Robbie Robertson of The Band tells all in ‘Testimony’
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NEW YORK, Nov 9 — We’re deep into the golden age of the classic-rock memoir. Increasingly, everyone wants to issue the bookstore equivalent of a double album.
These autobiographies have become shaggy monsters. Elvis Costello’s was a Tolstoyan 674 pages. Those from Keith Richards (564 pages), Bruce Springsteen (510 pages) and Mike Love (436 pages) were wide loads too, all-you-can-eat afternoons at the word buffet.
The arms race is on, and rock’s more inflated figures have yet to weigh in. Will Roger Waters’ autobiography be a 54-volume set, like Mortimer J. Adler and Robert M. Hutchins’ Great Books of the Western World? Roadies in druid outfits could peddle it door-to-door.
Robbie Robertson’s memoir, Testimony, coasts in at size XL; it’s an even 500 pages. It once existed in vastly longer form, he writes in his acknowledgments. He thanks an acquaintance who read the early, uncut version and “never flinched.”
Testimony covers only the first 33 years of Robertson’s life. It ends in 1976, as the Band — he was its lead guitarist and principal songwriter — performs its farewell concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released in 1978 as The Last Waltz.
It’s a smart place to stop. By 1976 the Band had lost cabin pressure — the oxygen masks had dropped — while cruising at 30,000 feet. Drug use had taken a toll. Bristling egos clashed. Internecine warfare erupted over money.
After The Last Waltz, the gloves really came off. Robertson got the worst of it. Levon Helm, the Band’s drummer, wrote a memoir called This Wheel’s on Fire (1993) in which he bitterly accused Robertson of taking songwriting credits that didn’t belong to him and seizing authoritarian control of what had been a famously democratic band of musicians.
Helm’s mockery of Robertson, once his best friend, was lashing. About viewing The Last Waltz, Helm wrote: “For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone.”
That had to sting. But where Helm went low, Robertson has chosen to go high. His memories in Testimony of Helm, who died in 2012, are mostly sunny and often hilarious. It’s hard to write a bad sentence that begins, as one about a brewing fistfight does, with the words “Levon put his corn dog down.”
Robertson, now 73, blames the bad feeling that grew between the two men on paranoia brought on by Helm’s serious drug use. “It was like some demon had crawled into my friend’s soul and pushed a crazy, angry button.” Helm might have also possessed, he writes, “a country-boy inferiority complex.”
Testimony ends when its author was still relatively young, but it is packed with incident. By this time Robertson had played on Bob Dylan’s “going electric” tours of 1965 and 1966; helped make the “basement tapes” in and around Woodstock with Dylan and members of what would become the Band; and written indelible songs like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
His memoir is confident and well oiled. At times it has the mythic sweep of an early Terrence Malick movie. It makes a kind of sense that Testimony moves in bursts, like a screenplay. Robertson says he wrote his best songs for the Band after he began studying the screenplays he bought at the fabled (and now shuttered) Gotham Book Mart in New York.
Robertson grew up in Toronto. His mother had been born on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in southwestern Ontario; later in life he discovered that his birth father, whom he never met, had been a card shark and also Jewish. About this dual heritage, he reports, “You could say I’m an expert when it comes to persecution.”
He and the other members of the Band got their starts playing with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins. If you need to be reminded of what unfiltered human joy looks like, watch The Last Waltz clip of Hawkins singing Who Do You Love?
Times were hard after the split with Hawkins. Robertson writes about the night he and Helm got guns and pulled socks over their heads, intending to rob a high-stakes poker game. The game had been called off.
Dylan blows into this memoir like a blazing tumbleweed. He puffed on cigarettes harder than Bette Davis did, Robertson writes, and banged songs out on his typewriter at lightning speed. The portrait of Dylan here is warm and complicated. When Dylan married for the first time, to Sara Lownds, he asked Robertson to come along as a witness. “You mean a best man at your wedding?” Robertson asked.
Dylan replied: “Well, I don’t know about ‘best man.’ That’s quite a commitment. Maybe ‘good man’ or ‘very good man.’ How would that be?”
Robertson, in Testimony, occasionally leans too heavily on mythopoeticism. But just as often his writing is wonderfully perceptive. Here he is on Garth Hudson, the Band’s multi-instrumentalist: “He had narcolepsy and could fall asleep at any time,” the book recounts. “He would buy orange juice but wait for two days to drink it until all the pulp had sunk to the bottom. He would eat around the seeds of a tomato.”
Drugs and sex are a constant IV-drip in this memoir. Pot is smoked with John Lennon. Liaisons with Carly Simon and Edie Sedgwick are recounted. A visit from Allen Ginsberg is hilariously ducked.
The Band’s first two albums, Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), sounded antiquated and thrillingly modern at the same time; they seemed to open new vistas on American life. The vocals were passed from man to man as if they were a spliff.
This egalitarian quality made the group seem unlike any popular rock band. “We were holding a different hand — like five-card stud,” Robertson writes. “Nothing wild. Everything faceup.”
Everyone in the Band became famous and wealthy. The bad habits and car crashes commenced. “Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in,” keyboard player Richard Manuel sang in one of Robertson’s best-known songs. He was speaking as if for all of them. — The New York Times