Stared out that train window
into the darkness,
till I near went stone blind.
I patted out a rhythm on my knee and smiled to myself. Sounded like a song from the very place I was headed.
I was spellbound, gazing out the train window at silhouettes of passing towns, a blur of nocturnal landscapes streaming by. Only the lights were changing. Small-town shadows stirring quietly, city neon coloring the night sky, one scene blending into another. I’d been awake for many hours, but I was too wound up to sleep, too nervous. No, too buzzed! Me and that train were headed to the holy land of rock ’n’ roll, to the fountainhead, where the music I loved grew right out of the ground. This was a southbound train.
Spring, 1960, sixteen years old. I was traveling from Toronto, Ontario, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, toward my chance to try out for a job playing with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, the most wicked rock ’n’ roll band around. Ronnie was a big rockabilly recording artist, an amazing showman with a fresh, Frankie Laine–type voice. The Hawks were a powerhouse band with perfect casting: they looked as authentic as they sounded—sideburns, slicked-back hair, Memphis cool, one part country gentlemen, three parts southern wild men.
I kept staring out that passenger-car window in wonderment. I’d never been this far from home before. Every time the train whistle blew, a chill ran through me. I tried to close my eyes but couldn’t sleep. This was all too new, too unimaginable, too dreamlike, because, it occurred to me, people from my background didn’t hardly know how to dream.
I remember the exact day it all turned around for me. I had just stepped out the side door of St. Theresa’s Catholic grade school when it hit me: a vicious combination of driving wind, burning ice needles to the face, and blinding snow. You couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you.
The public school lay between my school and my house, and it was plainly understood that you took your life in your hands with the kids who went there if you cut through that school yard. But in this storm I had to risk it. The sleet was pushing me to the ground every few steps. So I set myself on a direct line for enemy territory, hoping none of those tough older kids could possibly be out in this blizzard; I thought, Even Eskimos don’t go out in this.
But then I spotted a figure in the distance. I was already halfway across the school yard, no turning around now. As I got closer, I saw that the guy was big, and he was coming toward me. My heart was pounding from wading through the snow and being pushed back by the wind, and now from fear. He stumbled toward me, shielding his face with his scarf, like a mask. Oh man, what does he want? But when I reached him he merely stuck out his hand, holding a paper flyer, and gestured for me to take it. I blinked. Then I took the paper, stuffed it in my pocket, and kept moving.
By the time I reached the side door of my house I looked like a zombie who had just crossed the Arctic Circle. My mother was there to greet me, saying, “Goodness, get in here, you must be frozen!” While hanging up my coat, she pulled the flyer out of my pocket and read it aloud. “ ‘Music Lessons: Accordion, Violin, Spanish and Hawaiian guitar.’ Oh, are you interested in taking lessons?”
I shook the snow from my hair. “Sure, anything if it means I never have to walk through a blizzard like this again.” I was already drawn to music and now wondered if maybe it could help me find a way out of this frozen hellscape. “But not accordion,” I added. “Lawrence Welk and all . . .”
She laughed—“Okay, big dreamer”—and handed me a hot chocolate.
This was a turning point. I just didn’t know it yet.
As the train idled at the Buffalo border crossing from Canada into the States, an immigration officer walking through the carriage asked me where I was going. It was a tricky moment: if I mentioned anything about a job, he’d turn me back. I was trembling inside, but with a straight face I told him I was going to visit my brother and his family in Arkansas. He glanced at my birth certificate, then looked me dead in the eye. I just about swallowed my gum. After a pause he said, “Have a good trip,” and walked on.
As the train pulled away from the station and we crossed into the U.S., a wave of sadness came over me as I remembered what I’d had to do to get the money to make my way south. Ronnie was looking to replace the guitarist or the bassist in his band, and he had told me, “Come on down here and we’ll see if it works out.” This was my chance to convince him I was his man, so I thought it best not to ask him for any train money; nor did I want to bother my mother, who’d given me a rough time about quitting school.
