Robbie Robertson’s Testimony and Last Thoughts on The Band
Testimony by Robbie Robertson (Crown Archetype).
review by Peter Stone Brown
In the autumn of 2016, Robbie Robertson published his autobiography Testimony which was followed by a promotional tour in several cities as well as several interviews, where it was revealed Robertson wrote the book in longhand. The book chronicles Robertson’s life up through and slightly past The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz. As evidenced by the songs he wrote for The Band, Robertson knows how to tell a story, and for the most part does it in a way that keeps you reading.
The book starts on a train from Canada to Arkansas, his first trip to the South, when he was 16 hoping to land a job as the bass player in Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks. Using flashbacks, he alternates between his story as a Toronto street kid who fell in love with music to his first trip to New York City with Hawkins to Roulette Records, where he quickly learned the realities of the music business. Robertson was the second member of what eventually became The Band to join The Hawks after Levon Helm, who was with Hawkins from close to the beginning of his career. Helm was both big brother and mentor to Robertson. Robertson successfully conveys the feeling of a wide-eyed, at times naive, at other times scared kid on the adventure of his life in the land of rock and roll dreams. Robertson wasn’t old enough to legally be in any of the clubs and bars they played in the U.S. or Canada, and when not onstage, often had him hide in the dressing room, if there was one.
Robertson had a few secrets of his own he wasn’t sure how to reveal to Helm and Hawkins. He was part Native American and part Jewish, and he didn’t know until he was in his teens and his mother filed for divorce, that the man he thought was his father wasn’t his father, and his actual father had been killed in a hit and run before he was born.
Alternating between meeting his newfound (father’s) side of the family, who welcomed him with open arms, while at the same time involving him in some extremely shady dealings from their diamond business - wild escapades in Canada and the South. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson slowly appear and are brought into The Hawks. Robertson goes into great detail about the members who preceded them. Hawkins was a stern taskmaster, making them constantly rehearse and he also had quite a few rules on how they should act, look and dress to the music they played. They became the hottest band on the Toronto club scene. One night when Rick Danko’s girlfriend came to the club and Danko sat with her instead of mingling with the audience resulted in a threat from Hawkins to fire him. Levon Helm, already annoyed at Hawkins for several reasons, decided enough was enough, and they struck out on their own as Levon and The Hawks. They managed to get Hawkins’ booking agent to book them, and hoped to land a record deal with songwriter and producer Henry Glover, who they’d met recording with Hawkins. They recorded a single, two Robertson originals, but when the single appeared, Glover had changed their name
to The Canadian Squires.
In 1964, blues singer John Hammond, who had jammed with them in Toronto, invited Robertson, Helm
and Hudson to New York, to record an album. Also on the session was an R&B veteran Jimmy Lewis on bass and two young musicians from Chicago, harp player Charlie Musselwhite and Mike Bloomfield on piano. The album, So Many Roads, would be released in the spring of 1965. As a gesture of good will for
the sessions, Hammond gave them a bag of pot, which led lead to a bust at the Canadian border. Robertson makes it clear that during this time they were always on the border of the law, getting involved in risky adventures, as well as chronicling when they met and jammed with legendary blues harp player and singer Sonny Boy Williamson II in Arkansas, which provided him a clear picture of race relations in the South.
In the summer of 1965, they had a regular gig at Tony Mart’s dance club in Somer’s Point, New Jersey, near Atlantic City. One day while Robertson was visiting John Hammond in New York, they stopped by
a recording session of a friend of Hammond’s. The friend was Bob Dylan and the session was for “Like A Rolling Stone.” Two months later, on the recommendation of both Hammond, and Mary Martin, a Canadian who was an assistant to Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, Dylan called Robertson and asked him to back him up for shows at Forest Hills and the Hollywood Bowl. Robertson immediately suggested that Helm should be the drummer. By then “Like A Rolling Stone” was well on its way up the charts. Robertson admits that he and the band knew very little about the world of folk music. He barely knew who Dylan was, or that Dylan was on the brink of superstardom. Neither Helm or Robertson were prepared for Dylan’s method of rehearsing, where a few run-throughs of a song were enough, and the fact that they’d be playing in venues that held at least 10,000 people as opposed to a couple of hundred in a club. They also weren’t prepared for the audience reaction. The booing at Forest Hills was extreme and during the show kids ran onto the stage more than once, chased by cops in and around the musicians as they were playing.
