Q&A: The Band's Robbie Robertson talks The Last Waltz 40 years later

The group's lead guitarist and primary songwriter, Robbie Robertson, recently published his memoir entitled Testimony, in which he charts The Band's history.

'We were trying to do something so honourable in the name of the music that had brought us to that point'

Robbie Robertson, left, stopped by CBC Vancouver to talk about life with The Band and his new memoir, Testimony. He is pictured here with CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos. (Vanessa Heins)

It's been more than 40 years since The Band called it a career with a final concert for the ages. 

In Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz, The Band performed their own beloved songs and sang with many of the most recognizable acts in music history — performers like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Muddy Waters.

The group's lead guitarist and primary songwriter, Robbie Robertson, recently published his memoir, Testimony, in which he charts The Band's history from the beginning when they were known as The Hawks.

In town to speak at the Vancouver Writers' Festival, Roberston stopped by our CBC studios to chat with On the Coast host Stephen Quinn about the book, The Band, and their storied career.

Quinn: How vivid is your recollection of that final concert?  

Robertson: It's quite vivid and in the process of writing this book, I sharpened that blade. I had to go deep on this and I had to remember stuff that I had swept under the rug a long time ago, and I had to pull it back out.

I found that I could write this book not from this point of view [today], but from then, when I was at that age.

Being able to go there and tell it in this kind of way, it was so much more exciting to me because I could see it through those innocent eyes.

The Last Waltz has been regarded by many as the best rock and roll movie of all time. How did it feel to walk away from The Band with that as a sort of historical document?

It feels good because the way that it came about was with tremendous modesty.

We were trying to do something so honourable in the name of the music that had brought us to that point, and then once we had an idea of who we wanted to involve in this celebration, Bill Graham, who was producing the concert in San Francisco, said, "you have to document this properly."

So I had the audacity to ask Martin Scorsese to direct it. And at first he said, "oh my god, I'm in the middle of shooting a movie, you can't go and make another movie while you're in the middle of making a movie, they don't allow that."

We're talking about the people who were involved in it and finally he stood up, and he threw his arms in the air, and he said, "I don't care. They can sue me, they can kill me, they can fire me, I have to do this." Then he said, "But don't tell anybody."

The Band performs during its farewell concert The Last Waltz at the Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco in 1976. From left are Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. (John Storey/Associated Press)

Tell me about the decision to put people like Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan front and centre in that final performance.

Well it turned out that some of these artists represented a spoke in the wheel that made up the music that we were a part of, that we loved. So we said 'okay, for New Orleans, we've got to have Doctor John come in for this. For the British Blues, we've got to have Eric Clapton, no doubt about that. And are we going to do this without the Canadians? I don't think so. We've got to get Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to join us or it's not worth having this party.'

And so the extraordinary thing on top of this, it's easy to take for granted, but The Band backed everybody on this, and there wasn't a bad note the whole night. That's Guiness Book of Records stuff, I'm telling you, as a musician, because we don't read music, we had no cheat sheets, we had nothing, except memory and focus.

When you look back, does that seem like the culmination of everything in your career? It's continued since but was that the defining moment?

It was like a really respectful thing to do in music, and to have our fearless leaders there with us, Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, it felt like we had gone full circle.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: 40 years after The Last Waltz, The Band's songwriter reflects on storied career