"I just couldn't carry around all of these stories anymore," says Robbie Robertson, explaining his decision to write a memoir. "There were too many and they got too heavy." His book, Testimony, is a generous and lyrical look back at his life until 1976: His Native Canadian and Jewish roots, his role as lead guitarist on the raucous 1966 tour when Bob Dylan "went electric," and his time in The Band.
Robertson has the same knack for cinematic storytelling that he displays in his songs, and he's not afraid to dish (on liaisons with Carly Simon and Edie Sedgwick, among other things). Refreshingly, though, he has no axes to grind -- even against Levon Helm, who denounced Robertson in his book. Testimony reads like one long, grand adventure through rock's golden age, as told by a world-class raconteur.
The book arrives on the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz -- the Thanksgiving 1976 concert that featured guests like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison -- as does a box set of the 1978 Martin Scorsese concert film and its soundtrack
The Last Waltz marked Robertson's retirement from touring, but not from music: Since then he's worked on most of Scorsese's soundtracks, made several critically acclaimed solo albums, and worked as a creative executive at DreamWorks Records.
Right now, he says, "I'm about 60 percent into a new album. I'm not sure what it's like except that I sense there's something very modern and very ancient about it at the same time." He's also working on a new Scorsese soundtrack, two TV series, and -- starting in January -- another memoir that covers the next period of his extraordinary life.
What made you decide to write a book, and why now?
I wrote the book because I had to write it. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done -- it takes a lot of time and an incredible amount of concentration. But I loved it, and after the first of the year I'm going to write volume two. There have been a lot of books about this period -- about me, about the Band, about Bob Dylan -- and I'm enjoying setting the record straight, and being able to do so in a lyrical way.
You tell a lot of stories about famous people and they all come off well. For example, you mention how happy Neil Young was during The Last Waltz concert but you don't mention that legendary story - true or not - about how there was apparently a lump of cocaine visible under his nose in one shot that had to be edited out of the film.
He was very happy! That was the truth! And whether it was because of 'medicine,' or his spirit, or he just got laid, that wasn't for me to question. It wasn't until we saw the film that we realized, and it was all around - I didn't think anything of it.
It's also striking how detailed some of the scenes are. You must have a great memory.
One of the things that I wrote about is that my birth father's mother was renowned for her memory -- she was a bootlegger so she couldn't write down any addresses or phone numbers. My birth father went on to become a gambler and won because he was a card counter. His family convinced me that I had that memory, so I think some of it is genetic. I'm trying to put that to good use.
This is the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz and there are all kinds of tribute concerts. Does that surprise you?
There's one in New Zealand, there's one in Sweden or Norway - it's a lovely thing. We were in the moment - we were playing songs we had hardly played before with people from Joni Mitchell to Muddy Waters - and all we could think about was trying to rise to the occasion. We didn't know if any of it was going to work. We didn't have a lot of money, so Boris Levin, the production designer, went to the opera, got the set from La Traviata and told me we're going to hang chandeliers over the stage. I said, 'Wait a minute - we're not really chandelier people' and he said, 'These are the chandeliers from the set of Gone With the Wind.' I said, 'Where do you want to hang them?'
Nobody has done anything like this. There have been other good music films, like the Talking Heads one [Stop Making Sense], but even that was a long time ago. I'm not sure anyone has ever said "we're going to lay that Last Waltz thing to rest and up the ante." So The Last Waltz is kind of the Gone With the Wind of music films.
Besides your new album, what else are you working on now?
I'm finishing sending music to Martin Scorsese for Silence [his historical drama about Portuguese missionaries in seventeenth century Japan]. It's more of a soundscape: I have Portuguese hymns, written in the 1600s, played backward, with Japanese Taiko drums ripping them apart.
Are you ever planning to perform live again? In a business known for fake retirements, you said you wouldn't go back on the road after The Last Waltz and you've basically stuck to that.
That was a statement I was making, so I didn't want to say 'just kidding.' We [in the Band] had played the lowest places you could possibly play and we had played some of the biggest events in music history and it got to the point where I didn't know what else I could do besides do it as a business. I felt like I was in the same play every night, and I wanted to experiment. There are two TV series I'm working on right now - I'm a producer and a writer - and I'm involved in an artwork project. I'm not interested in 'Oldchella' - it's great that those guys can get paid wonderful amounts of money and celebrate the great music they made but my interests lie in different places.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.