Song Writing

Ten Takeaways from Robbie Robertson's Testimony

by Jeff Suwak

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When Robbie Robertson was nine years old he told his mother he was going to be a storyteller. Growing up on the Six Nations Indian Reserve, he'd spent his young life hearing tribal history and mythology passed orally among those around him. This left a powerful impression on him, and at a very young age he knew his calling.

Robertson's proclivity for storytelling can be seen in his musical legacy—songs such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight," and "Acadian Driftwood" are stories set to music. The proclivity is also clear in his new memoir, Testimony.

The book reads as naturally and smoothly as that of a seasoned novelist. At times it's downright poetic, but never in a superficial or sentimental way. It's also a candid tome, detailing both the highs and lows of Robertson's long musical career, revealing many of the author's own shortcomings in the process.

Robertson is and always will be most remembered as the songwriter and lead guitarist for The Band, and Testimony's narrative is built around his time with that outfit. The members of The Band weren't just coworkers and collaborators, they were friends, brothers. Robertson doesn't try to hide these feelings, and the love he shares for them all comes through loud and clear in the book.

It was this love that, in many ways, ended The Band. Robertson couldn't bear to watch them destroy themselves with the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle, and if there's one thing that Testimony hammers home, it's that those excesses hit The Band very hard, even compared to other acts of the time.

The booze and drug stories are sometimes funny but also very sad. Any "glamour" that pop culture associates with heroin or alcohol is quickly destroyed by Robertson's tales of exceptionally talented individuals wasting more and more of their life nodding off on dirty floors or watching cartoons for hours on end.

Robertson's story of his disintegrating relationship with Band drummer Levon Helm is particularly moving, as their relationship was particularly close.

The book is by no means dominated by doom and gloom, however. Robertson knows how blessed he's been to live a life in music, and far more good times than bad in the book.

Many other musicians pop up over the course of the narrative. There's a nervous Elton John and Bernie Taupin shuffling around in The Band's hotel room as they finally get to meet their heroes. There's John Lennon telling Robertson that he never needs to worry about flying on any flight Ringo Starr is on because Ringo is far too lucky to ever be in a crash. There's Bob Neuwirth walking in on a Band hangout and cracking a joke at the wrong pair of dudes.

Two particularly interesting sections in the book are Robertson's recounting of The Last Waltz (The Band's legendary farewell concert) and his story of the recording of The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan.

Throughout all of it, the book is enjoyable and entertaining. The Band never had the mass appeal or longevity of groups like The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, but they were always musicians' musicians, and the influence that their music had on their peers strongly affected the course of rock and roll history. Here are 10 takeaways from the book.
1
Robertson found out in his teens that the man who'd raised him wasn't his biological father.

His real father, Alexander David Klegerman, had been a professional gambler and hustler. He died after being hit by a truck while changing a tire. Robertson's mother got back in touch with Klegerman's family, and Robertson, who was raised on an Indian reservation, suddenly discovered that he was half-Jewish, with relatives living in a completely different culture from the one he'd grown up. The ensuing relationship with his newfound uncles would shape a great deal of his outlook on life.

2
Bob Dylan called Robertson two hours before Dylan was scheduled to marry Sara Lownds. He needed a legal witness for the event.

"You mean a best man at your wedding?" Robertson said.

"Well, I don't know about 'best man,'" Dylan cracked. "That's quite a commitment. Maybe a 'good man' or a 'very good man.'"

Robertson dug out his best suit and accompanied Dylan and Lownds to Long Island, where he acted as witness to a low-key wedding between rock's poet laureate and the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

3
For some time as a kid, Robertson seriously considered becoming a magician.

His uncle, a larger-than-life guy who was an amateur magician (among other things) gave Robertson encouragement and sent him magical props.

Robertson ultimately chose music over magic because he figured he'd get more interest from girls that way.

4
Elton John and Bernie Taupin sent Robertson an acetate of the song "Levon," which would later be released on Elton's 1971 album Madman across the Water.

It was already known that Elton was a big Band fan, and Band drummer Levon Helm naturally supposed the song was about him. Later, John's producer Gus Dudgeon supported this interpretation, though Taupin has denied it.

