In the late 80’s I interviewed The Band, the Robbie Robertson-less version of the band. I was working for CJCS1240 in Stratford Ontario at the time. Back then I know about the music of The Band as a “oldies” radio station the CANCON music policy allowed us to play only the best of Canada back then – and The Band qualified as a mainstay of our playlists. I was selected to interview Stratford’s Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm who had started touring again in1983 after then five person band stopped playing live following 1976’s Last Waltz.
I interviewed The Band with Brian O’Neill, our Sales Manager at the time, and a real music buff. We would interview the guys before they went on stage; take the tape and put together a 1-hour special featuring the interview and music. We had one hour to interview the band, and what a great interview it was, great answers to the questions, and lots of laughter with the stories they told. When we were done, and had talked for more than an the hour allotted, we took the tape back to the studio only to find that the batteries on the cassette recorder had died 30-40 minutes into the interview, a good chunk of what we recorded didn’t.
In Testimony, Robbie Robertson was told, by his mother, that when he was older he too would be a storyteller, just like the Elders of the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford where he spent the early years of his life. Even without publishing Testimony Robertson told stories, just read about the music of a career he writes about from hitting the stage with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to leaving the stage after playing for hours in The Band’s farewell concert in the “the Last Waltz”
From Ronnie Hawkins, to Bob Dylan to Helm, Danko, Hudson and Manuel Testimony is about his musical relationship – make that musical partnerships and how they made the music that executives in 1968 didn’t know what to label. It was the music that shifted the musical world much like Dylan did by going electric, which Robertson had a stage view of. The tours with Dylan were illuminating as Robertson describes the lifestyle of rock stars, the drugs and alcohol that eventual drove The Band from the stage. He writes of the struggles, especially with Richard Manuel who struggled with alcohol only to turn to marijuana and then cocaine to help with a heroin habit. Rick Danko and Levon Helm also had major issues and Robertson writes of not only their issues but also his use, but when it comes to this part of his life and the story telling, he leaves out his struggles with his use of drugs and drinking. He makes it seem like he is the big brother who did no wrong, but was always there when his little brothers fell down.
I tweeted out when I started reading Testimony that it was like being counted into a song by Levon Helm; 1-2-3-4 Bam, you are into a song. What kept me turning pages was the music. What the band did in 1967 and 68 leading up to two of the greatest albums of the sixties is amazing reading, it gets into your mind and your imagination. Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident The Band retreat to Woodstock NY and the Big Pink, chapters 18 and 19 are required reading on the creation of Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” and The Bands’ “Music from the Big Pink”. There is a passage about the vocal arrangements for “The Weight” that will forever by in my head, and when I listen to the song I will hear Robertson say…
“I began singing the chorus to “The Weight” over and over to the guys, trying to convey the staggered vocal idea I had. “Levon, you go, ‘aaand’, then Rick , ‘aaand’, then Richard on top, ‘aaand’. Levon, ‘you put the load’, Rick, Richard, Levon, ‘you put the load right on me’.”
Now, just try listening to “The Weight” without having this text in front of you or in your head hearing Robbie give those instructions.
Robertson only takes us through to the end of the Last Waltz, which is timely as I figure he has another book in him with his Post Waltz music. In the book he takes the reader through the thought, action and performance of what many call, the greatest rock concert film ever made. I could write more about the last few chapters leading up to the concert, but I think you would get more reading about creating the line up of artists, the new budding professional relationship with Martin Scorsese and how it was all managed to be held together AND the fabulous dinner served to 5000 people before the concert began.
Testimony is two-way mirror into making music, great music and a looking into how success put strains into relationships and what the five did to survive. Levon, Rick and Richard used the drink and drugs, Garth fiddled with electronics and Robertson made music and films with others and discovered the west coast. But as he writes his eulogy to The Band in the final pages, the love of the brotherhood is greater than all the troubles and sins that happened between 1960 with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to Thanksgiving 1976 and “The Last Waltz” , the love clearly outlasts any pain and misunderstandings that took place.
In the end, Testimony is the BEST rock and roll book I have ever read, its honesty and admiration of the players Robbie Robertson shared a stage with is something I have never taken from pages before.
Testimony is required reading for anyone that plays or loves music that changes how we listen to music.
While I knew the music of The Band, Testimony would have been a great primer for my interview with The Band, in the late 80’s. After reading Testimony, I now understand the music and brotherhood of The Band, and man what questions I would have asked if only I knew as I do today.
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