by Robbie Robertson.
Crown Archetype, 500 pp.
at the end of the summer of 1956 that—wham!—the world had changed overnight… I would go on to learn that this new music had been seeping under the door for years with artists like Fats Domino, but to me it felt like it happened in the blink of an eye.
Testimony, Robertson’s account of his life as a teenage member of the rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and as the guitarist and a songwriter for the Band, a group that in the late 1960s rewrote the American story as surely as Mark Twain, Mae West, Uncle Dave Macon, or Robert Johnson had done before them, is a book about the revelation of such moments. It presents itself as a conventional memoir of family and professional life, from Robertson’s boyhood to Thanksgiving night 1976, when the five founding members of the Band played their last show, which they called “The Last Waltz.” They were the drummer Levon Helm (who, like Ronnie Hawkins, was from Arkansas), the pianist Richard Manuel, the bassist Rick Danko, the organist Garth Hudson (each, like Robertson, from Ontario), and Robertson, all of whom, from 1960 to 1963, joined Helm in Hawkins’s band. But in fact it is a book of shocks.
Sometimes the shocks come as stories, so perfectly described they might be tall tales. Bob Dylan once recounted how, four days before the plane crash that would take the Texas singer Buddy Holly’s life, he sat in the Duluth Armory in Minnesota and “Buddy Holly looked right at me”—a moment when a secret, if not the torch of rock and roll itself, was passed from the twenty-two-year-old Holly to the seventeen-year-old Robert Zimmerman. But in 1957, when Holly came through Toronto as part of one of the disc jockey Alan Freed’s barnstorming rock-and-roll package tours, Robertson—by then Robbie to school friends, a name that stuck—got closer:
After the show, as the musicians packed up their equipment, I slipped up to the security railing by the stage and caught a glimpse of Buddy Holly putting away his guitar.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called out. “I gotta know, how do you get that huge sound out of your amp?” He looked over at me and smiled, then closed the latches on his guitar case and walked toward the railing. His black horn-rimmed glasses looked much bigger offstage and he dressed more like a university student than a rock ‘n’ roll star.
“You a guitar player?” Buddy asked.
“Yes sir, I’m trying.”
“What’s your name?” “Robbie,” I quickly replied. “Robbie Robertson.”
“Robbie Robertson, all right,” Buddy laughed. “Here’s the thing. I got this Fender amp with two twelve-inch speakers. I blew one of the speakers, and thought it sounded better, so I left it. Some guys I know even cut holes in the speakers or put paper in them to get this tone.”
… When I left the arena I didn’t know what to do with my nervous energy—if I got any higher I worried I’d just combust into smoke. I’d just been through something transformative, a wondrous experience that had given me a glimpse into a different life, and it was both thrilling and terrifying. I couldn’t go home, so I went to a restaurant and didn’t make it back until two thirty in the morning. My parents were pissed, and I had no way of communicating to them that this had been the most important night of my life.
His parents were Rosemarie “Dolly” Chrysler Robertson and James Patrick Robertson: a Mohawk and Cayuga Indian woman born and raised on the Six Nations reservation, and a man she met in Toronto, where she had moved at fifteen. His father had no patience for his son’s rock-and-roll fantasies: “Look at your relatives on the reserve. Look at the people in our neighborhood. That doesn’t happen to folks like us. So don’t set yourself up for disappointments.” But his parents were drinkers, his father began to abuse his wife and his son, and Robertson’s mother threw him out. She told Robbie that his father was not his father—he was not who he thought he was. Just as he was discovering a new identity in music, he was handed a new identity in his hometown. His real father had been Alexander “Tutor” Klegerman, part of the Toronto Jewish mob. Klegerman’s mother, Robbie’s grandmother, had been a bootlegger. Klegerman, with whom Robbie’s mother had an affair when James Robertson was deployed in the army in 1942, was a gambler, killed before Robbie’s birth in a hit-and-run accident, if it was an accident. Now Robertson had a new family, first among them his uncle Natie Klegerman, a blond, charismatic swindler and diamond thief, and to a fifteen-year-old “by far the smartest, most charming person I had ever known.” He takes money from both Robertson and his mother, recruits his nephew as a front and a drop, hires local muscle: there is a photograph of Klegerman and the Toronto enforcer Paul Volpe that almost sings with bravado and menace.
When the game gets rough, Robbie’s uncle brings in protection from New York—the very man, his uncle says, who killed the mafia boss Albert Anastasia—and finally ends up in prison with a six-year sentence. For Robertson, it’s like watching himself in a movie—exciting, terrifying, a new world of glamour, adventure, danger, and most of all loyalty, a sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger than himself—and watching it ripped away:
Natie had lovingly made himself my mentor and had become a father figure. It was a terrible feeling of helplessness to have him taken down. It broke me in two, a loss that pushed me deeper into my refuge, music.
