Robbie Robertson, Remembered: Maria McKee on Their 1980s Friendship

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Robbie Robertson left a legacy of storytelling behind him when he died at age 80 on Aug. 9 in Los Angeles. It’s not just the tales he concocted for his work with the Band and, later, his solo records, but his prowess as one of music’s great raconteurs, whether he was harking back to an upbringing that had him visiting Native reservations with his mother or telling of the high life among the rich and infamous. In the mid- to late ‘90s, he was practically rock’s convivial king, enjoying the esteem that came with a burgeoning career as director Martin Scorsese’s musical right-hand man, but also making a celebrated return to record-making with his long-awaited solo debut in 1987.

If you remember that album, titled “Robbie Robertson,” you may also remember the music video for the first single, “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” which co-starred singer-songwriter Maria McKee, who was fresh out of the band Lone Justice. As McKee laughs now, remembering how heated up it was: “You can’t un-see that video.” But although the chemistry that developed during the Scorsese-directed clip was real, there was more to their friendship and collaboration than just steam. McKee hadn’t seen Robertson since the late ‘90s when he passed away, but she maintained fond memories of him as a mentor and a gentleman. She got on the phone with Variety for an appreciation of Robertson that speaks to how much he loved listening to and interacting with young artists as an elder statesman. She also talked about what made the Band so influential in music history.

McKee: “Robbie was a storyteller, and he loved a Southern Gothic atmosphere. His writing about Dixie when he was from Canada was similar to me growing up in Beverly Hills writing about ‘Dixie Storms’ — not being bound by geography or time and being like a novelist, really. Not all songs have to be from personal experience. If I wanted to write about the Napoleonic war, nobody could tell me that it wasn’t personal. It’s personal to me! We read everything, why not write about everything?

“The thing about the Band as well, that we tried to do with Lone Justice as well, was: It wasn’t just the music that was evocative of fictional prose or historical in nature, but the performances, where they were bits of theater, and the band was in costume. They would wear theatrical costumes on stage — not so much in the ‘Last Waltz’ era, but initially. So it was an immersive experience that was cinematic and theatrical, and I loved that about them.

“And they pretty much invented the Americana genre. The voices were so poignant, all of them — Richard, Levon, Rick and Robbie, with this boys’ choir, field recording, back-of-the-woods vulnerability in their voices. It’s very rare to have a band where all the singers have that quality, where it’s like an open wound of a voice, and every one of them had it. The Dead were a little bit like that; all their voices had that sort of shimmering, raw, open-wound quality, too.

“As far as Robbie is concerned, my first real big obsession with anything he worked on was the Neil Diamond album ‘Beautiful Noise,’ which he produced. Isn’t that funny? I loved Broadway when I was a teenager, and it was a concept album, very theatrical and grand. Especially the title song, because, like Robbie’s later film work, it has cinematic soundscapes and a carnival-esque sort of swirling quality, which is very Robbie.

“When Robbie embarked on his solo career in the ‘80s, he really had his ear to the ground in regards to new roots-rock musicians, which is how he ended up with the BoDeans and me working on that first solo record. My friend Monte Warden from the Wagoneers just commented about how Robbie left him a really nice note at A&M Studios when he was making that first album. And Monte asked, ‘Did you or Jimmy Iovine have something to do with that?’ No, Robbie was just really good at sniffing out great young talent.

“We were sort of foisted together by my A&R person at Geffen at the time, Gary Gersh. It was like a homework assignment; we used to get those at the record labels: ‘You should get together and write songs.’ So when Robbie and I met, it was a little bit like they had pushed us together to do this thing. I remember him coming to my tiny apartment I shared in the West Village in the late ‘80s with Phil Ochs’ daughter, Megan, who’s a beloved best friend. We had no air conditioning, and here Robbie Robertson comes by and he is wearing a really nice silk shirt, and we’re itting in my tiny apartment just pouring sweat. He looked really uncomfortable, and it was awkward, and then finally something clicked and he said, ‘Let’s go have a drink at to the White Horse Tavern. I love that place. I used to come here with Henry Miller.’ Off we went, and we just started chatting and he started in with the stories, and a friendship blossomed.

“I’d had experiences, obviously (with veteran musicians), like when Bob Dylan came to the studio when we were making the first Lone Justice album. But I was such a punk. I remember Bob and I kind of coming to blows, and that was one of the reasons why he liked me, because I was a brat, like he was when he was my age, and I didn’t kiss his ass. But with Robbie, all bets were off. I couldn’t do that with him, because he was so commanding. He was like an old noir hero. He had a matinee idol quality that was timeless. Apart from ‘Carney,’ he wasn’t really an actor, but he definitely could have been a movie star. He had this extensive refinement that you almost have to born with… a gentlemanly elegance, in a similar sort of way to Bryan Ferry.

