Robbie Robertson's Testimony
Last fall four autobiographies were released by some of the biggest names in music history: Bruce Springsteen [Born To Run], Phil Collins [Not Dead Yet, Live], Brian Wilson [I Am Brian Wilson, A Memoir] and Robbie Robertson, naming his autobiography, Testimony (Knopf), after one of his compositions. Of those four, I was more keenly interested in hearing from Robertson particularly since I couldn’t book him for a CBC Radio Documentary I co-produced with Kevin Courrier in 2008. Having read his book, he would have offered some first-rate memories that, thankfully, are now in print. As a fellow Torontonian, many of the places he writes about are familiar to me.
Robertson has penned an idealistic autobiography but not for fans of revisionist history “these are my stories; this is my voice, my song.” Testimony is one hell-of-a tale and a hefty one at 500 pages. As a young man growing up in Toronto, he was captured by the sounds of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Country and Blues music that never left him. His aboriginal mother, who was from the Mohawk Nation in Ontario, had a very rich musical family whose strong sense of traditional storytelling was equally matched by their skills as musicians. He does report on his many visits to the Six Nations Reserve in Southwest Ontario, with great affection, “On the banks of the Grand River I found a quiet spot and sat for a while, musical memories swirling around in my head. This is where it had all begun for me”, Robertson recalls in 1966.
One never doubts that what he says is true and sincere. But it all seems too neat and tidy at times. Although I was struck by the profundity of what his mother told him at a young age, “be proud to be an Indian; but be careful who you tell,” Robertson makes no use of this “portal” into his own life. Testimony is more about all the good stuff than the bad, which is occasionally passed off as remote memory; he tells you about the often-crazy events in his life, but never fully explains their meaning. I prefer biographies that get under the skin of a person: how they think and why the artistic choices they made stemmed from one profound moment. That moment for Robertson didn’t come from his mother’s advice or after learning his real father was killed during the Second World War, but it was when he was 16-years-of-age on his first trip south to join Ronnie Hawkins in Arkansas.
Robertson finds comfort in the music and weaves a great tale about his early days with the Hawks and their charismatic front man, Ronnie Hawkins. As the guitar-player in Hawkins’s band Robertson’s experiences read as enthusiastic, heartfelt memories of his life. To think, in 1959 for instance, that he was earning $125 a week and wearing suits designed by Torontonian, Lou Myles, while his friends were stuck in high school, but it’s little too quaint. These passages, interspersed with memories of his childhood, seem compartmentalized; scenes described by an outsider looking in, rather than as a participant. Nevertheless he does offer some moments of self-discovery, “My job in life at age twenty-two was to learn, to absorb the magic, and to have a real good time along the way.”
But perhaps Robertson feels the need to be distant from the more painful events (Race, addiction, organized crime bosses) while fully enjoying the stories of his days with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and collectively with the Band. As he told Tom Power on CBC Radio’s q “he felt lighter” after carrying the weight of all these stories and “setting them free”. Ironically, many of the stories in Testimony are familiar to the fans, only without his insight. Nevertheless it is the latter part of his life, after 1965, which is really engaging in the middle chapters of Testimony. Here we begin to understand Robertson’s song-writing process. We learn that he wrote “The Weight” in “one sitting” after being inspired by the Luis Bunuel film, Viridiana. We also get some details into one of Robertson’s best songs penned for Levon Helm, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, written from the point-of-view of a Southerner.
But throughout the book Robertson reports on his timely and unexpected meetings with other musicians and artists during his youth. For instance, in 1965, Bob Dylan is introduced to him during the recording sessions for “Like A Rolling Stone” by way of John Hammond, Jr. One of his first gigs away from The Hawks was with Dylan whom he befriended in due course. We also learn that he did the stereo mix of Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.
Hammond also introduces him to Jimmy James (Jimi Hendrix) by way of a club date in New York. He also hangs out with Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, attends a house party with Salvador Dali and plays with street musician Tiny Tim. Robertson always seems to be in the right place at the right time either at a party or a gig or after a concert. But while his book often reads like a series of constant introductions with some serious name-dropping, the ride that Robertson is on (and thereby the reader) is sweeping in its speed and success.
For me, the better information doesn’t really come until after the 1966 tour with Bob Dylan. As the story goes, after the tumultuous world tour of 1966, where fans booed and threw things at the band, The Hawks relocated to the area of Woodstock NY, at the house known as Big Pink. This was following Dylan’s decision to rest and regroup after a motorcycle accident. The years 1967 to 1974 are well covered and make for some marvelous details into the song-writing process Robertson and his band mates developed during those fertile years. This includes The Basement Tapes story and what led to the Band’s name, their signing with Capitol Records and their worldwide success.
Robertson constantly sings the praises of Bob Dylan during this time and spreads the compliments far and wide to Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, “his brothers” and he’s not being sentimental considering the quality of the group’s output starting with their debut album, Music From Big Pink. During these productive years after 1968, the group smoked a lot of pot and was pretty reckless with their cars on the country roads of upstate New York, but Robertson seems to pull his punches on the group’s drug abuse. At one point, Helm, Danko and Manuel were using Heroin so much that it was affecting the band’s very existence. In Robertson’s world, this had a huge impact on the success of the group leaving him as the only one who could pull them altogether. What’s implicit in Testimony is the fact that if not for Robertson, the Band wouldn’t have existed in the first place. He negotiated, with their consent, publishing and recording deals with the help of trusted business partners such as Albert Grossman. He also encouraged the group to tour whenever the opportunity arose. What he couldn’t do was stop the heroin abuse until he discovered the source of their problem: touring.
Consequently, the book ends with The Last Waltz project: a filmed concert and semi-biographical documentary about the Band, which came after much discussion and planning in 1976. Martin Scorsese directed it. Here we learn of Robertson’s attempt to get his band off the road and off smack. As he says “I worried that Garth and I had three junkies in our group, plus our so-called manager. Finally I declared, ‘No more’… no one was opposed to the idea.” Robertson reports that all the members of the Band felt it was time to take a break from the many temptations that were affecting their health. The Last Waltz was their way of going out big after 16 years on the road. According to Robertson, it was his hope and the hope of the other members of the group that the time to recover could only happen if they didn’t tour again. But Robertson underestimated the last concert’s effect on the group, as he admits in the coda, “this train we’d been riding for so long was pulling into the station, not just for touring, not just for recording, but for everything.”
Robertson is often blamed for the breakup of the Band, based on on the mistaken belief (one that I long held) that only he was tired of the road rather than the whole group, who simply needed a vacation to dry-out and start again. Robertson dispels that myth in Testimony. As he writes, “I thought I knew where I wanted to go and what my calling was, but if I hadn’t … hopped that southbound train, who knows?” Indeed.
Robertson’s book is essential reading on the history of the Band and his particularly good skills as the defacto leader of the group. It’s a story not full of spite, ill will or petty jealousy but of love and respect and fairness, three of the least appreciated qualities in the music business.
This review first appeared on Criticsatlarge.ca