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Q&A: Robbie Robertson on his new memoir, 'The Last Waltz' 40th anniversary

Last Updated Nov 24, 2016 at 11:20 am PDT

Robbie Robertson performs at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 13, 2013. Tapping into the recesses of his memory is almost second nature for Robbie Robertson. Given his touring with Bob Dylan during his folk-electric years and playing guitar in the seminal 1970s rock group the Band, he gets a lot of questions about the past. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File

TORONTO – Tapping into the recesses of his memory is almost second nature for Robbie Robertson.

Given his touring with Bob Dylan during his folk-electric years and playing guitar in the seminal 1970s rock group the Band, he gets a lot of questions about the past.

So Robertson’s new memoir “Testimony” is a cleansing of sorts.

“I’m glad to be able to release that from myself,” Robertson said in a recent interview.

“Once I put it down on paper … it’s no longer mine and I don’t have to carry it around anymore.”

“Testimony” arrives at the same time as the 40th anniversary of the Band’s infamous final concert on Nov. 25, 1976, captured in Martin Scorsese’s landmark film “The Last Waltz.” The show included an incredible roster of guest performers including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton.

Robertson, 73, insists it was entirely coincidental the two dates practically coincided. He talked to The Canadian Press about crafting a story from his past, a new film with Scorsese, and marking the anniversary of “The Last Waltz” on Friday:

CP: Your memoir has a certain narrative style that evokes a great page-turner about life on the road. Were there authors who inspired you?

Robertson: I got caught up in reading classic film scripts and I became addicted to them. I would see a movie and think, “How the hell did they do that?” And then I would get the script and it would take me behind the curtain. I’d never take specific lines, but I was inspired by certain themes. I’ve talked about how Luis Bunuel (director of silent film “Un Chien Andalou”) and his scripts for “Nazarin” and for “Viridiana” influenced me in writing (the Band’s song) “The Weight.”

CP: There’s moments in “Testimony” that feel cinematic. Are you thinking of turning your memoir into a film?

Robertson: I wasn’t consciously saying, “Oh this would be good in the movie.” I don’t care about that now. I couldn’t have written the book without having somewhat of a cinematic structure. It just wouldn’t have worked for me to say, “I was born on this day and the next day this happened.” That didn’t interest me. It had to have the feeling I felt when it was happening to me.

CP: Unlike a lot of musicians you wrote “Testimony” without a ghostwriter. Was that always the plan?

Robertson: I went through two or three biographers that were writing books on me and I didn’t like it. I thought I was cheating. It made me uncomfortable that somebody else was trying to find my voice. So I thought: I’m going to have to do it myself. When I got to that place, I was glad. I really enjoyed writing this book. Not to say that some of it wasn’t really hard and painful, but for the most part, I just got into it.

CP: What was painful?

Robertson: A bunch of things, like when my mother told me, “Your dad, he’s not your real father.” It’s like: “What?” It was so shocking. She’d known this all along, but she said, “I know I probably should’ve told you this before.” And she said, “I’ll tell you (more) later.”

CP: “The Last Waltz” marks its 40th anniversary on Friday. It’s a significant milestone for many music fans, but what does the film mean to you?

Robertson: Forty years is such an extreme number. I’ve kind of played it like it can’t be. I’m in denial. It means I’m much too old.

CP: Will you revisit the film to mark the occasion?

Robertson: The other night Martin Scorsese and I introduced the movie in New York. I spoke about it and reminisced. Marty did the same from a completely different angle. We thought about watching the movie, but we had to go do some work on his new movie, so we didn’t get to see it. I haven’t watched it since I remixed it (when the film was remastered in 2002), and even then I was just watching pieces I was working on.

CP: With the book finished you’ve turned to composing Scorsese’s film “Silence,” due in January. You say he didn’t want a score, so what is it?

Robertson: He was adamantly against having a traditional movie score for it. He said, “Whatever the opposite of that is, it’s much closer to what we need to be thinking about.” That’s why it’s kind of a soundscape, in a way. It’s mysterious like, “Is that music, or is that cicadas in the distance?”

CP: You’ve also started a new studio album. Where does that stand?

Robertson: I’m somewhere in the middle of it. And because of everything else going on I haven’t had a chance to really go there. Some of (what’s) not in the book has bled over into the songs.

CP: Like songs about your past?

Robertson: When I was really a young kid … people would gather around the radio because a certain show was coming on. The one that got me was “The Shadow” and Orson Welles was the voice — his sound and laugh and everything. So one of the songs I’ve written is about the feeling that gave me, and what Lamont Cranston — the Shadow’s real name — had to undertake. I’m pretty sure it’s a cool track, but I’ll have to get to where … I’m not doing a little of this and a little of that, scattered all over the place.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Martin Scorsese’s name.