At the same time Dylan contacted Robertson, Levon and the Hawks were cutting a single that eventually would appear on ATCO Records. Following the Hollywood Bowl show, Dylan asked if Robertson and Helm would do an entire tour. Robertson insisted it had to be the whole group or nothing. Dylan went to Toronto to hear and rehearse with the group and hired them, but they had to get the pot bust at the border out of the way in order to do it.
The next part of the book takes you into the world of Bob Dylan, on and offstage, and at recording sessions which at first were not entirely successful. The touring was on a level the Hawks hadn’t experienced before. Dylan had his own plane, they stayed at the best hotels, there were encounters with stars and poets. Onstage every night they had to deal with an audience that wasn’t thrilled with Dylan being electric, and many of Dylan’s friends were telling him to get rid of the band. Dylan, however, never wavered in his belief in what he was doing. Helm was not happy at being thrust back into a backup role and Robertson tells the story of the night he suddenly left the tour. Around the time of Dylan’s apparently spur of the moment marriage, Robertson describes his own wariness at taking part in the Nashville sessions for Blonde On Blonde, wondering if he’d be accepted by the Nashville musicians. Then it’s onto the insanity of Dylan’s 1966 world tour, where they’d meet the stars of British rock and roll, and how in Paris Robertson would meet the woman who would become his wife. Occasionally Robertson’s memory isn’t as good as he thinks it is. Describing the concert in Paris which took place on Dylan’s birthday, where Dylan spent a good portion of his opening solo set trying to get his guitar in tune, the audience annoyed at a huge American flag at the back of the stage, Robertson says, “After we played ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ the crowd started yelling out scornful remarks in French and waving their arms in revolt. I stepped over and whispered to Bob, ‘Happy Birthday and many happy returns.’ ” The problem with this recollection is “Maggie’s Farm” was never performed on the ’66 tour.
Following the tour, Dylan returned to Woodstock and the group to New York City, where they were waiting for the next tour. Dylan’s motorcycle crash ended that. Dylan and Grossman had the group on a stipend, but they were having a hard time finding a place they could rehearse and work on music. As Dylan started to recuperate, he invited Robertson to Woodstock to help work on the film of the ’66 tour that was going to be ABC TV special. Grossman suggested the rest of the members also come to Woodstock. Rick Danko found a house that three of them moved into, and Robertson moved into another house with his soon to be wife. Robertson finally had what he wanted for years, a place where the group could work and create and where he could write. Soon the group and Dylan were working on what would become known as “The Basement Tapes,” but at the same time The Band were working on their own sound and their own music. When they played their own songs for Grossman, he realized he had a major act and started working on getting them signed to a record deal. The group knew it was time to bring Levon Helm back into the fold. Robertson describes how they involved producer John Simon in the process and the sessions for Music From Big Pink in New York and Los Angeles. He wasn’t sure what they had until they played the album for Grossman and Dylan. But trouble was waiting. Manuel, Helm and Danko were very good at wrecking cars, and not long after Big Pink was released, Rick Danko broke his neck in a car accident. It set back performing for almost a year. Not wanting to divulge how serious Danko’s injury was, Robertson decided not to do interviews for the album and started writing songs for the next one which they decided to record themselves in a rented house in Hollywood, though a couple of songs were recorded in a New York studio. Finally they debuted in San Francisco at Winterland, but Robertson had a stomach flu. Promoter Bill Graham refused to cancel, so they hired a hypnotist who stood on the side of the stage giving Robertson cues. The show was a critical disaster. Their New York debut at the Fillmore East went much better, and that summer they played the Woodstock Festival, and a week or so later appeared with Dylan at the Isle of Wight.
