With Leonard Cohen’s passing, the concept of a last waltz takes on a new urgency. It’s heartening, then, that rock’s troubadours, including Canada’s Robbie Robertson, remain creatively charged, documenting when those times, they were a-changin.’
“A poet is a naked person…some people say I’m a poet.” Bob Dylan wrote that in the liner notes for his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. Recently the quote resurfaced as everyone weighed in: Does Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? Bob wasn’t saying. While we waited for him to break his silence, social media roiled with controversy. The prize was for his words. But stripped of music, intonation and innuendo—left naked on the page—are his lyrics worthy of the Nobel? Maybe not. Some argued that Leonard Cohen would make a nobler Nobelist. He was certainly the more legitimate poet, a higher priest of the written word. Had the Nobel honoured Leonard, the timing would have seemed preordained, with his death falling just three weeks after the release of his final album, You Want It Darker, which had the power and grace of a musical last will and testament. Not unlike David Bowie’s Blackstar, it was the portrait of an artist as a dying man, authoring his own requiem.
Cohen and Dylan emerged from the same era, when poetry and music were joined at the hip. Though very different in manner and method, they looked up to each other to the point that it was clear they were in a league of their own. In a monumental New Yorker profile published just before Cohen’s death, Dylan rhapsodized at length about Cohen’s melodies, not just his lyrics, saying his “genius was in connection to the music of the spheres.” But even Cohen wouldn’t dispute that the Shakespearean breadth of Dylan’s work and his influence on everyone from the Beatles on down is unrivalled. After Dylan, every pop star went looking for his inner poet. Cohen put it best when he said giving Dylan the Nobel “is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.” And after snubbing all of American literature for more than two decades, what those blundering Swedes seemed to be getting at, without admitting it, is that Dylan pioneered another kind of literature. One that has escaped the printed page.
Canadian director Norman Jewison, who’s now 90, has always been fond of saying that “film is the literature of our generation.” But for the generation that came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, the same could be said of music. It was a time of liquefying boundaries, as music and books and films fed on each other in an uncontrolled chemistry experiment. Musicians were hungry for narrative, not only in their lyrics but in the living odyssey of The Road, as they plugged into a heroic tradition that stretches from Homer to Kerouac. It was an open road with limitless possibilities. But now decades later, for those in the business of being forever young, how does it end? For Dylan, devotee of the Never-Ending Tour, it doesn’t. For Bowie, it went majestically dark in the vanishing act of Blackstar, the first album synced to an artist’s death. For Prince, it expired in pharmaceutical misadventure. For Gord Downie, it climaxed with a cathartic hometown concert and national sainthood. For Cohen, it led to a miraculous comeback, with a triumphant tour in his late 70s, then the final album, a chilling yet comforting embrace of mortality, which landed midway between his 82nd birthday and his final breath.
How do you author the last exit? A number of elder road warriors have been busy writing books, piecing together lives that were never designed to be coherent. After the breakup of the band and the reunion tour and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame comes the memoir: the last refuge and final reckoning. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, Willie Nelson, Chrissie Hynde—they’ve all produced significant memoirs. And now Canada’s Robbie Robertson offers Testimony, a remarkable feat of storytelling from the quicksilver guitarist, songwriter and de facto rock star of The Band, the group that cut its teeth touring the world with Bob Dylan.
Robertson’s narrative takes us from his Toronto childhood to The Band’s final concert 40 years ago, famously documented in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. It was a wild ride. And he still looks back on his glory days with a boyish sense of wonder. “It was so vital, so electric,” he says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, his leathery voice a deeper version of that sidewinder drawl familiar from The Last Waltz. “There were no rules, nothing to fall back on. It was do or die. Every day was another adventure, another extreme experience.” Robertson, now 73, began touring the American South with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at 16. “From a pretty young age,” he says, “I started to feel a little bulletproof. I wasn’t sure where the danger zone was. You walk into the crossfire without even thinking about it, without knowing it’s there. We were all riding really close to the edge of the cliff, and some people went over and some people didn’t.”
Next: Memory is a sticky issue
A sticky issue with memoirs is memory. “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there” is a familiar adage that has proven itself since no one seems to remember who said it. With his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards used a ghostwriter to drag the stories out of him. Neil Young got the hang of writing stuff down when he stopped smoking pot. Leonard Cohen had never written a memoir but gave limited access to a superb biographer, Sylvie Simmons, for I’m Your Man. Robertson rejected offers to sit down for an authorized biography (“I didn’t want someone else trying to find my voice”) and spent five years writing Testimony, off and on. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he admits. But total recall was not a problem. “I have a memory thing—it might be genetic—where I can go back to a scene and remember the dialogue and what people were wearing and whether it was cloudy out. But it takes concentration. And at times it’s hurtful. You’re digging up things you’ve buried in the past because they made you uncomfortable.”
One of those things was discovering as a teen that his father was not his real father. As his parents divorced, his Mohawk mother told Robbie he was the son of a Jewish card shark who was killed in a suspicious hit- and-run accident just after he’d written her a letter proposing marriage. After tracking down his Jewish kin, Robbie found a surrogate father in a diamond-dealing uncle connected to the Mafia, who would wind up in prison. An abiding romance with the underworld enlivens much of Testimony, which unfolds as a cinematic memoir of circumstantial narrative, winding through two decades of bizarre encounters.
