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How Robbie Robertson saved rock 🎸

RIP Robbie Robertson, 80, who died Aug. 9, 2023. Toronto-born leader of The Band, lover of the sky and land, rock 'n' roller extraordinaire who could play the guitar just like ringing a bell. He’ll soon be heard again in his final movie score, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” I interviewed him many times, this one for his 2016 autobiography, “Testimony”:

Peter Howell

Toronto Star

A crowd of Donald Trump protesters is screaming and causing a ruckus near where Robbie Robertson, the guitarist, co-vocalist and chief songwriter for The Band, is sharing some rock ’n’ roll history.

“Oh my God!” Robertson says on the line.

“I’m in New York and there are people on Fifth Avenue screaming, ‘Not My President!’ ”

He knows a lot about screaming and causing a ruckus. He experienced plenty of both in his years with The Band, the four-fifths Canadian group of roots rockers who changed pop music in the 1960s and early ’70s, influencing not only tour mate Bob Dylan but also such ardent admirers as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Joni Mitchell.

He also literally saved rock, having rescued both Dylan and the Who’s Keith Moon from drowning on separate occasions. There were loads of fun times, too, such as when he shared Beatle John Lennon’s artfully concealed stash of weed after the Fab Four’s last ever Toronto concert in 1966.

Robertson tells all in his new autobiography Testimony, which brings him to Toronto Monday night for an “In Conversation With” session at TIFF Bell Lightbox. He gives an insider’s account of some of the most famous incidents in rock history, including the 1966 “Judas!” audience revolt in Manchester, England and Dylan’s nearly fatal motorcycle crash soon after.

“Judas!” was the furious cry of an audience member in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, the day after the release of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album, which Robertson played on. The aggrieved fan — and many others — objected to Dylan’s shift from the folk music of his early days to the “wild mercury sound” of Blonde on Blonde, wherein Dylan strapped on an electric guitar to loudly rock out, as he’d been doing on a European tour with The Band, then known as the Hawks.

Caught on a heavily bootlegged tape, it would become the taunt heard ’round the world, as folk purists everywhere rebelled against rock’s roll. Robertson remembers the “Judas!” incident as if it happened yesterday, but says it became more of a big deal in retrospect than at the time. Everything was happening so quickly back then for him and his fellow members of The Band, who included fellow Canadians Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, plus Arkansas fellow traveller Levon Helm.

“It wasn’t that different from the night before, or the night after, but that one just seemed to catch fire and it was sent out into the world. But while we were playing that night, I remember when we did ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ and I was playing with true anger coming out of my fingers. Because people were charging the stage. Some of them wanted to do harm. People were throwing stuff.”

Robertson, 73, has lived a life caught between two worlds. Born in Toronto to a Jewish father and Mohawk mother, he spent much time in the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, where he learned to play guitar.

He also learned from his Mohawk relations that the border between Canada and the U.S. doesn’t exist, as far as North America’s founding tribes are concerned.

“You can’t draw a line on the land. It is kind of crazy, in a way, but these are white man’s rules. Indians would never think of boundaries. It just didn’t exist in their language.”

This also helps explain why the Canadian-dominated Band found it a natural progression to create the backwoods rock of Music From Big Pink, their hugely influential 1968 debut album rich in imagery of yearning American pioneers. Latter-day disciples include Wilco, Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket and many others under the big umbrella now called Americana music.

“I always thought it was that there was a terrific irony that we, The Band, was one of the, if not the main creator, of Americana music,” Robertson says.

“And I have a kind of grin to myself and say, “Uh, North Americana, thank you!”

The exuberance of the Band didn’t last past their 1976 decision to call it a day, after many exhausting years on the road. They went out in grand style with an all-star concert filmmaker Martin Scorsese captured in The Last Waltz, considered by many the best rock film ever made.

Robertson wanted to call it quits more than the others did — Danko, Manuel, Helm and Hudson would later regroup, although only Hudson is still alive from that breakaway crew. Rancour over what Helm in particular saw as Scorsese’s lionizing of close pal Robertson would boil for years, culminating in Helm’s bitter 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire.

Robertson’s Testimony concludes with the story of a recording session that only he turned up to, a sad coda to The Band’s magnificent musical experience. He’s since made solo albums — his sixth one is in the works — and composed music for films, including Scorsese’s upcoming Silence, which he calls “a meditation — a painful one, but beautiful.”

He blames the bad blood on Helm’s struggles with drugs and alcohol, and later financial problems where Helm complained he didn’t get full credit for his share of the band’s success. Testimony is intended as generous testament to good times past, not as a score-settler.

“I let it go, I let it go,” Robertson says with a sigh.

“All the time that we were ever together, Levon and I never had a bad word … where this really came from with him, he was having financial problems, and he had to blame somebody, because he wasn’t very good assuming responsibility himself. You know, like most of us, we don’t want to take the blame. And so I just turned my back and walked away.” 🌓

(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)


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