Once Were Brothers

Album: Sinematic (2019)
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Songfacts®:

  • This song finds Robbie Robertson lamenting his broken relationship with the other members of his group The Band. Their career was brief, but memorable and productive enough to earn them induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. On many of their songs, Robertson is listed as the sole songwriter, which earned him the lion's share of the royalties. This was a contentious issue for his bandmates, who accused him of misleading them.

    Before the squabbles, The Band was a cohesive unit that shared many good times together, which is how Robertson remembers them here. When he wrote the song, he was thinking about the members who have passed away: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm. "It's heartbreaking," Robertson told The Wall Street Journal. "The song took me where it wanted to go."
  • We already had it out
    Between the north and south
    When we heard all the lies
    Comin' out of your mouth


    Uncut magazine asked Robertson if the above lyric refers to the accusations that drummer Levon Helm made about him in his memoir, This Wheel's on Fire. Robertson replied:

    "Levon's story wasn't going to go away like he thought it was going to go. He used to blame Albert Grossman, accountants and lawyers. It was always somebody else's fault when something happened he didn't like. Finally they were all gone and it was me. I wasn't surprised. To say it wasn't hurtful wouldn't be true. I knew some of the things he was saying were made up and ridiculous. I never responded. At that point, I felt like The Brotherhood didn't have hope. The guys were dying: it was just heartbreaking to me.

    When Levon died - and I got there before he died - it tore me in half. He was the closest thing I ever had in my life to a brother. I didn't need anything from him. I had what I needed years earlier. I was never angry with Levon. Part of that is in the 'Once Were Brothers' track. It was just a way of me expressing how much I miss the brotherhood."
  • The Once Were Brothers documentary premiered in September 2019 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie, which is a portrait of Robertson's life and his time with The Band, is based mainly on his 2017 memoir, Testimony.
  • The Waterboys released their take on "Once Were Brothers" on their 2022 album All Souls Hills. The group's frontman, Mike Scott, is a big fan of the original, and for his own entertainment wrote a new verse and adjusted some of the other lyrics. "It came out well," he told UK newspaper The Sun, "and I began to think 'What if Robbie gave permission?'"

    So The Waterboys' manager, Danny Goldberg, approached Robbie Robertson and, to Scott's surprise, he agreed without asking him to change anything. He "let me use it the way I wanted, which was incredibly gracious," said Scott.

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