“It was very chaste. He was really very respectful of my youth and upbringing, and a gentleman. We were each other’s muses for a minute, and we wrote some beautiful lyrics about one another. The one we wrote together that everyone knows is ‘Nobody’s Child’ [from her self-titled 1989 solo debut], and then he inspired my song ‘Season of the Fair,’ which I wrote back then, and for whatever reason it didn’t make it onto my first record. [It eventually appeared on 2005’s ‘Peddlin’ Dreams’ album.] Thematically, it sort of had some of his kind of sparkle, lyrically, and then also just a sort of dreamscape of having a connection with somebody that you hope would stay with them — something that was fleeting and magical, but life goes on and you drift apart. Because that time in my life was exciting. When he would come to New York, we would hang out, and then he invited me to go with him to the Grammys, and U2 were nominated, and so we we would all party together afterwards and it was a blast.

“When I moved back to L.A,, I used to go to Village Recorders, where he had a studio where he would go every day to write. Sometimes we wouldn’t write at all; we’d just hang out and he’d tell stories. He had the most amazing stories about the Chelsea Hotel and Edie Sedgwick. The most outrageous stories he told, which I can’t even repeat, because they’re so vivid, were the ones about touring with Ronnie Hawkins in the early days [before the Hawks became the Band]. Because he was involved in certain hillbilly practices that were not suitable for print — pretty wild tales.

“I love ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River.’ That song is a movie — what an incredible song to have been a part of the story of. When Robbie asked me to be the girl in his video, he and Marty kept talking about ‘Duel in the Sun’: ‘We want it to be like Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck’ —that desperate sort of romantic chemistry between the two characters. I didn’t know to what extent we would be exercising that romantic chemistry in the video until it was happening. I just thought I was just gonna be sort of in the background, dancing around.

“It was supposed to be like New Orleans or Louisiana, that kind of feeling, and they kind of misted me. Apart from videos, I hadn’t done any acting work yet, apart from theater school. And at first Marty told Robbie, ‘I don’t know — she seems a little nervous.’ And Robbie’s like, ‘I know she can do it.’ Then when it came time to shoot the final scene, I came onto the set and there was nobody there. [Laughs.] They’d cleared it apart from the camera crew, and Robbie’s like, ‘Maybe you want a glass of wine. Let’s just relax into it. This is gonna be the “Duel in the Sun” bit.’ And I was like, ohhhh. … I think Marty said, ‘Let’s rehearse it,’ and then we just fell into this kind of dance without even trying. Marty said, ‘I filmed that, by the way.’ It was a little bit like, ‘OK, let’s ship Robbie and Maria.’ [Laughs.] I wouldn’t say it was scandalous, but it was tasty, and a little salty. It was a little exciting for the music biz at the time.

“Obviously the moviemaking experiences for me were fascinating to hear about, because it involved things like Marty and Robert De Niro and Robbie getting on a plane and going to Rome for dinner, and then coming home that night back to New York. I loved hearing those tales, and about Robert De Niro living with Marty when he was making ‘Raging Bull’ and lying on the couch and shoveling ice cream into his mouth to try to get fat enough for Jake LaMotta. Robbie and Marty’s collaboration was like a past-life spiritual connection. They were brothers, in my opinion. Robbie was a cinephile who loved working with his best friend, so it’s not surprising at all (that that’s where he eventually focused most of his attention). Film influenced his songwriting so much, and they had a beautiful work marriage that flowed tremendously well together.

“Given Robbie’s First Nations heritage, it seems incredibly apt that his last project would be ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ — it’s so bittersweet. … I remember Robbie telling me stories about taking his First Nations mama to the doctor, because she had some inner ear issues that were causing vertigo. And I was like, ‘Well, what seems to be the cause?’ And he would say, ‘Civilization.’

“As I’ve grown older, he’s somebody that I look back at and say: ‘I want to be him when I grow up.’ It’s not just the musicianship or songwriting abilities. It’s that sort of personality who will befriend young folks who are trying to make art and regale them with tales of the past— and the generosity of that. I have a lot of young artists that I mentor and bring out to dinner and tell stories to, and it’s a beautiful tradition, you know? Stuff doesn’t always get written down, isn’t always recorded, isn’t always made into work or songs or books. But we’re walking works of art, and we carry that with us and we spread it around and it continues. When I was young, I was a sponge. And now, I aspire to be more like somebody like Robbie, who is generous with my oral history and my experiences. It’s not just about the work.”

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