A Tribute to My Friend Robbie Robertson

Martin Scorsese / Rolling Stone
A Tribute to My Friend Robbie Robertson Director Martin Scorsese with musician Robbie Robertson. (Photo: Rolling Stone)

Shortly after Robertson's death, the director wrote this piece chronicling his nearly 50-year friendship and collaboration with the musician

WHEN THE BAND ended their original run with a farewell concert in San Francisco in 1976, Martin Scorsese was there to capture it for his brilliant documentary “The Last Waltz.” The project marked the end of Robbie Robertson’s tenure in the group, but the beginning of a collaboration with Scorsese that endured till Robertson’s death this summer. In the remembrance below, Scorsese explores scenes from his and Robertson’s time together — from traveling across Europe to watching Luis Buñuel films like “Un Chien Andalou” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” to listening to composer Michael Praetorius and Van Morrison. Together with the Polaroids Scorsese provided, it’s a remarkable portrait of a remarkable friendship.

Mulholland Drive

I was mad.

All wired. Erratically, but still — I was mad.

I wanted him to hear the Michael Praetorius. Brass and chorale, and I got even madder.

I knew they were talking about me. All of them. I knew it, I could see it in their eyes.

Their smirks. I could tell they were talking about me.

Back and forth in the room, the chorale, then the brass, chorale and brass, chorale and brass, driving the rant.

Corner of my eye, a waft of smoke.

Is that a wry smile or a smirk, too? Sitting on the couch. Taking in the show. This sphinx. This sphinxlike creature. His presence — cool. He was always cool.

He offers a word or two, quiet-like.

The paranoid twist I’m in keeps spinning. Chorale and brass. The sphinx takes it in — cool. Rides out the storm. Helps make it pass. Cools me down.

At least, he listened. He did listen. He was a great listener.

That must have been in the winter of 1978, I think — doesn’t matter. We had been living in my house together about a year and a half. That would come to an end in the fall of that year.

All absurd. But it happened.


At times it was like a road movie — not Easy Rider or Kings of the Road, but the roads to Zanzibar, Singapore, Morocco. Why did I always feel like Bob Hope to his Bing Crosby?

Europe 1977

I woke up one night at the Hotel Meurice, and I didn’t know where to place the camera.

Not cool.

Me lugging an award for Taxi Driver around, a pretty little statue of Donatello’s David. Watching it go through X-ray machines at airports — I like to look at the silhouette in the machine.

From film festivals to parties to meetings to film festivals.

Nikita Mikhalkov doesn’t let us pass. “Vodka!” We have to have a shot. We do as we’re told.

Kurosawa thinks we’re amusing.


TRACKING SHOT past masterpieces in the Uffizi Gallery

Utrillo, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell. One after another after another. Overwhelming. Such greatness … am I getting annoyed?

We’re taking in the museum. He goes one way, I go another.

We lose each other.

Eventually, I leave the building. I see him sitting on the stoop, dejected. He looks up, quiet-like: “We’re bums.”

“Yeah, we’re bums,” I said.

Not so cool.


What are we doing, after seeing all that? Could we ever do anything again? Could we go through the fire again? That’s how he said it. Always “the fire.”

Laughing helped. But was it all stamped out of us?


On the road somewhere in Italy. We pull into a rest stop. Have to use the restroom.

Told: None available. “Go out back.”

We’re standing there, pissing. White porcelain all around us. We look. Toilets. Forty or more of them, just sitting there. Helter-skelter. Gleaming white, brand-new. On the ground, waiting. Waiting for … what? Did they fall off the back of a truck?

What the hell are we doing?


I woke up some time in September ’78 and slipped — comfortably this time — into Raging Bull.

He came back in on Raging Bull, and he stayed till Killers of the Flower Moon.

All-night movies

Night — angle down on hands sharpening a straight razor — worn, dupey black-and-white images

CLOSE on the man doing the sharpening, a cigarette in his mouth — he bears a suspicious resemblance to Luis Buñuel

He tests the blade on his thumbnail, opens a French door to a balcony, gazes up at the night sky

A thin cloud approaches the full moon

CLOSE on the face of a woman, looking at us — he opens her left eye with his fingers — lifts the razor and starts slicing

The cloud slices through the moon

CLOSE on the eye as the razor slices it open — fluid pours out

Words on the screen: “Eight years later”


What kind of narrative was this? What did they want us to think?

But, why not? It’s always eight years later …

Screening films. 16mm prints, usually bad copies. All night long in that house on Mulholland.

I threw Rossellini and Visconti and Fuller at him. He preferred Bergman, Cocteau, and Buñuel. He loved Buñuel.

“Eight years later”

Color images, French

A dinner party is in progress — impeccably mannered upper-middle-class Europeans, chatting politely, eating pâté

The doorbell rings — an entire company of soldiers in fatigues walks in — embarrassment: they were expected the next day but maneuvers have started ahead of schedule

The hostess steps in and offers to feed everyone — tables and chairs are set up — absurd conversation over drinks — the Colonel shares a joint with his second-in-command and politely passes it to the other guests

The meal starts at two cramped tables — apologies for the small portions

Another soldier at the door, a Sergeant — “Message from HQ for the Colonel” — the Green Army has attacked so, unfortunately, they have to leave

The soldiers stand and offer their apologies — they are ready to go when the Sergeant whispers in the Colonel’s ear

The Colonel is delighted — “The Sergeant has a charming dream he would like to tell you about” — everyone sits down again — “We’re listening”

The Sergeant takes off his helmet and tucks it under his am, assumes a melancholy air, and starts his recitation — “Last week, I had a dream …”

The story stopped for the dream. He loved that. No dividing line between reality and the dream. He loved it. For the sphinx, there was no difference.