Regardless of what the song is or is not about, Helm was highly annoyed at the idea that it was about him. In regards to the Christian content in the lyrics, he said, "Englishmen shouldn't fuck with Americanisms."

5
While hanging out with Band bassist Rick Danko at Danko's house in Malibu, the pair spotted a body lying on the beach with waves lapping over it.

They ran down to check on the individual and were surprised to discover that it was The Who drummer Keith Moon.

Moon was wearing a Nazi uniform, completely unconscious. Robertson and Danko dragged him out of the water and up the beach where they found one of Moon's friends looking for him.

6
One afternoon, Bob Dylan told Robertson about a song he'd been working on named "When I Paint my Masterpiece."

He played a little bit of it on guitar.

Robertson was impressed by the tune and asked if Dylan wanted a Coke from the small refrigerator he kept in the studio. Right there Dylan popped up with the lyrics, "Sailing around the world in a dirty gondola, oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola." The line is in the final version of the song.

7
Robertson recounts the very first time he met Richard Manuel, who would eventually become The Band's pianist and primary lead singer.

On that night, Robertson was on a break between sets while playing a small venue with The Hawks. Manuel came in and introduced himself as a player in a band named the Rockin Revols, who'd opened for the Hawks not too long before.

Manuel was underage, but extremely drunk.

It would be a relatively insignificant story except that, even then, it foreshadowed the years of trouble Manuel would have with alcoholism and drug addiction in a life that ended with suicide. After that very first encounter, Robertson found himself thinking, "I hope this guy doesn't have a problem."

8
Roberton pinpoints the exact moment when his relationship with Levon Helm and, consequently, with the rest of The Band, really began to change.

Helm, along with the other guys, had not been showing up to work, and when he did show up, would go to sleep in the middle of recordings. Robertson tactfully confronted Helm about the situation, but Helm played it off as if he didn't have any problem with drugs. After that conversation, Robertson couldn't look at his old friend, his "brother" as he calls him, in quite the same way.

The drug use wasn't ultimately the problem. Rather, it was that Levon lied to him.

9
In the middle of touring as Bob Dylan's backing band, Levon Helm decided to leave the scene and the band.

He wanted The Band, who was then still thinking of themselves as The Hawks, to be their own bosses and to make their own music.

Helm left what most musicians would consider a golden opportunity to travel to New Orleans to find work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

10
The Band had an interesting encounter with outsider musician extraordinaire Tiny Tim, of "Tiptoe through the Tulips" fame.

The Band and Tiny were scheduled to play together on the soundtrack to the 1968 film You Are What You Eat. Tiny met them at the recording studio and displayed a likable, if eccentric, humility and politeness.

After Tiny played an impressive rendition of Al Jolson's "Sonny Boy," the group agreed to get down to the recording. Tiny was enthusiastic, but insisted that he needed to shower first because he could never perform for them knowing that he was so "dirty." Not only did he insist on showering, he insisted it be in his own shower, rather than at the facilities available on site.

The Band was confused but went along with it, and Tiny went off to shower. He came back some time later, hair still wet and extremely clean, and got down to a solid recording.

November 28, 2016
You can get Testimony at Amazon.

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Comments: 1

  • Bob Wyman from Colorado"Storyteller" I surmise to be true considering that the man who stuck his name on songs that were at best collaborations. The Band were not obscure and played to 600,000 at Watkins Glen along with The Dead and The Allman Brothers. Robertson describes the others as lay-abouts, liars and drug addicts is the icing on the cake. If he is so prolific how does he explain his songwriting skill disappearing after he bails out to hang out in Hollywood? The "lazy" members of The Band all continued to be performing musicians until their dying day. Garth will continue even after. Robbie Armani can play guitar. Garth played keyboards that sounded like anything he wanted.Levon played drums and mandolin and Richard took over on drums when Levon played mandolin. I knew Rick and he sat in my living room and played my grandfather's ES-175 the way it was intended:jazz progressions. Can Robertson expand on how these guys found the time to become so talented that even he would allow them to play back up his songs if they were in a stupor all day and night?
    How about an acapella performance from the man singing "The Weight" or better still "It Makes No Difference" or "When You Awake". It would be cringe-worthy but not to worry he won't do it.
    The Band had more influence in music than this story or Robertson's story lets on. How is his acting career going anyway? Does he still have stage fright?
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