Whether he was touring with Bob Dylan on the singer’s tumultuous 1965–66 electric tours, accompanying Brian Jones to see a young guitarist by the name of Jimmy James (the future Jimi Hendrix) play guitar at a Greenwich Village club or being treated to a private performance from Bo Diddley in his hotel room, Robbie Robertson had a way of finding himself in the midst of some of the greatest musical moments of the Sixties and Seventies. Robertson shares those stories, and many more, in Testimony, his new memoir that reflects upon his days as lead songwriter and principal guitarist of the Band.
Testimony is also a nostalgic look back on Robertson’s musical beginnings as a member of Ronnie Hawkins’ touring band the Hawks, a group that would eventually break off from their leader to become the Band. Concluding promptly with the Band’s famed 1976 farewell show (documented in Martin Scorsese’s Last Waltz film), Testimony focuses heavily on Robertson’s early days growing up in Toronto and traveling on the road with Hawkins – the Band don’t even begin recording their legendary debut Music From Big Pink until roughly 300 pages in. Here are 10 things we learned from this sweeping chronicle.
1. The young Robertson received insider guitar advice from Buddy Holly.
Robertson was just 14 years old when he went to see Alan Freed’s Revue tour in the fall of 1957. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Frankie Lymon were all on the bill, but Robertson was most excited to see the headliner: Buddy Holly and the Crickets. After the show, Robertson stormed to the front of the stage and asked the 21-year-old singer-guitarist how he got his unique guitar sound. “Here’s the thing,” Holly responded, much to Robertson’s astonishment. “I got this Fender amp with two 12-inch speakers. I blew one of the speakers, and thought it sounded better, so I left it.” “I couldn’t believe it,” he writes, “not only was Buddy Holly a genuinely nice guy, he was willing to reveal the kind of inside information I was hungry for.”
2. His first meeting with Richard Manuel was an ominous foreshadowing of things to come.
The first time Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson met Richard Manuel, the Band’s future pianist and singer was by himself drunk at a hamburger stand. It would be some time before Manuel eventually joined the band, but in retrospect Robertson found that his first encounter with the singer-pianist was telling. “Richard was drunk, a laughing, fun-loving sort of drunk, but drunk nonetheless,” he writes. “I thought, I hope this guy doesn’t have a problem.”
3. The group once blackmailed a Canadian detective to avoid jail time after a pot bust.
In the mid-Sixties, the group was arrested by Canadian police for marijuana possession after Rick Danko’s estranged girlfriend had tipped off authorities. At the time, the crime was punishable by up to 10 years in prison, but according to Robertson, the group had one trick up its sleeve: Shortly before the trial, Levon Helm introduced the detective to a pretty young friend of his named Katy. After Katy seduced the detective, she told him she was 16 years old and made the detective promise he’d help the band avoid jail. “How about our dear Katy?” Helm said after the blackmailing. When the trial came, the men got off easy, with only Rick Danko receiving one year of probation.
4. On the last night of the Band and Bob Dylan’s 1966 European tour, Dylan kept the Beatles waiting – and almost drowned in a bathtub.
By the end of the Band’s 1966 European tour with Bob Dylan, months of amphetamine-induced sleep and appetite loss had left Dylan drained. After the final show of the tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Beatles dropped by Dylan’s hotel to pay their respects, but Robertson had to keep the Fab Four waiting because the singer-songwriter was so physically depleted and delirious he “looked like he was passed out sitting up.” Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and Robertson put Dylan in a hot bath to freshen him up, but the plan almost seriously backfired. “I hurried back into the bathroom, only to find that Bob had sunk down into the water and was starting to bubble,” writes Robertson. “My heart stopped for a moment. Damn, I thought, he could really drown here. I pulled him back up in the tub.” The Beatles eventually stopped waiting for Dylan and went home.
