“Testimony” by Robbie Robertson

Full disclosure; I am a bit of a fan of The Band. “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” are in my own performance repertoire. However, this is a book for musicians and music fans, so my bias should be no impediment.
Testimony is billed as an autobiography, and it starts out that way, but Robertson soon covers his early life and teams up with the future members of The Band. At that point, the book becomes a biography of the group, albeit from Robertson’s point of view. It ends with the closing of the band’s era in the performance of The Last Waltz in 1976.
As such, it is a wonderful peek backstage at a fascinating era in musical history. What starts out looking like namedropping by a social climber ends the book as a testament to the number of talented friends who can be called upon in a time of need. In fact, Robertson’s stereotypically Canadian self-effacement continually reveals his true talent. His constant attempts to give band members full credit for their share of the creative part of their work only serves to demonstrate his leadership. He tosses off his business management with a modest, “Oh, I’m just the guy that is most comfortable talking to people.”
But a quick listen through The Band’s music belies this humility. No matter who is singing or what instruments are doing the backup, the lead guitar is always there, unobtrusively filling in, adding commentary on the musical line and guiding the song. Robertson never comes out and says it, but there can be no doubt that he was the leader of The Band: musically, creatively, and commercially. After all, who’s writing their biography?
Incidentally, this book is also a revealing look into the personality of Bob Dylan, especially into his private life at a time when he had withdrawn from the popular eye. Robertson comments several times on Dylan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the lyrics to any song you might mention.
Reading between the lines, I suspect that Robertson himself has a similar ability with styles of music and the needs of individual performers. This seems to be the secret behind the Band’s reputation as “musicians’ musicians.” Especially when they were working in the Big Pink studio, they were constantly writing songs that were custom-made for other performers, and many of these became hits.
Another fascinating way to look at this book is through the lens of Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas were popular at the same time. In this case, the connection between the medium and the message is notable. At the beginning, the writing is loose and the plotline fragmentary, as is Robertson’s life early in his career. Once he and his friends start working with Bob Dylan during the hectic days of his first electronic tour, a tight, tense plotline evolves. Later on, when they are all settled in Woodstock, the story also settles, and the last chapters of the book, which outline the incredible leadup to The Last Waltz, provide a fitting climax to the story, just as the performance provided an apt denouement to the career of a seminal creative force in music.
Highly recommended for all music lovers, especially those old enough to remember 1968-1976. Guaranteed to send you searching for another chance to appreciate the music of The Band, and for another look at Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “The Last Waltz.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.