That becomes, I think, the linchpin of the story Robbie Robertson has set out to tell. At the same time that Natie Klegerman was becoming his new father. Levon Helm was becoming his brother. Robertson encountered him in 1959, when his own teenage band the Suedes—there were others, Thumper and the Trombones, the Rhythm Chords, Little Caesar and the Consuls—opened for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in 1959, all of them Arkansans who had found a home base in Toronto. Hawkins was a windjammer, a tall tale walking—when his guitarist Luke Paulman launched into a solo,
the Hawk had a chance to spin, flip, camel walk—the original version of the moonwalk—then tumble and land at Luke’s feet. Toward the end of the solo, Ronnie would come back singing like he was driving a mule train….
In the center of it all was a young beam of light on drums. Teeth gleaming, laughing, bleached hair glowing, whole body shaking, drumsticks twirling, pushing those red sparkle drums with a hawk painted on the bass drum like a white tornado. It was the first time I saw Levon Helm, and I’d never seen anything like it.
Except for an account of a guitar duel for his job in the Hawks, Robertson doesn’t write effectively about music—he can’t make a song or a moment in it a story in and of itself. His description of Hubert Sumlin, the guitarist for the blues giant Howlin’ Wolf—and the specter behind Robertson’s own abstract and untethered solos in Hawkins’s recording of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love, from 1963—as “king of the blues riff” is almost embarrassing in its inadequacy. But what he can do, with an immediacy that creates the sense of shock he’s after, is render the experience of seeing Sumlin and Howlin’ Wolf stand before him, in West Memphis in 1960, when at sixteen Robertson traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for a tryout to join the Hawks. The Hawks guitarist Fred Carter Jr. was with him:
I was mouth breathing, my jaw hanging down. Fred looked at me and broke out laughing but I was locked in. This was Wolf in his element, in his backyard, with his devotees egging him on. When they hit the last blast of their set, the house lights came on and it was like snapping out of a spell. That night was the most frightening musical experience I’d ever had, and it felt way too good.
It’s the same when he sees Muddy Waters in Chicago on 1964, after the Hawks had left Hawkins and were on their own: “It was hard for me to watch him and breathe at the same time.” You learn a lot about the person you’re listening to from these passages. He wants to be taken out of himself and delivered into a cauldron of jeopardy, pleasure, and ideas; he is afraid of all of those things, hesitant, unsure. He dives in; he takes a step back. He is always watching, himself as well as others, as if any moment could be a turning point. There are two that match, one a face in the mirror of the other.
Robertson meets Natie; he presses him about the money he and his mother have put into his diamond business:
We went to a place where they had a bank of public phones, and Natie pulled a dime out of his pocket and put it in the pay phone. He spoke into the receiver, saying that he needed to get some interest money back from my investment. He listened carefully, then said, “All right, I want to get this taken care of immediately. Yes, I’ll call you back on Wednesday. Okay, bye.” He hung up and looked at me. “It’s being taken care of. I’ll call on Wednesday and get it straightened out.”
We got in Natie’s car and drove off. Several moments later, with real hurt in my voice, I said, “I heard the dime come down into the coin return. There was no one on the other end. How can you try to fool me like this?”
“I have to play the part of a ruthless con artist,” his uncle says. “You see what I mean, I can’t show vulnerability. If I show any weakness toward anyone in my family, I’ll be putting us all in danger.” It doesn’t matter that this makes no sense; if it had made sense it would have been worse.
The worse comes later. As Levon and the Hawks, Helm, Manuel, Danko, Hudson, and Robertson had played their way up and down the middle of the United States. With Helm as their native guide, the Canadians felt like American pioneers. Step by step they absorbed the landscape, the speech, the people they met, from Jack Ruby, owner of one of the Texas nightclubs they played, to Bob Dylan, who hired them to back him when in 1965 and 1966 the embodiment of folk music traded the supposed voice of the people for radio hits; and as a rock-and-roll singer tore through the US, Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom. He and the Hawks were assaulted almost everywhere with the outraged jeers of betrayed fans for whom their music was nothing but a golden calf.
When, in 1967, they regrouped in West Saugerties, New York, near Woodstock, without a name (they tried on the Honkies, the Crackers, and the Royal Canadians Except for Levon), they had inched their way into a new music, one that was made of both musical and verbal parables. It was an art that, as it appeared under the name of the Band on the albums Music from Big Pink in 1968 and The Band in 1969—“We could have called it America”, Robertson said at the time—anyone could understand and no one could explain, and this would be their claim on history.