The release of the second album solidified their reputation and earned them a cover story in Time and an Ed Sullivan appearance. But success meant money and money meant new cars that were often quickly wrecked. And money meant drugs. Heroin had started to pervade the Woodstock music scene and Robertson soon realized he had three junkies in the group. Seeds of discontent were starting to show. Danko didn’t want John Simon to produce their third album, and Helm didn’t like the engineer they used, Todd Rundgren. Robertson makes it clear he was happy when someone did show up with a song like Helm did with “Strawberry Wine,” but the sessions for Stage Fright found people not showing up at all or nodding out when they did. By their fourth album, Cahoots, it was obvious The Band was running out of steam, and Robertson was running out of song ideas. Richard Manuel had stopped writing entirely, many of the songs seemed like a rehashing of old ideas, and some songs were simply filler, and even the cover painting used the shot from the cover of the second album as its basis. At the end of 1971, utilizing a horn section with arrangements by Allen Toussaint, they recorded a live album at New York’s Academy of Music, and then took a long break.
During this time, Robertson tried in vain to get the group writing again, but also realized that at this point Richard Manuel was totally strung out on heroin, and for the first time they actually considered replacing him. Robertson came up with the idea of doing an album of covers, doing the songs they did as the Hawks and then decided to go for lesser known old rock and roll songs. Visiting California to float the idea at Capitol Records, his lawyer and former road manager Jon Taplin suggested he meet with up and coming record executive David Geffen who had formed his own label mainly for songwriters, Asylum Records. Robertson was impressed and Geffen started courting The Band in a big way, though he was also hoping to sign Bob Dylan. The Band returned to performing in the summer of 1973, which was followed by the release of the oldies album, Moondog Matinee. Robertson was starting to feel Woodstock had run its course. Albert Grossman was barely managing the group, and the other members wanted to leave Grossman. Geffen found a house in Malibu for Robertson to rent and he moved to California, reuniting with Dylan who was already there. Not long after, it was announced that Dylan would be returning to touring with The Band, and that Dylan had left Columbia Records for Asylum, and would be backed by The Band on his new album.
Meanwhile the other Band members had relocated to California. The new year started with the Dylan tour, and a few weeks later the release of their collaboration, Planet Waves. More than anything the tour put The Band back on the map. At the final show of the tour, Robertson couldn’t help but notice that when Dylan thanked various people for helping out with the tour, he didn’t thank David Geffen, about whom he was having second thoughts. A few months later when it was time to release the live album from the tour, Before The Flood, Dylan didn’t want to give it to Geffen. There is what is in retrospect a fairly funny scene, when during a meeting with Geffen, their lawyer suggests they go into another room and vote on it. The other members of The Band didn’t seem to care either way, and were siding with Dylan, when Robertson said loudly in exasperation, “So don’t give it to him.” What he didn’t know was Geffen was standing outside the door and listening, and took Robertson’s statement as an act of betrayal. (Dylan did eventually give the album to Geffen, but just as the album was released, Columbia Records announced Dylan was returning to the label.)
The Band then started building their own studio with Robertson hoping to resurrect the clubhouse atmosphere they’d had at Big Pink, and he started writing songs for Northern Lights-Southern Cross, released late in 1975. The Band didn’t tour behind the album until the following summer, but the writing was on the wall. Richard Manuel was not in good shape and his voice would blow out after one song. When he broke his neck in a boating accident on the way to a show in Texas – miraculously healed by chanting Tibetan monks – Robertson knew it was time to end it before something else happened. He decided they should end at Winterland where they played their first concert as The Band and invite various musicians they’d worked with, from Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan on up. He discussed the idea with promoter Bill Graham who suggested they document the show.
The final part of the book deals with the arrangements and rehearsals for The Last Waltz, the concert and the film, the rehearsals, and their only Saturday Night Live appearance a few weeks before. As with most
of their other endeavors where everything teetered on the brink of disaster, this show was no exception.
