Anyone who's seen The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's celebrated film documenting the final concert performed by the original members of The Band on Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, knows Robbie Robertson is a great storyteller.
That's readily apparent in the classic-rock doc as the charismatic guitarist with the bedroom eyes tells how he and Band mates Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson cut their teeth playing with blues greats like Sonny Boy Williamson.
Forty years later, there is, of course, yet another expanded reissue of The Last Waltz live album and film newly available to mark the anniversary. But more important, there is Testimony (Crown Archetype, $30). Robertson's 500-page memoir finds the Canadian singer/songwriter putting those narrative skills to highly entertaining use in bringing to life a saga that starts with his Toronto childhood (with interludes at Ontario's Six Nations Indian Reserve) and builds to that star-studded night at Winterland.
Testimony was five years in the making for the guitarist, who had three times attempted to work on an authorized biography with different writers. "I tried what most people do," Robertson said in a phone interview last week. "They talk to somebody who tapes them, and somebody else writes the book."
The guitarist was speaking from a recording studio in Los Angeles, where he is finishing his score for Scorsese's film Silence, set in 16th-century Japan. It's due in New York and Los Angeles by Christmas, before opening wide next year. He's also beginning work on his first solo album since 2011's How to Become Clairvoyant. A book tour will bring him to the Free Library of Philadelphia for a sold-out event on Wednesday.
"I came to the conclusion that they can't find my voice," the 73-year-old songwriter said of his failed biographers. "They can't tell these stories. They tell them the way they tell them. They don't tell them the way I tell them. It doesn't play for me. It doesn't ring true.
"I thought: I'm going to have to do this myself." After procrastinating, "finally I come to a place where I can't carry all these stories around with me anymore. They're too heavy, it's weighing me down. And the only way to set them free is to write the book."
The book shares a title with a song on Robertson's 1987 self-titled solo album. "I'm declaring something here," he says. "This is my manifesto. This is my testimony. There's so much written about The Band, and Bob Dylan, and this time period, and a tremendous amount of it is inaccurate. Because the people writing about it weren't there, and they don't know what . . . they're talking about. So, I need to testify."
Robertson's mother, of Mohawk and Cayuga descent, married a man he learned was not his father. His real father was a Jewish gambler, killed in a suspicious auto accident before Robbie - whose given name is Jaime - was born. Two uncles, "products of Toronto's Jewish underworld," took the young Robertson under their wing, providing mobbed-up intrigue fit for a Scorsese movie.
At 8, he heard a tribal elder tell the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker bringing the Indian nations together. (Robertson retold it in a children's book published last year that helped him "find his rhythm" as a prose stylist.) He writes that the elder's tale "sent a charge right through me - the cadence of his voice, the violence, the power, the righteousness. I only hoped someday I could tell stories like that."
He did in songs like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," from The Band's 1968 Music from Big Pink and 1969 The Band, respectively. The book expertly evokes years when the creative lives of The Band and Dylan - whom they had backed on his contentious first electric tour - centered on a house in West Saugerties, N.Y.
In one tense moment, Dylan - portrayed as wildly brilliant yet charmingly human - complains to Robertson about strangers showing up at all hours, spooking his wife, Sara. "People think you've got some miraculous insight, and they want to be close to that magic," Robertson explains. "I don't have any . . . magic!" Dylan protests.
More lightheartedly, Dylan comes over with his dog, Buster, and gets dragged through the snow by the untrained St. Bernard. An unwanted visit from Allen Ginsberg is avoided, resulting in The Basement Tapes outtake "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg."
Testimony is a bonanza of name dropping. Bold-facers who might be expected in a music memoir include Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Carly Simon, Buddy Holly, Edie Sedgwick and Howlin' Wolf. More surprising are visual artist Brice Marden, Sen. Robert Kennedy, and Lee Harvey Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby. But many of the best stories come out of Robertson's early years with The Hawks, rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins' backing unit, which he joined when he was just 16.
The band's anchor was Levon Helm, an Arkansan four years older than Robertson and his spirit guide to the Deep South. "The holy land of rock and roll," Robertson enthuses over the phone.
Testimony depicts a tender friendship. One skillfully drawn scene has Levon driving The Hawks to a gig and Robertson, the only other passenger awake, sharing his family history.
"Levon was a magnet," Robertson says. "It was his music, and his character. Everything about him. . . . He was drawn to my background, and I was drawn to his. And that's why we became inseparable."
The closeness of the bond makes the feud that divided them before the beloved drummer's 2012 death heartbreaking. Helm accused Robertson of hogging credit on songs he claimed were communal compositions. In his 1993 memoir, This Wheel's on Fire, he scoffed at Robertson for acting like the leader of The Band in The Last Waltz.
Robertson says that he "never had a bad moment or a bad word" with Helm when The Band was together, but that over time his friend became "very bitter about the people around us." Years later, Robertson says, "I hear these things, that I didn't write the songs. And I just thought: I'm now one of those other people to point a finger at. And I'm just going to let it go . . . I never fought back, and I never said one negative thing."
In 1965, they were part of a close-knit unit that was a house band at Tony Mart's in Somers Point. It was there that Robertson was summoned for a meeting in New York with Dylan that led to their partnership.
"When we first got there, it was like a gig on our way to New York," Robertson recalls. But after the titular club owner took a shine to them, the group set up residence for the summer. "To have the opportunity not to travel, and have easy access to New York City, and have Atlantic City right there, where we would see these amazing jazz groups: Shirley Scott and her husband, Stanley Turrentine. Jimmy Smith, who was one of the kings of that Hammond B-3 sound.
"The setup was great. There were three bands on three stages, so there was always music and dancing," Robertson remembers fondly. "Plus, there were a lot of pretty girls in Somers Point. We would go to the beach during the day sometimes in Ocean City, meet girls and invite them to the club at night. . . . And then I got this call from Bob Dylan. So all of these things added up, and Tony Mart's was an amazing crossroads on our journey, a really important thing for us."