Robbie Robertson Gives Us His Testimony
Back in May 1978, I walked into the cool, dark, Rialto Theater in Atlanta, not knowing exactly what to expect. We arrived a little late, so the film had already begun; the Band had just kicked off “It Makes No Difference,” with Rick Danko’s plaintive vocals, Garth Hudson’s crying sax, and Robbie Robertson’s inspired flourishes on lead guitar. We had walked into the middle of the film of the Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz; I sat entranced as the Band moved through their catalog and were joined by a stellar assortment of the friends that been a part of their career (though Neil Diamond seemed far out of place at the time, and still does, I know now why he’s on the stage). I’ve shown The Last Waltz in numerous film classes over the past 30 years because of the palpable spirit that emanates from the film, and also the album makes this one of the best music documentaries ever shot. Although the Band decided to get up there for this show, they were beat. Life on the road had taken a mental and physical toll on the group but there’s a joyousness in the performances that’s draining and elevating at the same time.
On the 40th anniversary of the Band’s last show at Winterland — Thanksgiving Day 1976 — we have a great deal for which to give thanks. Rhino has issued a 40th-anniversary edition of the original soundtrack with newly remastered audio from the original master tapes on two CDs. Rhino also plans to release 2,500 limited collector’s editions that include complete audio from the concert, The Last Waltz film on Blu-ray, a second Blu-ray disc that includes a rarely seen interview with Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson, a photo gallery, 5.1 audio mix of the original album, a 300-page book that contains a replica of Scorsese’s shooting script, previously unseen phots, set sketches, storyboards, and a foreword by Scorsese.
Exciting as all this is, perhaps the best news of the anniversary year is that Robbie Robertson has published his autobiography, Testimony (Crown Archetype), and true to his presence on stage and true to his presence in the film, Robertson is a masterful and engaging storyteller who tells us the riveting, often funny, and often sad tale of a young man in search of a dream; once the dream has come true, he can’t believe it, and he revels in his good fortune only to have the dream shattered by excess, distrust, and simple exhaustion. Through it all, Robertson brings his genius for hitting the right note in the right place to his melodious memoir that carries him from his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the last waltz of the Band in 1976. A masterful storyteller, Robertson draws us easily into these tales of his youth — a 15-year-old Canadian auditioning for, and securing, a place in a southern blues band — to his days with Bob Dylan, the eventual formation of the Band and the group’s quick climb to fame for a musical style that changed the face of American music, ushering in what is today known as “Americana” music.
Robertson reflects on his days with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, realizing that he’s joined up with a group that’s already hitting on all cylinders; he knows he’s something quite special, even magical: “Watching Ron and Levon, I could understand their bond… Levon could play like fire, but more, he had personality. The two of them had a wonderful dependence on each other: Ron was the older brother and teacher, but Levon had special musical instincts that Ron totally relied on — Levon elevated Ronnie’s musicality.” (25)
Robertson is only 16 when he steps into his audition to play for the Hawks; he’s been dreaming of this chance all his life. While he starts out on bass with the band, he soon moves to guitar. Early on, the band heads back to his home town in Canada and the spotlight is on him: “All I could do was play like a demon. But I was that much closer to where I wanted to be. I had crossed the border. I had gone to the Mississippi Delta. I’d gotten hired by an official southern rockabilly band, one of the hottest around. Now I was onstage at a big-time club in my hometown, and I stepped forward into the spotlight to take my solo.” (34) That moment is the first of many that define this guitarist that Duane Allman once said was his favorite guitarist.
Robertson generously and affectionately recalls his bandmates. He compares Rick Danko’s voice to Sam Cooke’s, and he praises Danko’s ability to light the house on fire with his performances:
“You can just spot a musician who’s got the goods. You can sense it in an almost tribal way. Rick Danko had it… there was a connection between his personality and his performance, a nervousness and an excitement that came out as a kind of jittery electricity.” (78)
Richard Manuel’s voice “was there from the start, but when I got to know him, I found he was also one of the nicest, sweetest people you’d meet… he could laugh almost as good as Levon.” (86)
Although Levon Helm was Robertson’s biggest supporter in the early days of the Hawks, and the two became partners in the Band, their relationship grew rocky toward the end of the road. Robertson reveals his deep love for Levon and his consummate skills as a musician, as he reflects on the direction the Band takes early on: “I realized in that moment that my partner, for all his extraordinary musical skills, didn’t have a strong relationship with what was trendy or popular, and for that matter none of the others guys did either. Whatever direction we were going with our music, we would have to make it on our own terms.” (147)
Yet, toward the end of their time together, as each band member descended into a world of drugs and alcohol, Robertson candidly and painfully shows a moment with Levon from which the two may have never recovered. After a session, Robertson expresses some concern to Levon that perhaps he is falling into too heavy a reliance on drugs and that it’s taking a toll; Helm explodes in raging defense of himself and ends by saying he’s clean. Robertson poignantly writes, “For the first time, Levon had looked me straight in the eye, patted me on the shoulder, and lied. We had never lied to each other. It made me terribly sad… Things changed in that moment. A distance grew between Levon and me that I don’t know if we were ever able to mend. It wasn’t about the drugs; whatever he wanted to do, that was his business. It about the betrayal. About disrespecting the brotherhood and our partnership.” (366)
As the Band prepares to play at Winterland, Robertson reflects on the state the group had reached by then: “Somewhere along the way we had lost our unit and our passion to reach higher. Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us… I loved these guys beyond words until it hurt inside. But this beast was wounded, and we were unsure of its recovery.” (453)
Robertson includes a masterful chapter on the filming of the concert itself and the ways that it all came together. After the show, the band talked about getting together to review the night and talk about possibly moving forward; no one showed up at that meeting, and Robertson was left waiting. In the end, he writes that “through all the turbulence, I am left with such a deep appreciation for my journey, this shifting path I’ve traveled being part of the Band—and there will never be another one like it. Such a gift, such talent, such pain, such madness… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” (494)
It’s a real treat to have Robertson’s memoir on his time growing up, becoming a songwriter and storyteller, but the autobiography ends too soon. He ends with the death of the Band, but he doesn’t share with us more about his solo career after the Band, and that’s a little disappointing. Maybe he’s not ready to talk about those years, and perhaps he never will be; in the end, it doesn’t matter since he’s provided a colorful, candid, and illuminating glimpse into one of rock’s (or Americana’s) most enduring and influential bands. And for this we can thank Robertson, who now gives us his side of the story, so to speak, of the life and times of the Band, woven together with stories of his own life and times.