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Unsolicited Book Review: Get to Know the Notoriously Guarded Robbie Robertson

In Testimony, Robbie Robertson offers a vivid read for fans of the Band with fresh takes on music biz stories old as time and its own, in-house Civil War.

_______________________________ April 13, 2017 | by Denise Sullivan Robbie Robertson


Crown/Archetype, 2016

Robbie Robertson's public image hasn't always served him well in the 40 years since his band took its Last Waltz at Winterland. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist has been known to project a guarded, fatherly, and arrogant type — a buttoned-down professor pained by the rogues of rock 'n' roll — especially to those closest to him. But none of that vibe manages to pollute his own story, the 500-page Testimony, a celebratory and generous tribute to his life with the Band.

“One thing we did know for sure: We were a real band. Everybody played a major role in our balance of musicianship,” Robertson writes. “In many bands the other players in the group remained in the shadows; they knew who the stars were. There was nothing wrong with that, but we were holding a different hand — like five-card stud. Nothing wild. Everything face up.”

The same can be said for Robertson, who's transparency and lack of pretense is refreshing even while treading on territories well worn — whether old-fashioned studio recording techniques, dues paid in barroom hellholes and on stages getting booed, or during the then-young band's progression into world class musicians. Wrapped in vivid and straightforward language, Robertson makes even the inanimate come alive, detailing city blocks and landscapes, from Toronto and the American South to being on the road where eventually he and Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson transitioned from the Hawks into Bob Dylan's backing band.

Providing the book's center — and, indeed, its most colorful anecdotes — are the years 1965-1970, spent touring outside Canada's borders, soaking in New York City's creative juice, and moving largely as an ensemble to Woodstock. Living and working alongside Dylan, they developed the feel, look, and sound of their distinctly North American rock 'n' roll in a shambling pink house and created what would become commonly known as the Basement Tapes and their own debut, Music From Big Pink. The fertile period yielded “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Shape I'm In,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Stage Fright,” and other timeless signature songs that rage on 50 years later.

Robertson's recollections of composing, recording, and mid-20th-century culture flow easily with his sense memories as the narrative reconstructs a sometimes quaint and picaresque world of no more.

“I grew up surrounded by busy, vibrant neighborhoods alive with immigrant sounds and smells,” he recalls of downtown Toronto in the '40s and '50s. “Sweet aromas of pipe smoke from the smoke shop downstairs, proudly displaying Cuban cigars behind glass in the back. A Jewish deli poured out the scent of hot corned beef and dill … The candy shop made its own maple squares, marzipan, and Turkish delight. The shoe repair had a leathery, musky, shoe polish odor that impressed my young nostrils.”

His reliable narrator assists the reader in getting fully immersed in whatever world he’s inhabiting, whether in a studio or on the Six Nations Reserve where his mother's people dwelled. “Stop at a water pump, splash a little water on your face, have a drink out of a tin cup. There was a path that led through a field of wild strawberries, and we would grab a couple of handfuls on the way.”

Voicing the hard work, the doubt, the exhilaration, and the exaltation of the creative process, the mundane becomes thrilling and the highly charged merely amusing in Robertson's even and measured tone (he had me brewing his secret recipe for French-pressed coffee and I don't even drink the stuff). A little like his mentor Dylan, who wrote similarly in Chronicles, Robertson juxtaposes simplicity and pleasure with the carnivalesque, coarse nature of the music business and the grotesque figures who populate showbiz and its environs. Sun Studios and the Brill Building figure into the action as if they are characters. Industry moguls and legends, John Hammond, Albert Grossman, and David Geffen breeze in and out of scenes. Twentieth-century giants Sugar Ray Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy make cameos, and there are first hand close-ups of Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, John Coltrane, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Marlon Brando.

All these men and others — from his first employer, Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins to his money-lending uncle Natie — inform Robertson's own swagger, as does his half-Indian heritage, his pacifist Canadian politics, his love of movies, and like all good rock dudes, his women.

Robertson has a lot of time for the ladies he's loved along the way, even those who make but a one night appearance on the road; he seems equally smitten and enchanted with drug addict/model Edie Sedgwick and the genius of Joni Mitchell. But a chance meeting with French-Canadian journalist, Dominique Bourgeois, leaves him breathless. A marriage and three children later, their own love story unfolds discreetly in the text, and Robertson is careful to credit his then-wife’s role during her interlude in the Band’s life. His regard and general appreciation for all people improves the likeability quotient of one of rock's great polarizing figures.

Though there are allusions and direct references to tensions between him and singer and drummer Helm — that schism inspired by their publishing and songwriter's royalty shares — the love/hate little brother/big brother relationship does not take center stage in this telling of their story. (It's worth reading Helm's own account, This Wheel's On Fire, with its slight variations and same off-color vignettes). Robertson contends around the time of Big Pink, “When I told the guys I thought we should share the song publishing five ways, they were in total agreement and very appreciative,” despite Robertson and Manuel being the group's main writers. Later, as Helm, Manuel, and singer and bassist Danko become more impaired by substances, he suggests Manuel “felt bad” about not holding up his end of the songwriting partnership and put forth the idea to sell-off his portion of royalties, despite Robertson's protestations. The ultimate purchase by Robertson of Manuel's, Danko's and Hudson's shares and Helm's resistance resulted in one of rock's most famous feuds. And it rolled on for decades (the subsequent events and outcomes are not covered in the book that ends in 1976).

Robertson by no means paints himself to be a saint in regard to his shortcomings, but he seems to have largely come to terms with his human foibles. This makes Testimony less confessional and more refreshing than most of the other rockmen's bios released in the last 18 months (there is a glut of them but this one and Brian Wilson’s are a cut above as they seemingly had editors involved).

Early in the book, without a whole lot of fanfare, Robertson reveals the secret of how he got to be the de facto leader at the mercy of a merry band. “Gradually my parents started to drink deeper into the night, and no matter what time they said they would be back, they never were.” Though he spends only about a page and a half on other people’s drinking, anyone with a shred of understanding of alcoholism will make the quick connection between music as his salvation and the need to control his environment forever after. By the time Robertson becomes a made musician, living in the Malibu Colony and the family disease closes in around him, there is no blame, no moralizing, and mercifully no road to recovery laid out ahead. Instead, the story fades to black: Robertson having already lived many lifetimes is just 33-years-old and has other lifetimes making music and more awaiting him.

Those familiar with the Band and its lore may not end up feeling like they know any more than when starting the book, while those new to the story may wonder how anyone could take exception to such a seemingly cool cat as Robertson. But while the truth can likely be found in the thick of it, and reading is its own reward, like his often mysterious lyrics, his stories are probably best left to be enjoyed and not deconstructed. Certainly this testimony by one of the two living members of the Band, both aged over 70, reveals Robertson to be the sage he always portended to be, and is still the extraordinary storyteller he always was.

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