Photography Bryan Adams

In his new book Testimony out this week, rocker Robbie Robertson tells all about The Band and Bob Dylan. Here, we look back to Marni Jackson's chat with then Zoomer cover star and music legend.

 

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*Originally published online June 23, 2011

Fifty years after his rock 'n' roll debut, the Canadian music legend Robbie Robertson looks to the future

It's nice to be back in the 'hood," Robbie Robertson  says, nodding in the direction of Yonge Street, two blocks away. He's not talking about the Future Shop, though; he means the neon strip back in 1960, where clubs with live music, like Le Coq d'Or, catered to fun-loving minor criminals. Robbie was just 16, fresh off the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont. Ronnie Hawkins, the cackling mayor of midnight on the strip, saw the kid had "po-tential" and hired Robertson to play guitar with The Hawks.

That was before Dylan whisked the boys off on a world tour, The Hawks morphed into The Band and they recorded Music From Big Pink, an album that left an indelible mark on rock and roll. Funny that the unmistakable keening sound behind "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," two songs written by Robertson that seem to conjure the old American South, was something incubated in the North.

Fifty years down the road, still wavy-haired but a little fleshier, Robertson crosses the thick white broadloom of his hotel suite to greet me. Le Coq d'Or, this ain't. Then, I think, I'm about to shake the working hand of one of the 100 best guitar players of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine. So I go easy. I don't exert much pressure. But his hand is muscular, the manual equivalent of a six-pack. I can see the yellow lining of a guitar case open on the bed in the next room. "Yeah, I had to do a little playing today. Gotta stay in shape."

At 67, Robertson is forthcoming and friendly, with an energy that's just a notch down from boyish. What's more surprising is that despite having gone to some of the stranger, grittier corners of the universe in his career ("I pulled into Nazareth/was feelin' 'bout half-past dead -"), his sense of wonder still seems intact. When he talks about the Damon Runyon-side of his early days with The Hawks, hanging out with card sharks and con artists, he sounds amazed that he was one of the guys in the room. It's like he woke up one morning and found himself in an Elmore Leonard novel.

Filmmaker Bruce MacDonald uses Robertson as a reliable storyteller in his recently aired and hugely entertaining TV documentary, Yonge Street: Toronto Rock and Roll Stories.  In it, Robertson tells the story of the mohair suits that Hawkins ordered for the boys in the band from local tailor Lou Myles. They were specially cut to accommodate the bulge of guns and blackjacks, which were "just part of the survival equipment back then," said Robertson. The clubs were boozy and full of brawlers.

He hadn't seen the documentary yet but he was happy to elaborate. "Oh yeah, those suit jackets had an inside pocket with a slit beside it, just the right size for a blackjack. There was a little strap that you would leave hanging out so when you had to, you could pull it out quickly," he said making a whacking gesture, "and bingo! Ronnie told us, you see this spot on the collarbone," he continued, tapping a finger on his neck, "well, if you hit somebody really hard on that collarbone, it doesn't matter if he's Rocky Marciano, he's going down." Robertson gives a semi-apologetic chuckle. "This was all part of our education back then. Hawkins also had a pair of brass knuckles, but my thinking was, isn't there somebody else who can handle this part? I just didn't want to break up my hands."

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