For the Toronto-born musician-filmmaker-author Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson, the motto "Land of Opportunity" is more than a phrase.
The 73-year-old guitarist for The Band ("Up on Cripple Creek," "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") who has collaborated with Bob Dylan (Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Before the Flood, The Basement Tapes) and director Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street) owes an immeasurable debt to his teenage years accompanying Fayetteville's Ronnie Hawkins when he was a teenager in 1960.
While his time in the Land of Opportunity was brief (from roughly 1960 to '63), it's obvious Arkansas has never really left him or his songs.
"Yazoo Street Scandal" from The Basement Tapes, which features a gleefully lusty vocal from Levon Helm, and Nick's Cafe in Robertson's 1987 solo tune "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" both came from real locations in Helena.
"I was so young going from Canada down to this place. It was a fantasy place in my imagination where all this music came from that I felt such a connection to, and it made such a big impression on me that it came out in my songwriting years later. It came out in my life. When I came down there, my job was to let this wash over me and to take it in as quickly and as hard as I possibly could so they couldn't send me home.
"I knew the meeting place was where Ronnie (Hawkins) was from in the Ozarks, in that part of Arkansas. That's where mountain music came down and met up with the music from southeast Arkansas where (Band vocalist-drummer) Levon (Helm) was from, and the Mississippi was from, where the blues was coming up and this mountain music was coming down. When they met up, they had a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll.
"And so that whole down area there completely mystified me that in this area between Clarksdale, Miss., Memphis, Tenn. and Helena, Ark., the extraordinary number of amazing world-changing musics came out of this place. It was like how could Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and on, and on and on. How could all these people come from this one area? What's in the water around here?"
A Kind History
Robertson spends several pages of his new, nearly 500-page memoir Testimony recalling gigs from hell, like one he and Hawkins played at a venue owned by Lee Harvey Oswald assassin Jack Ruby, and other road lessons that still mean something to the musician.
Because he has had meaningful encounters with people like surrealist painter Salvador Dali and poet Allen Ginsberg, it's tempting to view Testimony as his own way of placing himself on Mount Olympus.
After all, Winston Churchill once predicted, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
Robertson laughs at the comparison and reminds me that he and other members of The Band have been grossly misrepresented. For example, when I spoke with Band keyboard wizard Garth Hudson and his wife, Maud, for The Kansas City Star in 2002, both lamented that the existing books were wildly off. In the current eBook edition of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America by Barney Hoskyns, Maud's name has an extra "e" at the end.
"This is very much why I needed to write this book," Robertson says, "because all of these other books that have been written on The Band and me and Bob Dylan and that whole period, so much of it is wrong. I thought, 'I was there. I saw it, and I can remember it really well. And all of this other stuff is a lot of bull****. It's my duty to do something about that. That was part of my motivation for writing this."
The Invisible Feud
The book also addresses some of the allegations the late Helm leveled at Robertson in his own memoir This Wheel's on Fire, which he co-wrote with Stephen Davis (Hammer of the Gods) in 1993. Helm alleged Robertson took an unfair amount of credit (and therefore royalties).
"There is no feud," Robertson says. "It takes two people to have a feud. I never had an issue with Levon. I love Levon, and I admired his music so much. He had some health problems and some head problems, but that doesn't mean I still didn't appreciate him and love him.
"And whatever happened to him that took him to this place, I feel bad about it, but I have no control over that. I'm just left with my own feelings and my side of the story. And I loved him dearly, he's the closest thing I ever had to a brother.
"I talked with him on the phone. We had a conversation. He never said a peep to me in all of the years we played together, in the 16 years we were together on the road and all of that. Never once did we ever have a sour word. He never once said to me, 'I think you should give me credit on this song for writing it.'"
A Family of Underdogs
The book also explores his unique upbringing. Robertson's mother, Rose Marie Chrysler, grew up on the Six Nations Reserve outside Toronto, and his biological father, Alexander David Klegerman, was a card-counting Jewish gambler who died in a hit-and-run accident before Robertson was born. From glancing through Testimony, it seems obvious he has inherited his father's prodigious recall.