Testimony is for the most part a good read. While the beginning is the best part and it slows down occasionally, especially describing domestic life in Woodstock, the action usually picks up when describing recording sessions or tours. One of the interesting things revealed is Robertson’s fondness for reading film scripts, which would help to explain the cinematic scope of many of his songs. There is an occasional tendency to name drop, but when you hang with Bob Dylan, you’re going to meet famous people, and because of their association with Dylan, The Band became instant celebrities, whether they wanted to or not. Serious Dylan fans will want to read it because he goes into depth telling what it was like to work with Dylan, and reveals a few thoughts about Dylan as well, such as he didn’t realize how great a singer Dylan was until The Basement Tapes. He also admits that in retrospect it was wrong to mess with the sound on the original Columbia release, but what he and engineer Rob Fraboni were trying to do was bring the sound fidelity up to contemporary standards. While he wasn’t involved in the recording, he expresses bewilderment that Dylan recut Blood On The Tracks, saying he preferred the intimate more personal feel of the New York sessions, which Dylan played for him following the sessions.
Despite an ultimately sad ending, Robertson ends on a hopeful note looking forward to the next phase of his life.
I first heard Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson in the spring of 1965 when my brother bought an album by blues singer John Hammond called So Many Roads. It was the album that led us to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all the other Chicago blues greats. A few months later I saw Robertson and Helm back Dylan at Forest Hills. I didn’t know who they were – Dylan did not introduce his band – until I read Bob Shelton’s review in the New York Times. A little over a month later I saw Dylan again in Newark, New Jersey, backed by Levon & The Hawks. I found out the names of the rest of the group from
a program a friend had from the Carnegie Hall show the night before. I kept that sound in my mind, but it wasn’t until the single of “I Want You” with a live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” on the flipside came out in June 1966 that I heard it again. I played that single over and over at top volume. For the next two years I wondered what happened to those guys. Then in the spring of 1968, word got around that Dylan’s band was putting out a record. The first song to be played on the radio was “The Weight,” and I made sure to get Music From Big Pink that day it came out. On first listen, The Band instantly became my all-time favorite band and almost 50 years later, they still are. The way they took various influences from old rock and roll, blues, gospel, and a bit of country and melded them into something new and entirely their own was incredible. On top of that, they were great players and singers, and they sang with guts, tossing the vocals around like a basketball, and they knew how to sing Bob Dylan songs without prettifying them the way so many folk singers and groups did. The album also showed they had two very strong songwriters, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. Of the two, Manuel’s songs were more personal and more poetic.
Music From Big Pink had a huge effect on other musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. The Beatles and the Stones stopped their psychedelic meanderings and pursued a rootsier sound. Of course the bare bones approach Dylan took on John Wesley Harding played a part in this as well. At the same time recordings of new Dylan songs done by other artists started appearing. Finally an article appeared in what was then a new music magazine, Rolling Stone, about Dylan’s Basement Tapes, on which he was backed by The Band. I had to find a copy, and that December a friend said he knew someone who had it, who would make me a copy on reel-to-reel tape for $25. The sound quality was terrible, but somehow it made the recordings even spookier.
Not long after Big Pink was released, it was announced that Rick Danko had broken his neck in a car crash. Unlike today’s incessant media, that was all you heard until the following spring, when it was announced The Band would be making their concert debut at Winterland in San Francisco, also appearing at the Fillmore East in New York. I made sure I was at one of the Fillmore East shows, and in retrospect it was probably the best Band show I saw. The first thing you noticed was the drums up front on the right side of the stage and Garth Hudson’s organ was where the drums would be with most other bands. They were constantly switching instruments. Helm played guitar and mandolin, Robertson played bass, Danko played guitar, Manuel played drums and organ, and Hudson would play sax and piano. I didn’t know until I saw them that it was Hudson playing the piano part on “The Weight.” But most of all, unlike a lot of bands, they could get the sound they got in the studio onstage, and they were tight beyond belief.
Shortly after the Fillmore East show, my brother moved to Woodstock with some friends to form a band. When I went to visit later that summer, one of things one of the guys in the band told me was, “Every week, you see another Band car wrecked at the gas station.”
That fall the Band’s second album was released with just as big an impact as the first. They now had their sound totally down, and the songs seemed to be about a mythical America with characters and stories that seemed steeped in folklore. Greil Marcus would later term this Americana, and a couple of decades later the music business would apply the term to just about anyone whose music derived from traceable sources. Again, the most personal song on the album was a Manuel co-write, “Whispering Pines.”
