this The Band's
by John Cardiff
Leave it to Robbie Robertson to decide
2016, the 40th anniversary of
The Last Waltz, would be a great time to share his testimony.
The Band's lead guitarist and chief storyteller is still at it decades
To be fair, Testimony -- all 512 pages of it -- isn't just Robbie's version
of The Band's biography. Rather, it is volume one (the
first half) of Robertson's autobiography. The Band doesn't even get to Woodstock
until maybe 300 pages in. And this volume ends
for the most part with The Band's farewell concert in Nov 1976, leaving Robbie's
subsequent solo recording career, movie scoring, and
other ventures, for volume two.
Really? Isn't this just a little late? After all, The Band's heyday is now so far in the rearview mirror
that the few remaining devotees may no longer care enough to cover the price of this book --
or the companion CD.
On the other hand, as the fellow who has spent more than a little of the last 40 years re-mastering and re-releasing The Band's classic albums, cleaning up and releasing the
"lost" soundtracks of concerts recorded decades ago, even re-mastering
The Last Waltz (twice), Robbie has almost single-handedly kept
memories of The Band alive, making him the one who would know best the potential audience for this book.
Robbie, now 73, no longer has the pretty boy looks spattered across the book's cover and CD jacket. Yet as Donald
Trump was closing in on the U.S. presidency last fall, there he was,
another of rock's surviving grandfathers, on late night talk shows plugging his book,
ink in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire, Rolling
Stone, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and other
Anyone who truly remembers The Band's music, especially those who have listened to their recordings
recently, won't be surprised Robbie is a master storyteller. Testimony isn't another
boring recall. The author takes you back to events via his
traditional observational style as they happened. Readers seem there, in the
thick of the fun, the passion, the pain, as it unfolds.
The son of a Mohawk woman and a Jewish punk with low-level gangster connections, Robbie starts at his beginning, spending his youth on the streets of his native Toronto,
visiting the Six Nations Reservation near Brantford.
Before he can drive he is playing guitar professionally. After a couple of false starts, he
Hawkins' backing band, the Hawks. Taskmaster Ronnie whips his band into shape through constant performing and countless
rehearsals year after year, until they leave to strike out on there own.
Robbie, and eventually all the Hawks, are hired to back folk singer Bob Dylan when he
goes electric in the mid-1960s.
Suddenly they are touring the world and making serious money. Everyone
knows who they are; nobody knows their
Some of these stories we've heard before from other sources. But Robbie's perspectives
on meeting Buddy Holly, on Dylan and being his friend, are new, as are the
stories of one night stands, affairs, girlfriends and wives. Ditto the tale of saving Dylan from drowning in his own bathtub
while the Beatles cool their heels in the next room.
Then it just stops. Hurt in a motorcycle accident, Dylan keeps his backing band on retainer while he
recovers. They hunker down in and around a house called Big Pink where they
the electric folk music sound that floundering critics would label everything from mountain music to Americana.
Needing more Dylan material to meet demand, Dylan's manager gets them a recording contract,
Music from Big Pink is released
with a Dylan painting as cover art, and The Band is launched.
Or more to the point, semi-launched. Rick Danko
has been seriously injured
in yet another car accident, preventing The Band from touring to promote their first record.
That near tragedy evolves into "one of the best marketing schemes ever."
The Band is
labeled "secretive like Dylan," promoting the group to
superstar status in many fans' eyes. There's nothing like starting at the
top to goose a career -- and all the challenges tied to flying so
Testimony relives these, the first 16 years (1960-1976) of Robbie's career, but with a twist. Other books (including Levon's) and
countless articles covering much the same material, hurl charges at various
individuals -- credit for this, blame for that.
Testimony however is largely a love story. Robbie doesn't defend
tell his side of the story, so much as he documents the impacts of drugs and booze, both legal
and not, on his partaking "brothers." Robbie swears by, not at, his partners in his keynote musical achievement.
Robbie left the group in 1976. The Band's three lead vocalists have since died. There won't be, can't be, another act. So this
is presumably it, the bow that for the most part gently wraps up their story. Unless,
of course, Robbie has yet another surprise waiting in the wings.
Testimony the CD samples a cross-section of Robbie's
musical journey. It includes a few hits, a few misses, some live, most not,
and a song sketch for good measure. (If you can't hum along with at least half a dozen, the others probably won't interest you.)
Testimony: the set list:
1. Testimony (Unity Mix) -- Robbie
2. Bessie Smith -- The Band
3. Rainy Day Women (Live) -- Bob Dylan and The Band
4. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Live) -- The Band
5. He Don't Love You -- Leon and The Hawks
6. Somewhere Down the Crazy River -- Robbie
7. Life Is A Carnival (Live) -- The Band
8. Makes No Difference -- The Band
9. The Weight (Live) -- The Band
10. Out Of The Blue -- The Band
11. I'm Gonna Play The Honky Tonks -- Leon and the Hawks
12. Obviously Five Believers -- Bob Dylan
13. Soap Box Preacher -- Robbie
14. Twilight (Song Sketch) -- Robbie
15. Come Love -- Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks
16. When The Night Was Young -- Robbie
17. The Shape I'm In (Live) -- The Band
18. Unbound -- Robbie
The Hawks, 1964
(Robbie on right)
Dylan, Robbie, 1965