6 great stories from Testimony, Robbie Robertson’s new memoir

Robbie Robertson swore off touring decades ago, but that doesn’t mean the former guitarist for the Band doesn’t have an immense collection of stories from the road.

Starting out as a full-time musician when he was only a teenager, the Canadian performer spent most of his early years playing shows.

Robbie Robertson's memoir

Robbie Robertson’s memoir Testimony tracks his early musical career, from the time he was recruited as a fresh-faced bassist for Ronnie Hawkins to his life as guitarist in The Band. (Knopf Canada)

Many of those memories are put to page in Testimony, Robertson’s self-penned memoir that opens around the time he was recruited as the fresh-faced bassist for Ronnie Hawkins’s band the Hawks.

The book moves onto Robertson’s experiences with Bob Dylan and finishes off with the Band’s iconic final show on Nov. 25, 1976, which was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s concert documentary The Last Waltz.

Testimony arrives on the 40th anniversary of that unforgettable concert, a show with an incredible roster of guest performers, including Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton.

The Band

Immortalized in The Last Waltz, the final concert by The Band featured an incredible roster of guest performers, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. (Courtesy Of MGM Media Licensing/© 1978 The Last Waltz Productions, Inc., All Rights Reserved.)

While there’s plenty of serious anecdotes to go around, Robertson peppers his book with an array of wild rock ‘n’ roll moments.

Here are six amusing incidents recalled in Testimony:

  • Makeouts or movies: Double dates at the drive-in with bandmate Levon Helms were a regular part of Robertson’s late teenage years, mostly because it was the perfect kissing spot with local girls. But one night his priorities changed when he saw what was playing. “The movie was John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath​, so powerful, so beautiful, that it tore your heart out,” Robertson wrote. “Making out in the backseat couldn’t compete with Henry Fonda’s acting and John Steinbeck’s epic story.”
  • The one-armed dancer: Robertson played countless sketchy bars over the years. One was the Skyline Lounge, owned by Jack Ruby, the man who later shot Lee Harvey Oswald. But it was the bar’s one-armed go-go dancer who Robertson remembers best. “She spun over to one table, sprintly swinging her lone arm in the direction of the people seated there … then bam! She hit the floor and did the splits. I nearly peed myself.”
  • Robbie’s robbery: When Robertson was reluctantly dragged into a plan to steal from a group of high-stakes poker players, it was his Canadian accent that worried his friends leading to the stick-up. One of them suggested that if the Toronto-raised musician demanded money it might unintentionally reveal his identity — “We just don’t want Robbie saying ‘about’ or ‘out’ or ‘house’ in Canadiana,” the man affirmed. Luckily, the heist fell apart at the last minute.
  • Dylan’s initiation: On his first gig with Bob Dylan he was told by the lyrical poet, “Don’t stop playing, no matter what.” Robertson didn’t understand exactly what this meant at first, but it became apparent in short turn. “As soon as we hit the stage and plugged in the audience unleashed its fury,” he says. “People charged toward us, like they were staging a massive coup in an imaginary war.” The outbursts from Dylan’s ardent folk fans, who only liked his acoustic sets, became part of music history.
  • Hollywood life: Upon moving to Malibu in the mid-1970s, Robertson encountered plenty of Hollywood types who were deep into the wild lifestyle. He remembers running into Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper on several occasions while he was visiting two women who lived in “a funky bungalow on an overgrown lot.” Robertson writes: “Whenever I ran into him, he looked happy to be there and a bit stoned, with a mischievous smirk on his face like Dennis the Menace on a motorcycle.”
  • Meeting Marlon Brando: After swinging by a movie set Robertson befriended a group who knew Brando. A few nights later, a party conversation shifted to a hypothetical scenario of who’d survive the longest stranded on an island. One boasted of their fishing skills while Robertson countered with his ability to start a fire with sticks. Brando confidently proclaimed he would be the last man standing. Then he made his case: “I’m the only one here who wouldn’t feel bad about eating the rest of you.”

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