In the end there was only one thing to do: I had to sell my prized 1958 Fender Stratocaster with the original classic sunburst body. She was a real beauty. I’d worked so hard to get her, saving up for months. But now I had to do whatever it took to get to Arkansas. I was on a mission but leaving that beloved Strat behind cut deep.
The first time I saw Ronnie and the Hawks perform, it was a revelation. I was only fifteen and Ronnie was playing the Dixie Arena in the west end of Toronto; the band I was in, the Suedes, was opening. We’d been playing around Toronto for a few months, and opening for Ronnie Hawkins was the biggest thing we’d ever done. After that night, I would look at music in a whole different light.
We had a strong lineup of players in our own group. Our drummer then was Pete “the Bear” De Remigis. He had a unique rolling-and-tumbling feel to his playing and hummed along unconsciously while he played, like a human kazoo. Pete Traynor, or “Thumper,” played bass. I’d known him since I was thirteen, when we played together in the Rhythm Chords, the first band I ever hooked up with. We called him Thumper because of the way he manhandled the instrument. Pete would play and stare at you steadily, hardly ever looking at his hands. It made for a strange and powerful musical connection. Sometimes it got so intense I had to look away.
Scott “Magoo” Cushnie, our piano man, was twenty-one, and he had more musical training than the rest of us, as well as a sharp sense of humor and a fascinating inventory of slang words that he never shied from busting out. Some of them he invented and some could be attributed to his devotion to the popular, off-the-wall Bob and Ray radio show. I played lead guitar and sometimes sang, but for the Dixie Arena gig we had Johnny Rhythm on vocals. Johnny was part street hustler, part show-bar rock ’n’ roll impersonator, but the guy could sing like a bird. That night we played pretty good, and from the stage we could see Ronnie and his boys checking us out, which made us all reach a little higher.
But when the Hawk took the stage the whole atmosphere changed. The audience, which had been lingering around chatting, now crowded the front of the stage. Suddenly you could taste something raw and authentic in the air. The band was all dressed in black and red outfits. When they exploded into their first song, “Wild Little Willie,” the Hawk prowled the stage like a caged animal. He soared over Will “Pop” Jones’s piano, growling a primitive war cry and miming a cranking motion behind Will’s back like an organ-grinder winding up his monkey. Will was oblivious—he was living inside the music, chewing gum to the rhythm, sweat flying, eyes crossed, head thrown back, hands pumping those ivories. Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman’s Gretsch “Country Gentleman” guitar with its flat-wound strings poured on the rhythm. When Luke fired into a solo the Hawk had a chance to spin, flip, camel walk—the original version of the moonwalk—then tumble and land at Luke’s feet. Toward the end of the solo, Ronnie would come back in singing like he was driving a mule train, and when he did the Hawks would settle into a slippery, swift locomotion behind his vocal.
Lefty Evans on bass was the only thing that kept the band grounded, or they might have become airborne and floated away. It was the most violent, dynamic, primitive rock ’n’ roll I had ever witnessed, and it was addictive.
In the center of it all was a young beam of light on drums. Teeth gleaming, laughing, bleached hair glowing, whole body shaking, drumsticks twirling, pushing those red sparkle drums with a hawk painted on the bass drum like a white tornado. It was the first time I saw Levon Helm, and I’d never seen anything like it.
After the show I hung out while the Hawks packed up their guitars and drums, leaning in just to hear those southern accents, so rare up in Canada. I desperately wanted some of this mojo to rub off on me. They were playing at the club Le Coq d’Or in Toronto for a couple more weeks, and I hung around them as much as I could without getting in the way, trying to make myself useful. Their road manager, Colin “Boney” McQueen, let me help out, doing stuff he didn’t want to do, but I didn’t care: this was biblical and I was fast becoming an apostle of the church of rockabilly.
One afternoon at the Warwick Hotel, where musicians, strippers, and small-time con men stayed in downtown Toronto, I overheard Ronnie say, “Boys, I need some new songs. We’re going in the studio next month.”