"It all came from the grandmother, who was a bootlegger. She had to remember all the addresses. She could never write anything down because if anything was ever found, she could be in big trouble. She told her kids that she had this memory, and she had it, too. My blood father became a card counter before anybody really knew what a card counter was," he says.
His heritage frequently shows up in his music. In the 90s, he recorded Music From the Native Americans and Contact From the Underworld of Redboy. In addition, his songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight," "The Shape I'm In," "Acadian Driftwood" and "Ghost Dance" all deal with people who've drawn the short end of the stick.
When asked about the connection, he pauses and says, "We can't help that sometimes our heart just goes out to the underdog. Maybe that's a subconscious thing having grown up partially in that world and the influence of my mother and our relatives had on me."
Back on the Big Screen
Since Robertson and The Band played their final concert on Thanksgiving in 1976, which Scorsese filmed for his 1978 movie The Last Waltz, Robertson and Scorsese have been friends and close collaborators. Their new movie Silence, about two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) facing persecution in 17th-century Japan opens today, and their first partnership The Last Waltz plays at the Ron Robinson Center on Wednesday.
In Testimony, Robertson recalls how Hawkins sent him through New York's famous Brill Building looking for songs and occasionally writing a few for the singer himself.
When asked if there was a similarity with what he has done for Hawkins and Scorsese, he says, "Oh, jeez, I never looked at it that way. Well, Marty doesn't send me looking for stuff. We have some kind of telepathy thing going. And when I read the script for the next movie, I talk to him about ideas that I have, and if he thinks that I'm on the right wavelength, then I start exploring that and bouncing things off him and trying things out.
"It's different on every movie, too. Sometimes, I have to do music. Sometimes, I have to find music. Sometimes, I have to find different musics together to make something new happen. It's a real discovery process with him."
Arkansas native Jay Russell has also teamed up with Robertson for the 2004 firefighter drama Ladder 49. The director recalled that Robertson's role in a film's soundtrack is as hard to define as it is invaluable.
"The first time we got together was at his upstairs office at the Village Recorder to discuss the purpose and meaning of the song. I was under the gun, timewise, to finish the film, so when we started the meeting, we just jumped right in. Not a lot of small talk. Robbie's extremely knowledgeable about filmmaking, and not just on the music side. He understands the entire process, so we had an immediate common language," he says.
"He truly is a student and connoisseur of film, so when you discuss a musical soundscape for a picture, he's bringing an encyclopedic knowledge of movies to the discussion. I like to think I have a pretty good library of world cinema in my head, but Robbie seems to have seen just about everything. This is an enormous help to a director because he can reference so many different examples of how music has been used effectively in film over the years."
Sound of Scorsese
Robertson recalls Silence offered him some unique challenges. The title is a bit misleading.
"Going into this, I could tell that Marty was wanting to avoid a traditional movie score by all means. So the idea was -- that we were talking about different approaches and music ideas, I said, 'I have to bring this up. The movie is called Silence, so maybe my work is already done.' So that's why there's a lot of subtlety in this film," he says.
"There's something great about Silence and not just because I'm close to him or I've been involved with the project. I just thought there's a real maestro."
When asked why nearly four decades later their first collaboration is still cited as milestone, Robertson says, "I thought, 'you're going to get a production designer? Oh, OK.' Marty was like, 'We're making a movie. We have to have a production designer.'
"The Last Waltz is not an accident. It is because this guy did his homework and prepared for it. And he was preparing for take one. It wasn't like in the show, we're going to stop and go we're going to do it again like they do for these TV things. We think we could do it better. None of that. It was take one. You've got to see that because it's really quite extraordinary.
"Those old rock documentaries don't hold up for me. That was the advantage of having someone like Martin Scorsese. First of all, they decided, we're going to try to shoot this in 35 mm. It's never been done before. It might not work, but God, if we don't try, we'll never know. And he figured out a system where those cameras didn't melt. They had to reload and change batteries and clean the lens. They were treating it like they were shooting a movie and not shooting a documentary."
The Last Waltz is screening at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock on Jan. 27. (Tickets are $5. For more information go to tinyurl.com/zlbh8gc.)
MovieStyle on 01/20/2017
Print Headline: Robertson testifies in detail in memoir