I bought every Band album the day it came out and saw as many shows as I could. But by the mid-’70s, the cracks were starting to show in the studio and onstage, though they pulled it together for the ’74 tour with Dylan. That summer a couple of friends saw them on Long Island and came back with a sad report - Richard Manuel was having trouble finishing his songs and the others would try their best to fill in his parts and finish the songs he started. When I saw them in the summer of ’76 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, his voice was clearly shot, and it was pretty much the same story when I saw them in Philly two months later. So when it was announced a couple of weeks after that show that The Band would play their final concert
on Thanksgiving in San Francisco, I was sad but I wasn’t surprised.
I continued to be a fan, buying the various solo albums, and going to the shows. When The Band reunited without Robertson in 1983, I went to the show, where they were backed by The Cate Brothers. Because the Cate Brothers had a bassist, Danko mostly played guitar, so right there the rhythm section sound was lost, and ultimately it was two bands trying to be one. My reaction was it was nice to see them, but the intensity the original group generated simply wasn’t there. Band tours would alternate between various solo and duo live appearances. Some of the nicer shows were the club dates Danko and Helm would do, with both on guitar, and Levon also playing harp and mandolin. It was loose and fun, but it wasn’t The Band. In 1993, they finally put out an album, Jericho. There were three standouts, the opening song “Remedy,” and the covers of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” and Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Their next album released three years later High On The Hog was mostly covers, and quite frankly, I don’t know what they were thinking. They could still sing and play, but they were sorely in need of good songs. Their next album Jubilation, released in 1998 seemed to show a bit more effort in picking the material and included several guests including Eric Clapton and John Hiatt who also contributed a song. Helm’s voice is clearly weakened from throat cancer. The strange thing about Jubilation is when you check the credits of who played what, the entire Band, which at that point was six members, is only on three tracks. It would be their final album.
In February of 1996, I saw The Band at the Electric Factory in Philly. They took the stage, started their first song, “Life Is A Carnival,” and within seconds the song collapsed. They stopped and started it again. They managed to do the rest of the set without further catastrophe, but by the end of the show, I knew I couldn’t see them as The Band again. I didn’t want to kill the great memories. As it turned out, I never had to make the choice because it ended up being the last concert by The Band in Philadelphia.
By this time I was on the internet and was a participant in the news group about The Band. I started corresponding with another contributor who said some things I agreed with. It turned out he was a music journalist, Seth Rogovoy and also a major Dylan fan. We discussed The Band in depth. One day emailed me, saying I have a theory: the reunited Band reverted to being The Hawks. I haven’t been able to shake that theory since.
When The Band moved to Woodstock, and in addition to The Basement Tapes, started working on their own songs and their own sound, Robertson knew it had to be something different, something that would make them stand out. There were no jams. They’d do just enough to let you know they could do it if they wanted to. He wrote songs to make them great and so at first did Richard Manuel. Robertson had been writing songs since he was a teenager. Two of his songs were released on Ronnie Hawkins’ Mr. Dynamo album in 1960. He wrote the songs for the two singles Levon and the Hawks put out. And he had three years to study songwriting with a master songwriter and he was paying attention, and he developed his own distinctive style of writing songs.
Robbie Robertson did what every other songwriter in every other band at the time did. He copyrighted
his songs. So did Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies, Lowell George, John Fogerty, John Sebastian and by the way, Richard Manuel. As far as Levon Helm’s public resentment toward Robertson over song royalties, singing a song, playing a song and arranging a song is not writing a song.
I’m a songwriter and I’ve had several bands and I know how it works. You write a song, you bring it to
the band, and then you try to come up with a way of playing it that works. The song exists on its own regardless of the arrangement. There sometimes were other songwriters in bands I was in and the process was the same. They’d bring a song in, I’d try to come up with a guitar part. Then they leave or the band breaks up, they form a new band and another guitar player comes up with their own part to play on that song.
In the end, Robbie Robertson’s great crime was, when The Band could no longer be as great as they once were on stage, he brought it to a close. I thought it was the right decision at the time and still do.