This LIVE from the NYPL event was held in one of the auditoriums on the third floor. I used to go to the Main Branch of the NYPL on 42nd Street all the time for research. There were other libraries closer to me but this one has everything. All of this was pre-internet, of course. I forget how beautiful this library is – with all the marble and painted ceilings it’s a place of worship.
Like the last event I attended in that room, everyone in the audience received a signed copy of the book being discussed. This time Stevie Van Zandt was interviewing Robbie Robertson about his autobiography, Testimony: A Memoir. If you’ve seen The Last Waltz then you know that Robertson was a good storyteller. His book proves that he still is. Waiting for the event to begin I started reading the book while The Band and Robertson’s songs played over the sound system. I was already into the second chapter when Paul Holdengräber, Director of the NYPL’s Public Programming, came up to the podium and said that for the next five minutes we were going to listen to Leonard Cohen. He said that Cohen’s response to Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was that it “is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.” And that for the remainder of the year they would be playing Leonard Cohen at all events at the NYPL.
Van Zandt came up and said this is the second autobiography he’s read this month and the audience laughed. He went on to talk about The Band and why they were so important, saying that they got it down to an essence.
Van Zandt had Robertson start at the beginning. Robertson grew up in Toronto and his mother was Six Nations and he would spend time on the reservation visiting family. Everyone would sing and dance – there were no visiting musicians making a tour stop at the reservation. A storyteller was telling the kids the real story of Hiawatha and Robertson decided he wanted to be a storyteller and told his mother so. His mother responded, “Of course you will.”
For Robertson, puberty and the start of rock and roll happened at the same time. In Canada, on cold clear nights, you could get these great 50K watt radio stations from the US. He needed to discover what these musicians were doing. He taught himself guitar. A few years later his band opened for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at a dance (Robertson was still too young to play in nightclubs) and Robertson was blown away by the band. He overheard Hawkins saying that the guys were going into the studio soon and Robertson went right home and wrote two songs. He performed them for Hawkins and Hawkins loved them and included them on his album. On his next trip to Toronto, Hawkins brought a copy of the album for Robertson, who was thrilled to see his name as the songwriter on the songs. But there was a co-writer – Robertson knew there wasn’t any co-writer. Who was this guy? Hawkins explained to Robertson that the name was a pseudonym for Morris Levy, the owner of Roulette Records. It’s how it works in the music business and it was something Robertson had to learn. Robertson was still angry. When Hawkins invited Robertson to come with him to NYC to help him find new music, Robertson was thrilled that Hawkins would trust him with such an important job. Hawkins dropped Robertson off at the Brill Building. Robertson is sitting in the same room as Otis Blackwell (“Don’t Be Cruel” “Great Balls of Fire” “Breathless” “All Shook Up” “Return to Sender”). Blackwell accompanied himself on piano while he told the story of how Colonel Tom Parker screwed him over “Don’t Be Cruel.” Leiber and Stoller (“Hound Dog” “Kansas City” “Youngblood” “Yakety Yak” “Jailhouse Rock” “There Goes My Baby”) played a song for the 15-year-old Robertson and Robertson couldn’t believe how great it was. He asked them if they had anything else. “Who are you again?” they asked.
Hawkins joked that there’s no difference between him Elvis Presley except for talent and good looks. Hawkins brought Robertson to Roulette Records and he thought that finally he was going to get this co-writing credit thing straightened out. The Roulette Records office looked like something out of Damon Runyon – there’s two huge bodyguards and a receptionist with her blonde hair over one eye like Veronica Lake. Levy had this gravelly voice – Robertson wondered what happens to gangsters when they’re kids that they end up with these gravelly voices. Hawkins tells Levy that this kid has potential. Levy said he was a good-looking kid and that if Hawkins ever got arrested he should bring the kid with him. Robertson decided to let go of the songwriting credit dispute.
Robertson was 16 years old when he traveled alone from Toronto to the Mississippi delta to audition for Hawkins’ band. You needed to be 21 years old to play in clubs so Robertson decided he needed to practice harder than anyone else. Hawkins saw the blood dripping from Robertson’s fingers and knew that he had heart. Levon Helm was already the drummer in the Hawks. He had joined straight out of high school and was able to twirl the drumsticks and sing while playing eighth notes. Helm embraced Robertson. And Hawks told Robertson, “Well son, you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” (A line that is probably one of the most famous from The Last Waltz.)
Eventually all the future members of The Band became Hawks. Rick Danko completely uprooted his life and had to switch from guitar to bass. There was a 17-year-old kid who sounded like Bobby Bland – Richard Manuel. Hawks saw that these guys could sing, which pleased him because it meant less work for him. He’d just let the kids take the songs. In London, ON was this guy who played in a funeral parlor who could incorporate all different types of music. But can you have an organ and a piano in the same band? Garth Hudson said his parents spent a lot of money on his musical education and they would be disappointed if he joined a rock and roll band. Hawkins went to speak with the parents and it was decided that Hudson would be the band’s music teacher and they all had to pay him $10 a week.