5. Robertson’s famous lovers included Edie Sedgwick and Carly Simon.
No rock memoir is complete without a bit of bragging about famous hookups and long-distant one night stands. On this point, Robertson delivers in spades, dishing on early-to-mid-Sixties escapades that include a tryst with Edie Sedgwick in the Chelsea Hotel, sleeping with underage girls on tour with Dylan in Australia and cavorting briefly with Carly Simon. When Albert Grossman accuses Robertson, who was working on music with Simon, of “being more interested in the artist than art,” he writes: “That may have been true, but the last thing I was looking for at this point was anything too serious.”
6. Robertson got an up-close look at John Lennon’s custom-made joints-in-disguise.
After spending so much time with Bob Dylan in the mid-Sixties, Robertson ended up getting to know the Beatles, meeting them several times on various tours. When Robertson hung out with the group after their show in Toronto in August 1966, Lennon showed Robertson his custom-made joints disguised as a Lark cigarette. “Let me show you a little trick,” Lennon told Robertson, before revealing his intricately designed contraption. “Beatles have to take precautions.” “I could only conclude,” Robertson writes, “that John had someone make the cigarette and package them exactly as they would in a factory. Must be good to be a Beatle.”
7. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident, his manager asked the group to record an instrumental album of his songs.
Before Robertson and his bandmates moved to Woodstock, they were living in New York City and receiving weekly checks from Albert Grossman with the understanding that they might return to the road with Dylan at any time. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident, the group was stuck in limbo without any immediate creative or artistic outlet. Grossman’s idea? “Why don’t you do a record of Bob Dylan’s songs as instrumentals?” he asks Robertson at one point. “I acted like I could see the lightbulb over his head and said I would talk to the boys,” the guitarist writes. Needless to say, the album never happened.
8. Robertson got the idea for the first line of “The Weight” from his Martin guitar.
Throughout the book, Robertson remains relatively opaque about his songwriting process for the Band, hinting at contentious issues over songwriting credits and publishing rights. He does, however, confirm that the source of the band’s most famous song: “The Weight,” which he wrote in Woodstock. “I sat with a little typewriter, a pen and legal pad, and a Martin D-28 guitar that said Nazareth, Pennsylvania, on the label inside the sound hole. I revisited memories and characters from my Southern exposure and put them into a Luis Buñuel surreal setting. One of the themes that really stuck with me … was the impossibility of sainthood – no good deed goes unpunished. I wrote ‘The Weight’ in one sitting that night.”
9. In the Band’s Woodstock days, car accidents nearly claimed the lives of several members.
The Band’s struggle with substance abuse throughout the early-to-mid-Seventies, after the group had released its first two landmark albums, is common knowledge. Robertson’s book, however, reveals that the group was already exhibiting wildly self-destructive behavior by the time they arrived in Woodstock in 1967. Richard Manuel and Levon Helm got into a drunk-driving accident a few days after Robertson’s wedding, while Rick Danko got into several crashes, one of which left him in critical condition with a broken neck. “Car wrecks with Richard, Rick and Levon became a regular occurrence,” writes Robertson. “All Garth and I could do was get out of the way.”
10. Robertson blames Levon Helm’s heroin use for ruining the pair’s relationship.
For the most part, Robertson treads lightly when discussing his fractured relationship with Levon Helm (whose own memoir, 1993’s This Wheel’s on Fire, portrays Robertson in a highly unflattering light), showering his ex-bandmate with praise and affection throughout. But as the book progresses, he increasingly portrays the Arkansas drummer as a drug addict paranoid about city folks taking advantage of him. “I wasn’t quite sure why Levon was so caught up in thinking all businesspeople around him had their hands in his pockets,” he writes at one point. “Sometimes it felt like his paranoia was drug induced; other times it seemed like a country-boy inferiority complex.” For Robertson, their relationship was damaged irreparably when Robertson says Helm lied to him about quitting heroin: “Things changed in that moment. A distance grew between Levon and me that I don’t know if we were ever able to mend.”
Find out the inside story on how Bob Dylan’s legendary 1966 tour became a massive 36-album box set. Watch here.