So the question occasionally comes up “What rock star would you like to sit down and have a beer with or maybe even a gummy bear? First you’d have to break the question down to dead or alive, then decide if you can have the whole band or just one member. After you throw all the fantasy dreaming aside and think realistically, I’d come up with a short list that included Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe and Robbie Robertson. Well after reading Testimony, Robertson’s just released autobiography, I feel like I can take him off the list.
Robertson is best known for his songwriting and wicked guitar playing with The Band. Born on an Indian reservation in Canada, there was no less likely candidate to end up being the grandfather of Americana. Robertson bears his soul in this lengthly bio that spends the bulk of it’s time focused on the years Robertson and his bandmates spent with Bob Dylan.
Most casual music fans know the story of Dylan plugging in at Newport Folk Festival and being greeted with boos and hecklers. What few don’t realize is that was just the beginning of a long and at times tortuous tour…
Reading this lengthy autobiography, I was constantly reminded of the quote Tom Petty biographer Warren Zanes told me when I asked him why Petty ended up in the middle of great musicians and great songs. His answer was simply “good things happen musically when Tom Petty is in the room.” I feel the same way about Robertson. His teenage years were literally spent making good things happen for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and then as band leader for the epic Dylan tour when Bob went electric and horrified his acoustic folk leaning fans.
It’s this epic tour with Dylan that makes up a hefty section of the book and also sheds new light on this period when Dylan changed the world ( A CD package of the tour was just recently released). Most casual music fans know the story of Dylan plugging in at Newport Folk Festival and being greeted with boos and hecklers. What few don’t realize is that was just the beginning of a long and at times tortuous tour that saw Dylan and Company greeted with disrespect at nearly every stop. It took a lot out of the band members including driving Levon Helm temporarily to quit the group. An emotional time indeed handled fluidly by Robertson’s deft storytelling.
Robertson weaves personal history with a who’s who of connections he makes in music, art and film including a guitarist he meets early on named Jimmy James. (Who later changed to Hendrix). We learn the background on Elton John’s inspiration for “Levon” and the infamous trip to France when Robertson’s travel partner Joni Mitchell uses David Geffen as a muse for “Free Man in Paris.” Robertson’s take on Woodstock, the deaths of rock stars and the challenges of fame are nice compliments to the grand detail he brings to epic recording sessions including the making of their eponymous second album in Sammy Davis Jr’s pool house.
Robertson’s conversational tone takes you through the peaks and valleys of The Band’s formative years right through the epic Last Waltz concert providing ample insights along the way. Robertson’s discernment dwells into the bands psyche from the make shift studio house known as Big Pink through addictions, car chases and the ground breaking music he helped shape. He is frank about what drove them apart and sincerely appears to miss the strange camaraderie of these maple leaf misfits that changed American music forever. It’s an important story told by a great story teller. Now if he would just pick up the tab, it would be a perfect evening.