An exceptional read often winds its way through one’s life. Such is the case for Robbie Robertson’s memoir – Testimony.
Brooklyn, New York bassist Stu Woods and I roomed together on the road from 1968 - 1969. "Road," being those weeklong jaunts up and down the Atlantic coast; others -upstate New York - Poughkeepsie, the Catskills – even Tony Mart’s Showplace in Atlantic City. We played non-stop soul music for dance crowds. Monday to Wednesday, the house was usually good. Come Thursday to Saturday, there were lineups down the block.
Stu and I loved listening to music. I mean... every breathing moment we were spinning discs on my portable Hi-Fi - one of those $40 traveling companions you detached two speakers, spread them apart and assumed you were hearing in stereo. Not a chance! Volume was minimal as was bottom end. Who cared? It was always about the LPs that traveled with us. Packed in a carry-with-you bag, a few jazz sides – Miles Davis Kind of Blue – some Jimi Hendrix – a couple soul sides and the prize: The Band, Music From The Big Pink – summer 1968.
Woods and I replayed and replayed the LP, nearly scrubbing the grooves away. Big Pink was light years beyond the psychedelic yarns spun by San Francisco bands or the Long Island jams of guitarist Leslie West and Mountain. This was roots music with a different vibe.
Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, sat nearby weeks before I cracked it open. A good book talks back at you, if you keep ignoring it. Christmas Day, it practically screamed, “Stop for a minute, put down that fucking iPad and read me!” That was it – me, Robbie Robertson, the recliner and a whining dog at my side.
Where to begin?
I believe this is the first time I’ve got a historical sense of the true soul of Toronto’s music scene. Robertson spells it out through the first hundred pages. You hear and visualize Robertson’s memories of growing up around an oddball assortment of characters... his first guitar and searching out mentor musicians. The early days with his own band, The Rhythm Chords, with local entrepreneur and bassist Pete Traynor... the mean streets of Toronto...the neighborhoods... the small-time criminals... a tight-knit family, are all there. Then the big break with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The pace then quickens and rolls.
Robertson paints with words. Testimony isn’t a dry read – “back to back facts and figures” and self-absorbed trope: It’s the story of us; our city and the young players who ventured beyond, but never strayed too far.
Robertson’s take on Hawkins is priceless. More than a few of us were Hawks at one time and can attest to the posse of crazies, starry-eyed girls and the sheer laziness of the big chief. You didn’t just play in a band, you were part of a traveling circus. At times, a big musical jolt; at others, a night at “Caligula’s retreat,” as Ronnie would call it.
The early days with the Hawks, Scott “Magoo” Cushnie played piano. Robertson and the “encyclopedic” Cushnie became solid companions. Scott and gang (guitarist Bob Yeoman, bassist Rick Birkett, and drummer Frank DeFelice) would form their own fan-band - Jericho - back in 1970. We lived as a commune in an eight-room apartment complex above a grocery street on Hallam Street. A good eight hours by day were reserved for a complete runthrough of the Band catalogue. “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down,” still reverberates the back of my skull as if Jericho was on a band break.
Robertson’s departure with the Hawks and bond with Bob Dylan is worth the price of admission. These chapters detail a friendship – a learning forum for anyone close by. Dylan gone electric and the details of those painful nights on stage absorbing insults, demeaning as they were, cleared a path for Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko into the next life. It’s a wonder any of these players would seriously take to the big stage again.
Big Pink – Woodstock, New York – the basement recording studio; hours and hours at the typewriter writing lyrics and experimenting with sound. Garth Hudson fiddling with his souped-up Lowrey organ; Dylan drop ins - more lyrics – words and melodies coming fast and furious. “I Shall Be Released," "Chest Fever” with Hudson’s Bach-like organ intro; “The Weight," "Tears of Rage," "To Kingdom Come," "This Wheel’s On Fire.”
It's rare for a group of musicians to rent a space, isolate themselves and get busy. Distractions are always close by. We tried it with the first Canadian band I was part of, Homestead. We moved to a farm owned by Bobby Orr in Newcastle, Ontario. It was four months of hell and few moments in the music room. Robertson and crew stayed focused, passionate and kept a rigorous writing schedule.
It was playwright Neil Simon’s memoirs that most impacted me on the way a good writer seeks discipline. Simon set a time – early morning to noon or so, then walked away. Robertson and cast booked early afternoon until nightfall and kept with the schedule and Dylan in the mix. Work gets done.
The beauty of this read? There are no greasy salacious details. People smoke pot, others have serious drinking issues and flirtations with heroin. Unlike the miserable Greg Allman book (My Cross to Bear) – Robertson keeps the narrative running as if in real time; absent long nights of debauchery. Spare us all.
Greenwich Village of the '60s - Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Allen Ginsberg - they inhabit Robertson’s world. The record deal – negotiations, manager Albert Grossman, producer John Simon, the Hit Factory with Jerry Raganov, the Beatles, the Stones. A world of new music became home for a Scarborough boy whose mother Rose Marie Chrysler was a Mohawk raised on Six Nations Reserve south-west of Toronto. He then later discovers his biological father, David Klegerman, was Jewish and a professional gambler. Those chapters read like the epic film, Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci. The friendships, strong family bonds, hooligans, and petty crime. There had to be a song or two in there.
Robertson and the Hawks held down a steady gig at Tony Marts – Showplace of the World in Atlantic City. This was one huge nightclub with three bandstands and thousands of teens. Stu Woods, me and the Brooklyn band played during the last days of October 1968 as the cold winds off the Atlantic were blowing in. As we were hauling equipment, Marts pulls us aside and reads the riot act. “You’re on an hour, off an hour, don’t be late or you’re gone. I expect class and no grass. And lastly, see the girl over there? Hands off, she’s my daughter and she’s a teenager.” I turn around and witness this young woman carrying more weight than Marts himself, and respond. “No problem.” Marts looks at me with a scolding eye. “Hands off!”
Stu Woods and I along with drummer Roy Markowitz auditioned for the Janis Joplin gig at the old Atlantic Studios owned by Herb Abramson. Albert Grossman was present. Roy and I got in and Stu found a home with Grossman and company playing bass on Dylan’s Self-Portrait, then Don McLean’s American Pie, the Pozo Seco singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Janis Ian, Jim Croce, Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren and on. Not bad!
As with Robertson’s Testimony, I thoroughly enjoyed Levon Helm’s at-times bitter read – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band from 2000. Together, we get a complete view inside of the hearts and minds of one of the great bands of this past century.