Testimony by Robbie Robertson review – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band

Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destruction

In his early years, Bob Dylan always seemed to need a confidant, an accomplice, a sidekick. These semi-famous figures, silhouetted against the penumbra of his growing celebrity, included Victor Maymudes, his tour manager and protector during the rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s, and Bob Neuwirth, a fellow graduate from the folk clubs, with whom he perfected the art of the slashing verbal putdown, as immortalised in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. But when the singer returned to Britain in 1966, his new best friend was someone capable of making a serious contribution to the development of his music. In Robbie Robertson, Dylan found the perfect buddy on every level – for a while, at least.

As the guitarist with the rock’n’roll band that came out to join him for the second half of each concert during a controversial tour, Robertson provided Dylan with moral as well as musical support when the howls of outraged folkniks attempted to drown the amplified crunch of Like a Rolling Stone. Born in Toronto to a part-Mohawk mother and a Jewish father, at 22 he was two years younger than Dylan and had been on the road since leaving home in his mid-teens to audition for a job with Ronnie Hawkins, a gnarled rock’n’roll veteran, and his crack band, the Hawks. After six years of playing bars and clubs to rough, tough audiences, he was able to help Dylan navigate his way through a hostile time.

The two of them played matching black and white Fender Telecasters, and Robertson writes proudly of introducing Dylan to the Toronto tailor who made his skinny houndstooth check stage suit. Off duty in New York, they visited the folk clubs and discotheques, got high together, and hung out with the Beatles, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. Robertson was the only witness when Dylan married Sara Lownds in a Long Island courthouse. He grew accustomed to his friend’s working practices (“Of course we could have been more rehearsed,” he says of their first gig together, “but Bob only had so much patience for any of that”) and as the months went by he observed the effect of a prodigious amphetamine intake; in the hours after the final concert of 1966, at the Albert Hall in London, he rescued an insensible Dylan from drowning in his hotel bath while the Beatles waited outside, hoping for a chat.

It had been Robertson who persuaded the Hawks to accept the invitation to hook up with Dylan. They knew nothing of his music and were sceptical – particularly their drummer, Levon Helm, an Arkansas farm boy who was the band’s de facto leader and at the time the guitarist’s closest friend. “My personal curiosity and sense of adventure were the only things that made him give the experiment even the slightest consideration,” Robertson writes. Helm eventually gave in, as did Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, all Canadians, although the drummer left the tour early, dismayed by the nightly abuse.

The Band on stage in The Last Waltz: Richard Manuek, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Roberton and Levon Helm.
The Band on stage in The Last Waltz: Richard Manuek, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Roberton and Levon Helm. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

The rest of them, held together by Robertson’s sense that something important was happening and that he wanted to be a part of it, rampaged on. When a motorcycle accident soon after the end of the tour persuaded Dylan to slow down, they hung fire before rejoining him for the informal sessions in Woodstock that became The Basement Tapes, a home-recorded outpouring of redigested Americana. And then, as their own musical perspective changed and Helm rejoined them, they became the Band, a bunch of men in backwoods preachers’ suits and beards whose 1968 album Music from Big Pink redirected the course of rock music towards a more reflective, textured, rural mode of expression. Its 1970 follow-up, The Band (or “the Brown Album”, as it is familiarly known), remains one of the perfect statements of the rock era, a work of ageless grace, subtlety, historical awareness and emotional depth.

By the time they made the cover of Time magazine in 1970, however, the process of disintegration had begun. Newly rich, the backwoods preachers had become hell-raisers. Robertson joined in but, unlike Helm, Manuel and Danko, he avoided the worst of it – specifically the heroin – and took up the slack left by their reduced ability to contribute to the task of songwriting. Eight of the 12 songs on The Band were composed by him, and the remainder co-written with Manuel or Danko, with the consequent effect on the division of the copyright royalties.

An ambitious autodidact, Robertson forged bonds with powerful men. When Albert Grossman, Dylan’s formidable manager, took over the Band’s affairs, Robertson slipped easily into the role of spokesman for the others in their negotiations. After he assigned the Band’s song copyrights to Dylan’s publishing company in 1968, however, his bandmates believed he had tilted the financial scales in his own favour. He explains the decision smoothly, but it opened a wound that would never heal – particularly with Helm, whose own autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, published in 1993, was merciless in its judgment of Robertson’s ethics.

The next power relationship was with the impresario David Geffen, who cosied up to Robertson in order to get close to Dylan, who signed with his record label in 1974. It was Geffen who persuaded Robertson to move from Woodstock to Malibu, and the rest of the Band were easily convinced to follow him to a place where the sun shone all the time and drugs were even easier to find.

Inseparable … Robertson with Martin Scorsese.
Inseparable … Robertson with Martin Scorsese. Photograph: AP

Then came Martin Scorsese. In 1976, Robertson announced that the Band would give their final performance at a specially arranged and lavishly staged all-star concert in San Francisco, called The Last Waltz, and engaged the young director to film it. The two became inseparable and Scorsese’s focus on the guitarist in the final edit severely unbalanced the cinematic portrait of what had originally been a cooperative group (Helm was particularly scornful of the heavy makeup that Robertson claims was dabbed on by his wife to disguise a pallor caused by exhaustion). None of the other members of the Band had wanted to call it a day, but they were powerless to deny Robertson his folie de grandeur. The resentment, like that of his share of the songwriting proceeds, would linger and fester.

Wisely, Robertson ends his story there (he has since released several solo albums and composed film scores). His memoir has a discreetly self-admiring tone – the good ideas seem invariably to have been his – but in its early passages it provides an entertaining and valuable description of a rock’n’roll apprenticeship punctuated by encounters with such historic figures as Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. He casts light on a vital phase of Dylan’s career and, of course, on the history of the Band, which had passed through its time of wealth-fuelled excess by the time a ravaged Manuel hanged himself in a hotel room 10 years after The Last Waltz (Danko’s long-abused body gave out in 1999, and Helm died of cancer in 2012). “Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us,” Robertson observes as the book reaches its climax.

When Dylan celebrated the 30th anniversary of his recording career in 1992 with a New York concert that featured virtually every significant participant in his musical odyssey, Robertson was a notable absentee. The other surviving members of the Band took the stage at Madison Square Garden without him. Even seen through Robertson’s eyes, and even taking into account the glorious work they did together half a century ago, the tale is a kind of tragedy, in terms of lives damaged and music lost.

Testimony is published by William Heinemann. To order a copy for £16.40 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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