Why can’t all stories stop like that? Stop for dreams …


More films, more music.

Alida Valli running down purple streets of Venice screaming “Franz! Franz!” — the sky above her is mauve and rose — Bruckner’s seventh symphony surges. Visconti’s Senso ends. Faded print.

We get up, drift outside.

The sky above us is mauve and rose. We’re still in the Visconti film. Inside and outside.

The sun is coming up. The only thing left to do was to put on “Tupelo Honey.” That’s what always happened. Van and “Tupelo Honey.” It was sort of our sign off.

Music school

It wasn’t always Bruckner and Praetorious. Most of it was blues, rock, gospel, folk, country, Gil Evans and Miles Davis, Nass El-Ghiwane, Willie Dixon, the American Songbook.

I put on the Sex Pistols. It always irritated him. “Turn it down. They have no musicianship.”

Listening. Years of listening. Songs. Mixes. Sounds. And words. His words, about the music that he was hearing in his head. Words that themselves embodied music and became music. Words that communicated sensual states that made me anticipate what the music would sound like.

I listened to him. We found a common language.

Listening to cicadas, for Silence. Cicadas in early September in Kyushu, cicadas in late August in Hokkaido, all different kinds of sounds of cicadas in different parts of Japan and at different times of year.

They even made their way into Killers of the Flower Moon.

I wanted a harmonica for The Irishman. The feeling of the music for Touchez pas au Grisbi. I slipped Robbie a copy of the soundtrack. He found a great French harmonica player, Frederic Yonnet — and they got it.

I said, “Give me something dangerous and fleshy.” For the moment when Leo drops off Lily from his cab at her house in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Robbie came back with a theme driven by guitar, bass, harmonica — dangerous and fleshy. More than I asked for. It helped drive the whole picture.

There had to be another theme, expansive and bold, something that would match the scale of the landscape itself, the prairies and the hills. He came back with a gusher of sound, to match the oil shooting up from the earth … coyotes and wolf calls.

Aerial shot

A wooden ship out on the open sea. The ship is your whole world. And you’re lost and alone in the universe, circling through the ether.

Maybe you’re one of the luckless ones, on a ship commanded by a madman and driven to obliteration — you’re cast adrift like Ishmael, just another orphan picked up by another devious-cruising ship in search of her missing children, you alone have escaped to tell thee.

The majesty. The romance. The danger. The madness. Swirling together in one full-force gale. What I felt in Melville and images from 19th-century America, he must have felt too. We never talked about it. We didn’t really have to. It was there in his music, the music he made with Levon Helm and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, the music he made on his own, the music he made for my films.

Those first Band records, that aggregate sound — organ, guitar, the different voices, all coming out of a mysterious place called Big Pink … the songs — the world of tricksters and rogues, unfaithful servants and vigilantes, hardship and deliverance, hymns and murder ballads, Shenandoah and Cripple Creek, Daniel and the sacred harp, Carmen and the devil walking side by side, the flying Dutchman’s on the reef … it was as vast as the continent, it was influenced by everything and nothing, it was completely original, and it came right out of the soil, the beauty and the tragedy of this place called North America.

The Last Waltz

Planning the picture. Shooting. Editing. Mixing. It kept me alive for those two years.

The screenings. The impact of all those songs and performances. Almost every time we screened it, Wim Wenders was there.

The Cannes screening. On our way up the red carpet, some people in the crowd shouted “Fascists!” Perplexed by that. But cool. Nice ovation, though, after the screening.

“Fascists!” Really? We always wondered about that, over the years.

Thanksgiving Day 1978

Two years after the Last Waltz concert, a few months after the film was out in theaters. Thanksgiving dinner at my house on Mulholland. The Jonestown massacre happened.

Michelangelo Antonioni was in town. We invited him to spend this American holiday with us.

I think Michelangelo was perplexed by our laughter, but we were alive again, gone through the worst of it all.

Every year at Thanksgiving, remembering the Last Waltz, we would have a phone call to check in. It was a ritual.

The Flying Dutchman’s on the reef

My 80th-birthday party. A big affair, but nice feeling in the room.

Robbie walks up to the microphone. There’s a surprise.

He starts talking about our friendship. “There were certain artists that we were drawn to in a cinematic way, in just an incredible, soulful, musical way. We connected on these things. Sometimes these artists just kept coming back, circling around, and we could never resist them.”

Then he introduced Van Morrison.


A few months later. One last dinner in L.A.

“Eight Years Later” … and those toilets in the field behind the rest stop and the mauve and rose sky we shared with Alida Valli and … did they really think we were fascists?

At the end of the night he said, “Sorry I was a little slow on the draw.”

He never talked much about being sick.

Now I’m mad again. I’m mad he didn’t get the blessing of seeing people experience his work on the score of Killers of the Flower Moon.

But still, he got the grace to create it.

I don’t think I’m going to listen to “Tupelo Honey” anymore.

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