I came to read Robbie Robertson’s Testimony sideways. I was actually reading a months long message board discussion about Bob Dylan’s thirty-six CD set, The 1966 Recordings, when I first learned of Robertson’s autobiography. A poster in the thread had an advance copy, and every page or two he’d throw out a tidbit about this tour from Robertson’s perspective and, despite having written about Dylan every day for a year, I would think “Huh. I didn’t know that”. I ordered the book to read the anecdotes myself.
Autobiographies are somewhat strange to me. I have to think that most people read them for the funny anecdotes. At least I do. Everything I told my wife about this book over the past couple of days was a funny anecdote about Robertson meeting John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton. I didn’t tell her the one about him having weekly dinners with Henry Miller, and of Robertson having to tell Miller that professional wrestling was a work, but that is my favourite anecdote in the whole book: “He didn’t want to admit it was a sham. He preferred this world of make-believe and the bad guy sometimes winning”.
Testimony is an interesting book insofar as Robertson is sometimes positioned as the bad guy in accounts of The Band. He is accused of many crimes: he took too much song-writing credit, he wrecked the Basement Tapes with his overdubbing, The Last Waltz is too much about him, he hung out with Neil Diamond. I'm not in a position to adjudicate any of those claims, but Robertson certainly takes the opportunity to set the record straight as he sees it. This book doesn’t help me see the truth of the matter, so it is all just so many anecdotes. I do find it funny that in the Dylan message board discussion one poster fact-checked him. Robertson writes about The Hawks playing a “blistering” version of Maggie’s Farm, and the poster noted that we now have a complete recording of that show – they didn’t play that song. Fact-checking via archival CD release is harsh.
The book is a bit unusual in that it is only a partial autobiography – that is it only cover the first thirty-three years of his life. Testimony begins with Robertson auditioning for The Hawks in 1960 and ends with The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving 1976. For many readers (including me) this is probably the period of greatest interest anyway, but it is still an interesting decision. The book is oddly lop-sided. The first year or two takes Robertson 150 pages to cover, but by the last 150 pages he is flying along – 1971 to 1976 receive a lot less attention than 1960 to 1962. In part, I suppose, this keeps him from having to write at length about the dissolution of The Band into addiction and in-fighting. There are clearly a lot of things that he still doesn’t want to say on the page, and I think that some of those things are probably what some readers are looking for.
I remember that when I was in high school, The Band were held up to us as cautionary tales. Our older teachers, who had been at the school for decades, would tell stories about Richard Manuel and Levon Helm pulling up in the school parking lot to pick up Cathy Smith (who dated both of them at different times and traveled extensively with them, she is a major part of The Band's story from many persepctives). Smith is mentioned only fleetingly in Testimony, two sentences only: “Cathy tried helping Richard keep it together, but she had her own battles with drugs, so this was a relationship with definite pitfalls”. No mention is made of Smith’s involvement with John Belushi’s death (although Belushi is described at length when The Band performs on Saturday Night Live just before the 1976 election), which is probably apt. But that is the story that we kids were told – there is a straight line that runs through The Band to Belushi to the grave, and that line is made with heroin. Scared me straight, I guess.
Anyway, that’s how the book struck me – as a series of anecdotes, some of which connected with me and some of which did not. For me personally, given my interests, the highlights were Dylan-related and the missed opportunity to talk about something I’ve heard about for much of my life. For other readers it will be the parts about David Geffen in Paris or playing at Woodstock or any of the other myriad other tales that fill this volume.
One thing about Canada I learned from this book is: How much of the Toronto underworld scene intersected with the live music scene. I mean, well, of course, but I had never thought about it...