Music legend Robertson recalls incident in ‘71 outside Belfast cowboy’s Woodstock home
The bizarre circumstances of how Van Morrison was almost killed in a freak car accident involving a fellow musician have been revealed by a former sidekick of Bob Dylan.
Robbie Robertson — who was part of Dylan’s backing group The Band — recalls that the Belfast singer was nearly run over after he slipped and fell in snow outside his American home in 1971.
Van had just recorded a track for an album called Cahoots by The Band who dubbed him the Belfast Cowboy — a nickname that was included in the song.
In an interview to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Cahoots, Robertson said the song ‘4% Pantomime’ had been written after Van dropped into his house near Woodstock in New York state, scene of the legendary rock festival a couple of years earlier.
Robertson said Van and another member of The Band, Richard Manuel, had been drinking whisky during what was described by drummer Levon Helm as an “extremely liquid session” and the race was on to record the song before “it was too late”.
Robertson said the title of the song was inspired by Van’s performance during the recording which reminded him of a pantomime, adding: “He was doing all this stuff with his hands and moving around.”
And the 4% was a reference to the difference in alcohol content between Johnnie Walker black label whiskey and Johnnie Walker red that Van and Manuel had been drinking. Robertson said Van, who was living near Woodstock before he moved to California, was driven back to his own house by Manuel who Helm said was “dead-drunk”.
Robertson added: “When they get there Van gets out of the car and he slips in the snow and he falls down behind the car. Richard doesn’t know that and he starts backing over him. Van starts screaming at him.
“He gets up and says, ‘You’re trying to kill me, you’re trying to kill me.’ But Richard says, ‘I wouldn’t kill you’. It was such a bizarre event and in all my experiences it’s one that sits right up there.”
Van, who escaped injury, was one of the stars five years later in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed movie The Last Waltz which recorded the farewell concert by The Band in San Francisco in November 1976.
Van famously did high kicks as he left the stage after singing his classic song Caravan with The Band and Robertson coined the phrase ‘Van the Man’ that night. In 1980 in a documentary about Scorsese, Robertson is seen playing Van’s song Tupelo Honey in a bid, he says, to show the director of the doc the importance of his music.