The Next Chapter

Robbie Robertson on his storytelling roots

The Canadian music icon on his memoir Testimony, about his personal and musical journey through the 1960s and '70s.
In his memoir Testimony, Robertson takes readers on a musical and personal journey from his Canadian First Nations roots to his time with The Band. (Sante D'Orazio)

Robbie Robertson's memoir Testimony begins with a 16-year-old Robbie by himself on a train bound for Arkansas from Toronto, with the dream to successfully audition for a band called Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. He nails the audition, and from there it's a flat-out wild ride that takes him from playing rockabilly to going electric with Bob Dylan and then flying high as a member of The Band. The memoir is a musical journey through the 1960s and 1970s.

Robertson spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Victoria, B.C.

On his remarkable memory

When I was a young kid, I could remember everybody's name, where they lived, all kinds of details. And they remembered nothing. I thought they were cool — they didn't have to remember anything, and I was some kind of dweeb who remembered everything. It wasn't until later that I was informed that this could be a gift, and that genetically I'm supposed to have an extraordinary memory on my blood father's side and on my mother's side as well. I couldn't have put it to a better use than writing this book.

On the moment he realized he wanted to be a storyteller

When I was about nine years old, my relatives took me to a longhouse on the Six Nations Reserve. They said, "An elder is coming, and he is going to tell a story." And I thought that sounded really boring — I'm nine years old, I don't need stories anymore! So this elder came, and there was just something about him. The way he looked, the sound of his voice. In the beginning he spoke in Native tongue, and he had this stick that he was carrying and he banged it on the floor to say we were going to begin. He told the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, which is a very important story in the Haudenosaunee nation — that's the Iroquois nation. When he told this story, chills ran right through me, it was so beautiful and powerful. After he told the story, I looked at my mother and said, "When I grow up, I want to be able to tell stories like that." And she said, "Oh, I think you will."

On helping Bob Dylan go electric

When I hooked up with Bob Dylan, there were a lot of people recording Bob Dylan songs. You could see that in his folk music period, he already was a folk music hero. And that was part of the problem, because he turned his back — they said — on that to play rock and roll. But I thought, let him do whatever he wants to do! As long as it's good, what do you care? But people looked at it almost like a religious experience, and they just didn't want to lose him to what they considered popular music.

Robbie Robertson's comments have been edited and condensed.