 1972 live album "Rock of Ages." Meanwhile, "Another Self Portrait," the latest edition of Bob Dylan's official Bootleg Series, features two songs from his 1969 Isle of Wight festival appearance with The Band. Now there are rumbles that Dylan's team plans to dip into the equally notable Basement Tapes sessions from 1967 for a future release -- and Robertson tells Billboard he hopes there's some truth in that.
"I've been hearing this for awhile and there is some talk of it, and we'll just see," he says. "I don't know if there's really anything much to do except try to get the best-quality version of 'The Basement Tapes' and put 'em up. I don't really know that I can be that helpful in doing it but whatever that is, I like the idea of sharing that with the world, finally, after all these years. There was such a freedom in what we were doing; we thought, 'Nobody's ever going to hear these.' It was great music, so it would be nice to let people hear it."
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Robertson, meanwhile, is ebullient over the "Academy of Music" set, which he feels captures The Band "in a very particular place" -- a good one, of course -- and also gave him the chance to remix tapes that he was never completely happy with in the "Rock of Ages" configuration.
"Everybody was happy but me," Robertson recalls. "It came out to glowing reviews. It was like one of the great live albums of all time because the performances came through and you would hear that. It was very well-received. But I knew deep down that this could've been, it should've been, much better."
He tried mixing "Rock of Ages" twice, in fact -- once with Phil Ramone and then on his own at an unfinished Bearsville Studios in Woodstock.
"I don't know what happened, but we missed it," Robertson says now. "I did the best I could do under the circumstances at the time, so I just had to live with it. Then a few months ago the record company gets in touch with me... and says, 'We have found all the original tapes, almost all the original tapes, from the Academy of Music. Would you like to put together a set of these?' and I was like, 'Oh, mama! This is music to my ears.' So I explained to them that I never was completely satisfied with this and I would find it an honor to come back and make it what it should have been all along."
Besides the box, which features 19 unreleased tracks and Dylan's complete appearance at the New Year's Eve show, Robertson has also been immersed in a book project. He's one of four authors of "Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World," which is designed to introduce young readers to music legends such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones and more.
"Right now there's a lot of disposable music and that's fine," Robertson explains, "but for young people to have a foundation to know what's really good and where it came from is meaningful for the rest of their lives. Once you establish a foundation of knowing what the greatest recording artists of all time were... Wouldn't you want your kids to know this stuff? And for a kid to say, 'What are you talking about? When I was nine years old I knew who Johnny Cash was. I knew who Billie Holiday was... And it's because of this book that we've tried to do in such a special way and really with the idea of sharing it and the gift to young people that it became that important to us. And we spent years working on this, trying to get it to this place."
The book comes with two CDs featuring music from the artists, and Robertson says there's more where it came from.
"We are hoping that this is just Volume One, because there are so many more people on the list," he says. "But we couldn't turn this into a phone book and have so much (content) that you just get immune to it. It would be great to do another one."