Robbie Robertson pens book about music icons


TORONTO – The Band’s legendary guitarist Robbie Robertson has co-authored a new book geared toward introducing young people to the most influential artists of yore, but there’s at least one weighty omission from the glossy tome: the Band.

His collaborator Jim Guerinot said Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World originally included an entry for the mostly Canadian Americana innovators — whose master musicianship and classification-defying signature stew of country, blues, R&B and rock set an inimitable example for bands who followed — but Robertson vetoed his own inclusion over his partner’s objections.

“I made them take it out of the book,” Robertson said during an interview this week in Toronto, his co-writer by his side. “I just didn’t want to be a distraction. I didn’t want to be blowing my own horn in this thing. I didn’t feel comfortable with that.

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“I understood perfectly that the Band was one of the biggest examples of combining music into a whole new flavour … we did that more than anybody else. And I said, ‘No, I just don’t feel comfortable with this.’ Because it just felt like: ‘Hey, here’s the greatest recording artists of all time, the music that changed the world, and I made sure I was in there.’

“I just didn’t want that weighing over me.”

It wasn’t the only heated argument over which artists were to be included in the gorgeously illustrated book, which hits stores this week.

The book includes profiles of 27 of the most influential artists of all time, including Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, Bob Marley, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell (the sole Canadian artist to merit inclusion), with pithy but fascinating personal anecdotes about each artist from Robertson sketched in the margins.

Among the snubs singled out as particularly painful by the authors themselves? The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Roy Orbison, Simon and Garfunkel and David Bowie.

Well, they hope to someday issue a Part Two. The book includes two hit-stuffed CDs with tracks from every featured artist (when it’s pointed out that securing the rights to all the songs must have been a headache, Robertson and his co-conspirator simply nod their heads wearily in agreement).

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It’s intended as both an introductory tool for children and young adults unfamiliar with the bedrock-building legends of music’s past as well as an educational tool for adults who might even fancy themselves experts on the artists covered.

Just putting the book together yielded good stories. A few months ago, Guerinot and Robertson travelled to St. Louis to visit with Chuck Berry, the father of rock and roll. Robertson says that he and Berry — by legend an occasionally frosty sort, particularly toward the rock musicians who profited off the sound he invented — have a “great relationship,” even as he acknowledges: “I’ve had my situations with Chuck Berry.”

During their visit, Robertson and Guerinot tried to jog Berry’s memory of a certain performer by showing the legendary rocker an iPhone photo.

“And he said, ‘Can my phone do that?'” Guerinot recalled. “All of a sudden, I’m sitting next to Chuck giving him an iPhone tutorial. I was just like, ‘This is the greatest thing in life.'”

Added Robertson of the 86-year-old “Johnny B. Goode” howler: “I think the world of Chuck Berry. … And he still gets up and performs. He can’t hear, but he still sings those songs.”

Given Robertson’s obviously extensive inventory of untold rock and roll yarns, Legends, Icons & Rebels offers a tantalizing glimpse of what a true memoir from the rocker might look like.

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Good news, then. Robertson has been penning an autobiography for years, and — his eyes lighting up at the mention of it — is sufficiently enthusiastic about the work that he makes no effort to manage expectations.

“It’s pretty extraordinary because the more I’m writing it, the more I’m realizing that I’ve got a few stories to tell,” Robertson says effusively but wouldn’t guess at a release date for the project. “It’s really working out great. One of the editors that I’m working with, I was with last night, and she just read the first seven chapters of it and it blew her mind.

“So that’s exciting for me to think, well, I’m … trying to do something really special with that, and she says it’s unlike anything else she’s ever read. And she’s read some of these music memoirs and everything, and she says it is miles away from anything anyone else has done. And I haven’t read them — on purpose I haven’t read them.

“So that’s gratifying to hear.”

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