I had hoped to have this review in for Canada Day, but if I’m lucky, I’ll have it ready before Robbie Robertson’s birthday (July 5) is over. Robertson is a musician perhaps best known for his songwriting and guitar playing for the Band, and in this memoir, he describes his journey from a 16-year-old school drop out on the road with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks through his successful but tumultuous years with the Band. I picked up the book because I was already familiar with the Band’s music. One of my older siblings was a big fan of theirs in their heyday, and so I heard the Band both on the radio as well as drifting down from the attic of our house. I also am a fan of Robertson’s eponymous solo album from 1987. I listen to it constantly. It’s gorgeous. So, in picking up this memoir, I hoped to learn a bit about the man behind the music, and I was not disappointed.
Robertson begins his story in 1960 on a train from his home town Toronto to Fayetteville, Arkansas. He had left school to pursue his passion — playing guitar for a rockabilly band called Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Robertson had received his first guitar when he was a child and had learned about music from relatives on his mother’s side of the family on the Six Nations Indian Reserve. This trip was a big risk; Robertson had only the promise of an audition with the Hawks, and given his age, he wouldn’t even be old enough to enter the types of clubs where they played. Yet Ronnie Hawkins recognized the young man’s talents and took him into the fold. Robertson’s stories of becoming a Hawk are full of the thrill of discovery — the chance to get his hands on records by the greats of the rock and blues worlds, meeting and even playing with some of the same, and perhaps most importantly, forming friendships that would leave an indelible mark on Robertson and his music. One of the original Hawks was a drummer named Levon Helm who would become not just a friend but practically a big brother to Robertson. Robertson’s stories of their time together in the Hawks range from hilarious to terrifying, including a plan for an armed robbery that very nearly happened. While the original Hawks were mostly southern musicians, over time as members came and went, the Hawks became a largely Canadian band. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson eventually joined that band and, with Robertson and Helm, became the Band.
Robertson’s talent and the connections he was forging while working for Ronnie Hawkins brought him to the attention of some important record producers and fellow artists, most notably Bob Dylan. A good part of this memoir deals with Robertson’s relationship with Dylan and Dylan’s controversial move from folk to “electric” music. Dylan brought on Robertson and the Hawks (as they were still known) to play back up for him on the road. At the time, the Hawks had broken from Ronnie Hawkins and were trying to develop their own music, so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they would be thrilled to play back up for someone else again. Robertson’s accounts of what happened when Dylan’s electric show hit the road are incredible. Certainly, I had heard before about the negative reaction to Dylan’s new music, but through Robertson the reader gets a much clearer idea of the absolute hatred that this change engendered in diehard folkies. The booing and the anger every night really hit the musicians hard, with Levon Helm eventually packing up and leaving. Once the Dylan tour dates were over, Robertson and his band mates needed time and quiet to work on their own music, and Dylan suggested that they move to an area called Woodstock where he had a house. The band rented a house, known as Big Pink, and started to write and record. The album that resulted from this effort, as well as basement tapes recorded with Dylan, are legendary.
Robertson’s description of the creative process and the technicalities of producing records will appeal to those with the background to appreciate such things. A lot of that went over my head, but I was fascinated by the changing dynamics among band members. On one hand, this was a prolific period for the guys and they produced some of the best rock music the world has heard. On the other hand, demons were coming out, too: alcoholism, drug abuse, and its destructive impact on band dynamics over the course of many years. Robertson details the production of the Band’s albums as well as their interactions and collaborations with other musicians. Pretty much every notable musician from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s comes up: the Beatles, Clapton, Hendrix, Van Morrison, Carly Simon & James Taylor, Neil Diamond. Yeah, that’s right Neil Diamond (whom I also love, so shut up. And the older brother who listened to the Band also listened to Neil Diamond even if he won’t admit it now). The thing that really appeals to me about Robertson is that he embraces the outre— the unusual, the unexpected. This guy was “thinking outside the box” before anyone used that expression.
The final chapters of Testimony lead up to the Band’s last performance, famously filmed by Martin Scorcese and recorded for an album. Both film and album are known as The Last Waltz, both are critically acclaimed. Reading Robertson’s account of how that all came together is fascinating. Even I, a non-musician and non-film person with little to no understanding of how those worlds work, could appreciate what a feat this concert was by the time Robertson finishes detailing it all. And I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that the story of the Band was over. Robertson’s appreciation for and love of his fellow band mates is really touching to read.
While the focus of most of this memoir is on his professional life, Robertson does provide a bit about his family life as well. His mother Dolly, a native Mohawk and Cayuga, was very supportive of her son and his friends, frequently putting them up in her own home and feeding them. Dolly also attended shows to support the boys. When he was a teen, Robertson learned that his biological father was not Jim Robertson but Alexander Klegerman, a Jewish man whose very colorful family Robertson got to know as an adult. He also writes about falling in love at first sight with his wife Dominique and the births of their children, and he hints at the impact of alcohol on their relationship. Robertson is careful not to reveal too much, respecting the privacy of those whom he loves. As with the guys in the Band, Robertson puts more emphasis on the good and positive.
I sincerely (and selfishly) hope that Robertson will continue writing and perhaps reveal how he later became involved in working with director Martin Scorcese on so many of his seminal films. And I would love to hear about the making of his 1987 album, which, no surprise, features collaborations with so many outstanding artists. If we never get that though, at least we have this truly beautiful account of friendship and artistic discovery from a man who is driven by his passion. I recommend Testimony to fans of Robertson, the Band, Dylan, and 1960s/1970s music and culture