A bell went off in my head. I had written some tunes for the little bands I’d been in, but this could be a breakthrough. I ran home, grabbed my guitar, went to my room, and stayed up all night trying to write something that Ronnie could wrap his voice around—hopefully something reminiscent of Gene Vincent’s “Woman Love.”
By morning I had finished two songs. That day, I taught them to Johnny Rhythm, who could sing them in a style similar to Ron’s, and soon we were playing them for the Hawk himself. He listened to both songs with a little smirk on his face, but when we finished he stood up and said, “Play those again.” Damned if they didn’t sound better the second time around. Ron pointed a finger at me and declared, “I’m going to record both of them songs.”
I tried not to get too excited in front of him, but inside I was overflowing. “Not bad for a fifteen-year-old, right?” I mumbled out of nervous joy. Ron just pointed his finger again and said, “I’ll be keeping an eye on you, boy. You might have some talent.” When it came to finding good material this incredibly funny showman became stone serious, and it was fascinating to see him turn on a dime.
When Ronnie returned to Toronto a few months later, he brought his new album, Mr. Dynamo, and presented me with a sealed copy. “Both your songs are on here, turned out pretty good.” I tore open the LP and looked at the record label, thrilled to see their titles there—“Someone Like You” and “Hey Boba Lu.” But when I looked for my name, I saw that the songwriting credit read, “Robertson, Magil.” Who was this “Magil” guy? What was this all about?
Ronnie laid it out for me: “Magil” was an alias used by a man named Morris Levy: the power behind Roulette Records, nightclub owner, business partner to the legendary rock ’n’ roll disc jockey Alan Freed, and mobster known for having a recording artist hung by the ankles out the window of his office building. “See that Cadillac convertible parked down there?” he’d say. “I can let go and drop you down into that car . . . or you can walk down there with the keys and drive away. All you have to do is sign the papers.” When you recorded for Roulette, Morris Levy usually got a piece of the songwriting. “Magil” was his credit.
I started to protest but Ron said, “Son, in this business there are certain things you don’t even question. There are some ol’ boys in New York City you don’t want to mess with.” I had heard such stories of the ruthless rock ’n’ roll music business floating around, but I still couldn’t help feeling like “The Fool” from the Sanford Clark song for not standing my ground.
A few days later, Ronnie came to me with an idea, one that would take me to New York City. If I could write songs for him, he said, maybe I also had an ear for other songs that would be good for him to record. Like many artists at that time, he didn’t write much of his own music and was in constant search of new material. So with Levon doing most of the driving—daytime, nighttime, it didn’t matter to Levon—we set off to New York. A friend of Ron’s, Dallas Harms, who had written a couple of popular songs, came along. I felt as if I were part of an official song-search mission.
Crossing the bridge into Manhattan gave me chill bumps. I had never seen so many lights, so many movie theaters, so much neon, so many ladies of the night. I couldn’t take it all in quick enough. We stayed at the Times Square Hotel on 42nd Street, and the next day Ronnie, with me in tow, hailed a cab. “Is Levon coming?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s not his thing,” Ronnie said. “He’ll play it better than anybody, but he ain’t a song person, or he wouldn’t still be singing ‘Short Fat Fanny’ every night.” Ron chuckled and slapped my knee as the taxi pulled away. “Son, that’s what I brought you for. We gotta find me some good material.”
We headed for the Brill Building. With its high entranceway and gold doors, 1619 Broadway was like a temple for tunesmiths. It was the Tin Pan Alley of its day, just north of Times Square, the eleven-story heart of the music industry, a warren of small and large production offices humming with songwriters, musicians, music publishers, and producers. Inside, a guy from the record company took us around to the different music rooms making introductions: Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Otis Blackwell, and, oh yes, the outrageous singer-songwriter Titus Turner, who had just had his own hit on the King label with “Return of Stagolee.” They were all tickled by Ron’s stories and cutups. “Boys, I’ll tell ya,” he crowed, “there ain’t no difference between me and Elvis Presley except maybe looks and talent!”
Copyright © 2016 by Robbie Robertson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.