“I was doing what needed to be done on behalf of the guys, but I didn’t want to be called the leader any more than Richard wanted to be referred to as the lead singer. Ours was an equal playing field, with each person holding up his end and doing what he could for the sake of the group.”
-Robbie Robertson (from Testimony)
Up on Cripple Creek. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Life is a Carnival. The Weight. The Shape I’m In. Just some of the classic songs that propelled by The Band, a late 60’s to mid-70’s group comprised of one American (Levon Helm), and four Canadians (Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and their primary songwriter Robbie Robertson) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The story of how they came to be and their life and times is now chronicled by the aforementioned Mr. Robertson in his new memoir Testimony.
Testimony begins with Robertson’s fateful train ride from Ontario to Arkansas to join Ronnie Hawkins’ band (brilliantly called “The Hawks”) as a sixteen-year-old and follows the slow assembly of the quintet that ultimately evolved into The Band (yet another imaginative name…but hey, it worked so maybe I should just shut up now), through to their final concert that became the subject of the Scorsese film The Last Waltz, in amazing detail (which is not surprising given the author’s claim that exceptional recall is a family trait, on his mother’s side).
In Testimony Robertson skillfully weaves a complex and well-executed tapestry encompassing his childhood and humble beginnings growing up on the Six Nations Reservation and dealing with familial issues in Toronto, which make up a small but extremely interesting part of the book (most of Testimony takes place between 1960 and 1976), his adult relationship with his wife, bandmates, other musicians and anecdotes of their sometimes odd but always amusing adventures (in the process dropping more famous names than Walter Winchell on speed), and the real meat of the narrative that deals with the author’s great passion: Music. (Especially when delves into how songs were inspired, written, and recorded, his influences, and the tricks he personally learned from the likes of Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix.)
It took five years for the author to construct this volume and is shows; there was not one poorly structured sentence or wasted word. I was never bored or disinterested, and more than that, it gave me a lesson on the history of rock & roll. In fact, I will go so far as to say this is the finest rock & roll autobiography I have read to date.
If you are like me and you miss the old days of analog recordings on eight-song vinyl albums issued with double-fold covers designed by hippie artists who were paid a pittance for something that would eventually become a pop culture icon; a time without auto-tune when the singer was not-so-great but you didn’t care because the emotion, the very feeling was just right; an epoch when rock ruled the airwaves and music was more than just some annoying loudmouth bragging about how much money they have; an era when culture was not shallower than a wading pool, then this is a book for you. And even if you don’t it’s still a great story exceptionally told.
*There is also a new CD available (also called Testimony) with songs personally selected by Robbie Robertson that makes a great companion piece to the book.