Wednesday, January 11, 2017

You Can Hear His Music: Testimony by Robbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson (right) performing on stage with Bob Dylan in 1965.

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, who named his autobiography Testimony (Knopf), after one of his compositions. Of those four, I was most 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. I assumed he would have offered some first-rate memories that, happily, are now in print. And since I am a fellow Torontonian, many of the places he writes about are familiar to me.

Robertson has penned an idealistic autobiography that is 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, 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 reports 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 from 1966.

One never doubts that what he says is true and sincere. But, at times, it all seems too neat and tidy. 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 their subjects: how they think and why the artistic choices they made stemmed from one profound moment. That moment for Robertson didn’t come with his mother’s advice or after learning his real father was killed during the Second World War, but 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 Hawkins, their charismatic front man. Robertson's experiences as the guitar player in Hawkins’s band read as enthusiastic, heartfelt memories of his life. To think that in 1959, for instance, he was earning $125 a week and wearing suits designed by fellow Torontonian Lou Myles, while his friends were stuck in high school – but it’s a little too quaint. These passages, interspersed with memories of his childhood, seem compartmentalized; scenes described by an outsider looking in, rather than by 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.”

Perhaps Robertson feels the need to be distant from the more painful events (involving race, addiction, organized crime bosses) while fully enjoying the stories of his days with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and The Band. As he told Tom Power on CBC Radio’s q in November, he "felt lighter” after carrying the weight of all these stories and “setting them free.” Many of the stories in Testimony are already familiar to his fans, only without his insight. And it is the latter part of his life, after 1965, covered in the middle chapters, that is most engaging. Here we begin to understand Robertson’s songwriting process. We learn that he wrote “The Weight” in one sitting after being inspired by the Luis Buñuel film, Viridiana. We also get some details into one of his best songs, penned for Levon Helm, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” written from the point of view of a Southerner.

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 by John Hammond, Jr. during the recording sessions for “Like A Rolling Stone.” 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 and 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 introductions with some serious name-dropping, the ride that Robertson -- and therefore the reader -- finds himself on is sweeping in its speed and success.

For me, the best 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 and the house known as Big Pink. This was following Dylan’s decision to rest and regroup after his motorcycle accident. The years 1967 to 1974 are well covered and offer some marvelous details into the songwriting process Robertson and his band mates developed during those fertile years. This includes the Basement Tapes story and the origin of The Band’s name, their signing with Capitol Records and their worldwide success.

The Band on stage in The Last Waltz (1978). (Photo: Ronald Grant)

Robertson constantly sings the praises of Bob Dylan during this time and spreads compliments to Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm – his "brothers” – and, considering the quality of the group's output, starting with their debut album, Music from Big Pink, he’s not being sentimental. 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 subject of the group’s drug abuse. At one point, Helm, Danko and Manuel were using so much heroin that it was affecting the band’s very existence. In Robertson’s view, this had a huge impact on the success of the group and left him the only one who could pull them altogether. What’s implicit in Testimony is the idea that if not for Robertson, The Band wouldn’t have existed in the first place. With their consent, he negotiated 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.

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 sixteen years on the road. According to Robertson, it was his hope and the hope of the other members of the group that recovery could only happen if they didn’t tour again. But he 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 the mistaken belief (one that I long held) that only he was tired of the road, not 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 particular skills as the de facto leader of the group. It’s a story full not of spite, ill will or petty jealousy but of love and respect and fairness, three of the least appreciated qualities in the music business.

At the TIFF presentation I attended in November, Robertson reported that he was working on a second volume.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

No comments:

Post a Comment