Toronto-born Robbie Robertson was introduced to oral history at a young age, on Ontario's Six Nations Reserve. At the age of nine, he told his mother, who was Mohawk and Cayuga, that he wanted to be a storyteller when he grew up. And that happened – whether as a chief songwriter of the Band with story songs The Weight, Acadian Driftwood and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, or now, with the release of his lucid, anecdote-stuffed memoir, Testimony. The Globe and Mail spoke with Robertson from Los Angeles.
You tell a lot of stories, about the Band, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. But I'm interested in the chapters about you pawning your guitar to go to Arkansas, and your relationship with your Jewish underworld uncle in Toronto. What was your mindset at that age?
I'm guilty of serious curiosity. I was fascinated by my uncle. He was a fascinating person and extremely smart in many ways. He had a great memory, and he was a gatherer. It made me think that I wanted to be a gatherer, too. I wanted experiences, and there were instances where I nearly crossed over the line.
Like when you and Levon Helm planned a poker game heist?
Right. That was loyalty – blind loyalty. Levon wanted to pull a robbery and I was going to go along with it. Or with my uncle, when a guy in an elevator had an ice pick under my chin. When you're young, you don't understand fear as much as you need to. But I just wanted to experience life. I wanted to get it all over me. People, particularly Canadians, would tell me that I couldn't do this or I couldn't do that. I'm like, "You people don't know how to dream. You're missing something, and I can't help it."
About the legendary musicians you crossed paths with, it struck me that you seemed more in awe when meeting someone like Sonny Boy Williamson II than the Beatles and Dylan.
With all those guys with Chess Records, whether it was Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or Sonny Boy Williamson or Little Walter or Willie Dixon, I was like, "Whoa!" They were so inspirational. With Bob Dylan or John Lennon, they were just a couple years older than me. I looked up to them, and they were stirring things up. But those other guys had been around awhile.
You weren't a fan of early Beatles albums, is that fair to say?
I wasn't interested in the cute stuff. When they became more experimental and used the studio as an instrument, that's when I took interest. At that point they were turning the whole pop thing inside out. When the Beatles played Revolver for us, I thought, "Uh huh, here we go. This isn't 'I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah.'"
And what about Dylan? I was surprised to read that until you and the Hawks began touring as his backing band, you weren't all that familiar with his music.
I didn't know that much about folk music. In the Yorkville scene in Toronto people were playing in coffee houses. They were sipping cappuccinos. There was nobody sipping cappuccinos where we played, you know? It was down and dirty. And the places we played in the Mississippi Delta down there. It was hard and heavy, just like it was when we played up north, in places like Timmins, Ont., when we left Ronnie Hawkins.
Was this book a response in any way to Levon's book on the Band, This Wheel's on Fire?
No. No. I'm sure Levon told great stories about many things. People told me there was some negativity in there, so I never … read it.
Negativity toward you, right?
Yeah. But about whatever. When it came out, Levon had negativity about the book itself. He didn't write it. Someone else did. I wrote this book longhand, every word.
Did it hurt you, hearing the negativity from Levon about you?
I loved Levon. He was the closest thing I ever had to a brother. We don't know where it came from, but over the years there was this demon in him and it was building this anger and this bitterness. We all loved him, but he would go off on these tangents, blaming people and complaining about stuff. I tried to relieve him of that. But it escalated over the years.
The escalation, you're talking about after the Band broke up?
Yes. While we were together, he never said one bad thing to me . The only problem we ever had was when his heroin addiction was getting out of control. That drug will make you tell lies. He had never lied to me before that. That hurt me. But as for this negativity towards me, that happened 10 years after the Band wasn't together any more. So I never addressed that. I never felt bad about it. I felt bad for him – that something was eating him up.
The music the Band made , beginning with Music from Big Pink in 1968. Can you talk about the reception , from your peers ?
We knew we were musicians' musicians. We knew we were speaking to a lot of people who played music. We had been gathering, on the road. We were together for seven years before we made Music from Big Pink. We had paid our dues. When the record came out, we were kind of surprised. People were like: "Where the hell did this come from?" It came from experience, honing your skills and trying to find subtleties as well as the obvious.
What about when Dylan, Eric Clapton and George Harrison are blown away by it?
Those guys were the ones vocal about it. But there were tons of other musicians. They knew we were speaking a certain language. And if you got it, if you had been around the block, you would see it was touching a certain place in the soul.
Robbie Robertson speaks with George Stroumboulopoulos on Nov. 21 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (tiff.net).