“The Weight,” the center of gravity on Music from Big Pink, could be the whole story: the tale of a man who arrives in a town called Nazareth to perform a task he doesn’t understand among people who act as if he doesn’t exist. Levon Helm was once described as the only drummer who could make you cry; as the song begins, as it moves on, so slowly, with an ominousness as musically light as it is morally inescapable, he does. He takes the narrative in the verses; in the choruses he, Manuel, and Danko trade back and forth on the word “and” in a way that makes it feel like the most threatening, bottomless word in the English language. “The lyrics are fascinating, even though I have no idea what this song is about,” the Band, producer, John Simon, said when he heard it. “It was all I could think of at the time,” Robertson says back to him, but in his book he says more: “As a songwriter, ‘The Weight’ was something I had been working up to for years. I just heard”—heard not wrote—“what I was looking for.” He and the Band heard and played what a great many people were looking for: in 1968, with the United States tearing itself apart in war, assassination, riot, hate, and fear, they played out a sense of America as a real but also mythical place, a story that, while absorbing all the versions that had come before, remained unfinished. It’s what Harold Bloom heard: “It is inconsequential to me who wrote the songs,” he wrote in 2002, speaking of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “a dozen or so others.” “What matters is that the songs at their best seem always to have been there, until refined by the Band.” He spoke of a “quasi-mysticism” that was “endemic in their music”:
There is, as I have argued elsewhere, a post-Protestant gnosis in North America, which could be called “The American Religion.” The Band’s performances, at their most intense, can seem to emanate directly from that gnosis, as the Dylan of 1965-1975 seemed to also. If our freedom is our solitude, it is also our wavering sense that what is best and oldest in us is no part of the creation. A spirituality that unsponsored has its sorrows, some of which The Band caught and rendered permanently.
They had made, Robertson says, a brotherhood, and in the way that in the songs each man, contribution shaded and jumped into every other, they acted out an ideal of democracy and equality. But always, in Robertson’s pages, there are portents that the partnership is too delicate to last, that any change in the way anyone is living, thinking, feeling, will shatter it—and by the early 1970s it was breaking down. “Bad habits, we were collecting them like coins,” Robertson writes of the Hawks on their own in the mid-1960s, “and we knew how that worked: the more you get the more you want. I wrestled with these thoughts late at night when my mind was too tired to fight them off”—a novelist might envy that last phrase.
But now it was a different game. Helm, Manuel, and Danko were all using heroin; they had formed their own brotherhood. “You could feel it,” Robertson writes: “out of reach, a cold and dark disconnect.” As the group rehearses one night, Helm lies down on the floor and goes to sleep. The engineer they’re working with is baffled. Is this how they work?
That evening when we finished working, I told Levon that I would drive him home. On the way I said how horrible it was watching Rich, Rick, and him on this drug binge. I confessed how helpless I felt in the midst of this monster. “It’s destroying us. It’s tearing our band apart. You are my brother, my best friend, and I can’t stand watching this happen.”
I pulled the car up in front of Levon’s house and shut the motor off. He turned to me and began a ten-minute rant. “No, baby. What do you think? I’m strung out? I wouldn’t do that shit. No, man, I’d tell you if I was sick, you know that. I got it under control. You don’t need to worry about me. You wanna see my arms? You wanna check for needle marks? Here, let me show you.” He took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. “Look. Clean. Just a couple of old bruises. Sure, I did a little skin popping a while back, but I’m cool now.”
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. He opened the car door and said, “If you want, I’ll talk to Rick and Richard tomorrow and make sure they ain’t getting in deeper than they need to be. But you don’t need to worry none about me. This ship ain’t going down on my account.” He stepped out of the car, waved at me with a wink, and walked away.
For the first time, Levon had looked me straight in the eye: it, the had that makes this work, that makes the passage into an act of foreshadowing, where both the writer and the reader are already in the no-future the sentence has opened up. The moment as he describes it is already in the past, the first of many, as soon as it happens. This is the story as Robertson tells Helm, who died in 2012—following Danko in 1999, and Manuel, a suicide, in 1986—told it very differently, with resentment and bitterness over Robertson’s supposed theft of composer’s rights and seizure of the group from the others, in Helm’s own book, This Wheel’s on Fire (1993). But that book, written with Stephen Davis, did not—as the story moves on, “Robbie” turns into “Robertson”—ring true. Robertson’s book does, and much of that has to do with the writing.
Robertson has told many of the stories he tells here more eloquently in interviews. Often his writing is workmanlike. But that, I think, is not what will stay with the reader. More likely to be remembered is his description of his own recording of his song “Yazoo Street Scandal,” which Helm would later take to thrilling heights of astonishment and delight: “Extremely lo-fi, reminiscent of what your subconscious might sound like coming through an old-time radio.” Or his account of what the Hawks learned when they went out on the road on their own:
When a fight broke out in the bars, beer bottles being smashed and used for weapons was par for the course. Guys hit one another with chairs, sometimes tables. We soon developed one simple rule: if a fight breaks out, keep playing; don’t stop the music no matter what happens… Maybe a slower tempo might help ease the tension. Richard singing “Stormy Monday” was always a good choice, as it was rhythmically difficult to brawl to.
That is the tall tale. Constance Rourke, who for its essential subtlety and its dead-pan delivery sealed the tall tale as an American art form in 1931 in her American Humor A Study of the National Character, would be smiling.
New York Review of Books, March 23, 2017