'It lives in me': Robbie Robertson on his Indigenous roots and why he left The Band

Indigenous musician and songwriter Robbie Robertson explains how his past still inspires his music and why he walked away from one of the most celebrated rock bands of all time.

Robertson's 2016 memoir Testimony recently released in paperback

Legendary Canadian musician and songwriter Robbie Robertson said time spent on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve is a perpetual source of inspiration for him. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Celebrated Indigenous musician and songwriter Robbie Robertson says that memories of childhood days spent at the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve still permeate all of his art, and that he walked away from one of the most legendary rock bands of all time because he feared for his bandmates' lives.

"It lives in me," Robertson said Wednesday of his time spent with family on Canada's largest reserve in Ohsweken, Ont.

The erudite guitarist was about eight years old when, on a trip with his mom to see relatives, it struck him that "everybody there could play or sing or dance or do something with music," he told CBC's Metro Morning.

Robertson recalled memories that first sparked his love affair with the guitar.

"To see somebody sitting beside you in a chair and hear their fingers moving on the instrument, and hear them breathing when they were singing, all of that, it gave me chills," he explained. 

Robertson will be given a lifetime achievement award from Six Nations of the Grand River on Oct. 14. It comes on the heels of the release of his Nov. 2016 memoir Testimony — a deep dive into a fascinating and at times painful life — in paperback.

In his book, Robertson praises his fellow musicians in The Band — all of them born and raised in Southern Ontario except Levon Helm, who hailed from Arkansas.

It was a group defined by its signature take on folk rock and the 1978 Martin Scorcese-directed concert film The Last Waltz, considered by some to be the greatest movie ever made in the genre. 

Robbie Robertson memoir, Testimony, takes a look at the musician's career with The Band and his friendships with some of the most notable artists of the past half-century. (Getty Images)

In particular, Robertson paints a favourable portrait of his relationship with drummer and singer Helm, who died of throat cancer in 2012. The two had one of the notorious feuds in an industry chock full of them, one that Helm reportedly carried to his grave.

At the core of their fractured friendship were disputes over writing credits for songs that Robertson has previously said were written almost entirely by him. Helm contested that version of events.

'I was afraid'

Helm's 1993 memoir This Wheel's on Fire portrays Robertson in a deeply unfavourable light and is peppered with underhanded allusions to the guitarist. Robertson said he "wasn't surprised."

"Levon hit some hard some times," Robertson said, apparently referring to Helm's heroin addiction (other band members were similarly addicted to various substances during the 1970s). "He often blamed other people for what was happening, and those other people were all gone and I was still standing."

Despite Helm's animosity, Robertson said "he was the closest thing I had to a brother."

The two parted ways musically after The Last Waltz was filmed. According to Robertson, it was his decision "to walk away" from the group.

"I was afraid, I was really afraid. It got very dark in there and I thought, 'Somebody is going to get hurt. Somebody is going to die," he recalled. 

In the subsequent years, the rock-and-roll lifestyle took its toll on some of the players. Another founding member of The Band, Richard Manuel, took his own life amid struggles with alcohol addiction. Rick Danko, the group's bassist, died of heart failure at 55 after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Aside from Robertson, organist Garth Hudson is The Band's only other surviving member.

Robertson said he has already started penning the second volume of his memoir and is currently filming a documentary.

Listen to the full interview here.