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
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