By Robbie Robertson
“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 smiles, then closed the latches on his guitar case and walked toward the railing. His black horned-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 Holly 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.”
I couldn’t believe it: not only was Buddy Holly a genuinely nice guy, he was willing to reveal the kind of inside information I was hungry for. As he walked back to pick up his guitar case, Holly raised his arm over his head, calling back, “Good luck to ya!”
And so begins one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most celebrated journeys, one that continues to this day, although Robertson’s autobiography Testimony stops in 1976 after The Last Waltz, The Band’s farewell concert. Theoretically there could be a “volume two” from Robertson, covering his work since 1977, but fans and music scholars will have to be pleased with Testimony, which is an easy thing to do considering how wonderful this book is. The story of The Band is well known, yet as a primary source Testimony should not be overlooked. There are many books about Bob Dylan, including one by Dylan himself, yet Robertson’s account of their time together is staggering in its reveal.
Like most musicians Robertson’s story begins as a young boy falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll. His started quickly, as by the time he was sixteen his band opened for Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansan, and soon Robertson was playing guitar with Hawkins band The Hawks, the key start to this seminal life. Upon being offered a job by Hawkins, Robertson asked, “What’s the pay gonna be like?” “Well son,” Hawkins told him, “you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” Hawks drummer Levon Helm was also from Arkansas and soon Robertson and Helm were close friends in addition to bandmates.
Traveling North America afforded The Hawks a chance to see some of their musical influences up close. After seeing Howlin’ Wolf Robertson reflected, “That night was the most frightening musical experience I’d ever had, and it felt way too good.” Bo Diddley elicited a similar response. “I concentrated on Bo’s hands, his fingers,” Robertson writes, “it was like watching some kind of voodoo magic, where you can only believe half of what you see.”
Soon The Hawks came to the attention of Dylan, who was “going electric” and needed a full time band for touring. Both Dylan the The Hawks, which also included Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, were on the verge of exploration and discovery and meshed at a perfect time for them all. Dylan needed solid backing and The Hawks needed someone more challenging to back. “What Bob was doing was strong and fascinating,” Robertson writes, “and I thought there could be something in the discovery process that would be valuable to all of us.” The famous 1966 tour is well known for eliciting a negative reaction from Bob’s folk purist fans, but Dylan and “the band” were hungry and eager to perform at their highest level. “Of course we felt we could have been more rehearsed,” recalls Robertson, “but Bob only had so much patience for any of that… It wasn’t just playing Bob Dylan’s music with electricity that caused a revolt, it was how we played it: tough, aggressive, with raging dynamics that cleared the sweetness out of everything in sight.”
After Dylan’s motorcycle accident in late 1966, all the guys move to upstate New York and began their own journey in the basement of a house soon to be known as Big Pink. This is where they transform into The Band. “Playing music in a circle in the basement or on an acoustic set in the living room was having a big effect on our musical approach: it was about the balance of vocals and instruments,” writes Robertson. “If you couldn’t hear properly, somebody was too loud and out of balance. This approach was as old as music but had very little to do with the way a lot of people were playing those days. Louder was becoming king, which we had been blamed for in our past, but we evolved to a place where loud music was like greasy food, not really good for you.”
Robertson was never the leader of The Band but the chief songwriter and agenda man. “I bristled when people said I was the leader of The Band,” he says. “I was doing what needed to be done on behalf of the guys, but I didn’t want to be called the leader any more than Richard wanted to be called the lead singer. Ours was an equal playing field, with each person holding up his end and doing what he could for the sake of the group.” Having three distinct voices in Danko, Helm and Manuel allowed Robertson an opportunity rarely found in rock history. “I felt strongly that one of my jobs was to write parts that suited the individual voices of my bandmates,” he writes. “[Yet] we had a special democratic arrangement among the five of us, and if I wrote, the song, sang the song, arranged it, and played the solos, in my mind, that’s not who we were.”
Testimony’s story crosses paths with gangsters, Dali, Warhol. Danish sex shows, union hassles, a pot-sharing Lennon, Brando, Nico, Hendrix, Brian Jones, a drowning Keith Moon, Van Morrison and a naked Allen Ginsberg. These intersections are too many to be discussed here but in the end Robertson’s commitment to the music rises tallest and may be best represented by his take on musical climate change. Unlike the “Judas Tour” of ’66, the reunion Dylan/Band tour in 1974 was a success. “[Now], with the crowd standing and cheering us on, I was very conscious of how on our last tour with Bob in 1966, the audience had booed us most nights,” summarizes Robertson. “They’d condemned the music we were making together. Now here we were, playing Bob’s songs hard and direct, the same as before, and the audience was accepting it with open arms. We hadn’t given up. We didn’t come around. The world had come around. We knew that music was real when there were many nonbelievers. We fought a good battle in ’66, but we won the war in ’74.”