Van Zandt noted that Hawkins was doing less and less and the band was developing on its own. (By the way, Van Zandt would ask a question and Robertson would go on and on. He has a lot of stories and he doesn’t need much prompting.) Robertson said the Hawks had outgrown Hawkins and they start traveling on their own as Levon and the Hawks. They played a lot of very rough joints like Jack Ruby’s place just before the assassination. They played the Jersey Shore throughout one summer and Robertson gets a call to meet with Bob Dylan. Robertson had met Dylan once before. He was hanging out with his friend, John Hammond Jr., when Hammond decided to visit Dylan at the studio. Dylan told them, “You’ve never heard anything like this before.” And he was right. It was “Like a Rolling Stone” and Robertson said that immediately he knew it was fresh and different. So, Robertson meets with Dylan, who he doesn’t really know a lot about because he doesn’t listen to folk music. They play guitar together and it sounds really good. Dylan asks him to join him on the road and Robertson says no because he has his own band. They agree that Helm and Robertson would play with Dylan at Forest Hills and Hollywood Bowl. Anyone who knows their Bob Dylan history knows what happened. At Forest Hills, people rushed the stage and threw things at Al Kooper because they were upset that Dylan had plugged in. Helm wanted to know what that was. Dylan said let’s do a whole tour. Does he not realize that people don’t like it? Dylan hears the entire band and takes them all out on the road. Robertson said it was an experiment in terror. North America, Australia, and Europe all with people booing and throwing stuff at them. People telling Dylan to get rid of those guys. Each night they would listen back to tapes of their performance and make adjustments but the audience didn’t care. One night Robertson said to Dylan, “They’re wrong,” meaning the audience. The musicians knew clearly that they were part of a musical revolution. In the end, the concert at Albert Hall from that tour became one of the biggest bootlegged records ever.
Van Zandt noted that during that period Robertson was about to change the world with his songwriting. Robertson said after the tour, Dylan wanted to do another tour. Then Dylan had his motorcycle accident – he fell off and fractured his neck. He found a house in West Saugerties, NY and thought that now he could write the songs he was meant to write. He invited Dylan to the ugly pink house. The recording setup was for writing, not for making an album. Dylan wanted to try out some of his new songs. They bring in a sound engineer who tells them that because of the concrete floors, furnace, and glass that any recording will be terrible. “Great,” was their response. They were going to break some rules. With no pressure came some beautiful songs. Plus some absurd songs but that was okay because no one was ever going to hear them. The Basement Tapes becomes another best-selling bootleg. The songs were recorded for publishing purposes – they were never meant to be released.
Van Zandt says, “So everyone is writing…” Robertson said Manuel was writing some great things. Van Zandt said that during the sixties, each year there was something different. 1968 was the year of hard rock, 1964 was The Beatles, 1965 was folk music, etc. “A lot of us didn’t get it until the second album (The Band). We needed to adapt to this new sound you had created. It blew everyone’s mind. [Eric] Clapton broke up Cream because of it. I brought the second album to Bruce’s house and told him this was by Canadian guys – I don’t get it. It redefined Americana. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is the most authentic song.” Van Zandt played that song for Springsteen first and he said, “Play it again,” and they played it four times before listening to the rest of the album. Robertson mentioned the famous photo on the inside cover of Music from Big Pink – “Next of Kin” – that included all their parents and some relatives.
Van Zandt commented on Robertson’s Six Nations beginning where life and art is integrated and his early visit at Helm’s parent’s home where music is integrated with family life. Robertson said it was like being inside a world we invented. We stood aside from the rest of the world and made our own story. We had to find something that could have been done 100 years ago or 1100 years from now.
Van Zandt said that on an artistic level they were the most respected band. Robertson said they were suspicious of singles. Success is a tricky game. You try to stand outside of it but a self-destructive reaction comes out of that. You’re in it surrounded by seeds that have grown. You can’t see out or past it. It starts interfering with the music and creativity. Dreams of the 60s started going up in flames in the 70s. We hit a wall after 16 years and needed to do something or someone was going to die. There were some concert dates when some of the guys could hardly make it. Manuel was rushed to the hospital. Robertson told the guys, “We have to get out of this. Let’s have a musical celebration. Let’s play where we played the first time as The Band – Winterland.” They thought they’d invite Hawkins and Dylan. And then if you invite Clapton, you need to invite Van Morrison. And what about the Canadians? So Joni Mitchell and Neil Young were invited. Then Dr. John and Muddy Waters – all those spokes in the wheel of our music. Then Bill Graham said you have to document this. So they decided maybe a couple of black and white cameras. Then maybe 16mm color. How about Super 16? Robertson asks Martin Scorsese, who says there’s a problem because he’s already working on another movie. Scorsese and Robertson have dinner and they talk music. “I don’t care!” Scorses rants and then quietly, “But you have to be quiet about this.” They didn’t tell anyone who the artists were going to be. The cinematographer László Kovács says it has to be 35mm. But they have to figure out a system to use the 35mm because the cameras will overheat and they will need new batteries. On top of this The Band has to learn 21 songs for all the different types of artists who will be performing. We realize we have to surge – there wasn’t a mistake on a single song and no cameras melted. And this month is the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz.
While leaving, there was a big crowd of us at the door and suddenly I hear, “Hey Robbie! I saw you at The Last Waltz,” and I turn and there’s Robertson standing right next to me just trying to get out like the rest of the crowd.
By Carene Lydia Lopez