Like Forrest Gump, Robertson intersects with one Zeitgeist moment after the other. In Texas, he plays a burnt-out nightclub with no roof, owned by a guy named Jack who later turns out to be Jack Ruby, the man who killed JFK’s assassin. In New York, Rolling Stone Brian Jones introduces him to a young guitarist named Jimmy James who teaches him a tuning trick—the future Jimi Hendrix. Robertson is in Dylan’s London hotel suite when the Beatles pop by to play them a brand new record called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Manhattan, he hangs out with Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, as Dalí teases Warhol for painting soup cans. And he’s there to help when a comatose Keith Moon has to be dragged from a rising tide on a Malibu beach and when a passed-out Dylan has to be lifted into a bathtub. “Addiction was all around me, but we didn’t call it addiction,” Robertson recalls. “We called it having a good time. For a large part of it, we didn’t know the difference.”
Three of Robertson’s Band mates are gone—Richard Manuel from suicide at 43, Rick Danko from heart failure abetted by substance abuse at 55, Levon Helm from cancer at 71. And early in his career, he saw a succession of his peers—Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—fall like dominos, all at the age of 27. “It’s a bit of a mystery why some survived and some didn’t,” he says. “It’s the mystery of addiction. It’s hard to point a finger at somebody when you’re playing the same game. Some people it just takes them down, and other people can skim close to the surface.”
Aside from road stories fuelled by drugs and adrenaline, Robertson’s memoir also offers detailed insight into the music. And he stresses how much of his songwriting with The Band and Dylan was inspired by film and literature. He immersed himself in the New Wave cinema of the 1960s and bought books of screenplays, which influenced his music along with characters and stories from the road. Incredibly, he recalls that Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic Viridiana inspired “The Weight,” which he wrote in one sitting, after the words “Nazareth, Pennsylvania” on the label of his Martin guitar cued the first line. Robertson’s passion for film would lead to The Last Waltz and a lifelong collaboration with Scorsese: after that final concert, he left the road and devoted much of his career to working on music for movies.
Next: The differences between Springsteen and Robertson
Robertson is not the only one who tapped film and literature to create what might be called the North American Songbook. In his hefty memoir, Born to Run, Springsteen hails Dylan as his most powerful inspiration, “the father of my country.” Then he goes on to write that he modelled himself on “the frontiersman, the man in the wilderness, the highwayman, the existential American adventurer…John Wayne in The Searchers, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause…Woody Guthrie, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Flannery O’Connor—individuals who worked on the edges of society to shift impressions, create worlds, imagine possibilities that would then be assimilated and become part of the culture at large.” Springsteen may be most famous as an inexhaustible rock star, sweating his way through marathon concerts, but his one flat-out pop song, “Dancing in the Dark,” written to satisfy his manager’s demand for a hit single, hinges on a cry of literary frustration—I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book.
The difference between the Springsteen and Robertson memoirs is striking. Both men grapple with serious daddy issues, leave home to conquer the world and meet a carnival of gods and monsters. But Springsteen’s book is a Herculean act of confession and therapy that takes place largely in the author’s mind—a saga of self-love and self-hate by rock’s most industrious missionary. It’s also a sobering look at the double-edge sword of superstardom. Robertson plays a less heroic role, onstage and on the page. He grazes over his personal demons but writes more as an observer reporting from the heart of the action. Which is only natural considering he was never a lead singer, and The Band (true to its Canadian character) didn’t promote anyone as a star. Robertson hasn’t read Springsteen’s memoir. “He and I have discussed this process and everything,” he says, “and we promised to trade books. But I haven’t read any of these other books [including Dylan’s Chronicles] because I didn’t want to think I was writing something that someone had already written about.”
Now working on his sixth solo album, Robertson says he has no intention of performing again. But he’s already planning a second volume of his autobiography, picking up where Testimony leaves off. When I ask how the later chapters of his life could possibly be more compelling than his days with Dylan and The Band, he says, “It’s a different ride. In the back of my mind, and I’ve started thrashing through it, and it is much crazier and much more out of control. In every way imaginable.” I ask how that could be, but he declines to offer any spoilers.
Next: Other legends soldier on…
Now that the prime generation of rock star poets are in their 60s and 70s—while feeling nostalgia for the ’60s and ’70s—the question remains: what’s left to be done? They can still fill arenas, but their music has been overtaken by hip hop and pop. As the first and last generation of rock elders, they are entering uncharted territory. Their de facto royal family is the Rolling Stones, whose seniority was an object of derision when they were merely middle-aged. Now that Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie are 73, 73, 69 and 75 respectively, it’s a source of wonder. The Stones are exotically ancient, older than anyone in their line of work. And in a new documentary, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, their heroism takes on a different cast. They’re no longer the bombastic bad boys of rock. Finally, their mortality seems palpable. By the time their tour climaxes in Havana, there’s something deeply poignant in the disconnect between the show’s epic scale and the fragility of these skinny Englishmen who are somehow still standing. They seem as humbled by the phenomenon as we are. And we know it can’t last forever.
Other legends soldier on. Iggy Pop promotes Gimme Danger, a documentary that canonizes him as the godfather of punk. Young keeps on rockin’ in the free world. Springsteen is still trying to prove it all night—in September, he performed the longest U.S. concert of his career, clocking in at four hours and three minutes. As for Leonard Cohen, just weeks before his death, he made a cavalier comment that he’d like to live forever and record more albums. He was never a rock missionary, but his final concerts had a sexy, sacramental power unlike anything else. There has never been a comeback like Cohen’s in the modern history of music. Forced out of seclusion by bankruptcy, he hit the road and found the largest audiences of his career. It was his grand farewell. Congregations of devout fans packed arenas around the world to witness the miracle of an old poet in a suit pouring his art into an exquisite and unforgettable three-hour show. A perfect gentleman, he would do a little dance, then sink to his knees like a Zen reincarnation of James Brown, as he sent that “Hallelujah” song into the heavens.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 issue with the headline, “Poetic Licence”, p. 40-43.