In his big and buoyant new memoir, “Testimony,” the former Band member Robbie Robertson, right, doesn’t necessarily dispel the various myths, legends, and criticisms that have attached themselves to him.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL OCHS / GETTY
The Band—which started out as a backing group for the rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the late nineteen-fifties, performed with Bob Dylan on his groundbreaking 1966 tour, and then set off on its own two years later—had a captivating performer for every taste. There was the organist, Garth Hudson, a professorial mad-genius musician and instrument gearhead; the pianist, Richard Manuel, seemingly fragile, with a plaintive voice, a stunning falsetto, and a story of personal doom; the bassist, Rick Danko, impishly handsome with a guileless, mournful voice; and Levon Helm, perhaps the most widely loved of them all, a bona-fide national treasure, with his feral grin, preternatural rhythm behind the drums, and singular Arkansas Delta growl.
Then there was Robbie Robertson. Robertson wrote most of the songs, played a sneakily good first guitar, and looked cool doing it. But he didn’t sing much and never very well, and, over the years, many fans have deemed him the villain of the group. He’s been criticized—in large part owing to a long-lasting estrangement from Helm, who died in 2012—as a self-promoter, as the guy who pushed himself to the front of a band whose appeal was in not having a lead anything. He came to be pegged as a flashy try-hard among easygoing naturals, the show-biz striver among artisans who just wanted to make beautiful noise.
The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink,” became a surprise sensation upon its release, in 1968. Afterward, Robertson assumed the role of group spokesman and de-facto P.R. man. He arranged the photo shoots for the group (including a classic Rolling Stone cover in which the band’s members, nurturing the sense of mystery that surrounded them, are shown sitting with their backs to the camera), worried over the specifics of album art, and was the driving force behind “The Last Waltz,” the concert film directed by Martin Scorsese, which was filmed in 1976 and released two years later. As the chief credited songwriter, Robertson made more money than his bandmates, and later Helm accused him of falsely taking credit—in effect, of screwing over his friends. Perhaps most damning of all, as rock-and-roll stories go, Robertson was the one blamed for the Band’s 1976 breakup. The remaining members carried on in the eighties and nineties, playing in front of diminishing crowds, performing songs that made money for the guy who was no longer there.
In his big and buoyant new memoir, “Testimony,” Robertson, who is seventy-three, doesn’t necessarily dispel the various myths, legends, and criticisms that have attached themselves to him. Instead, he tries to reframe the conclusions that fans might take from them. For the most part, he downplays his own musical accomplishments—he seems O.K. not being called a genius—and portrays his life as one of a man who was in the right places at the right times. And those places and times make for great stories. Some are well worn, such as one tale of the group’s early days when, broke on the road, the men stuffed their overcoats full of meat and cheese at a grocery story while one guy distracted the checkout girl by buying a loaf of bread. Or when Ronnie Hawkins, upon welcoming a still teen-age Robertson to his touring band, told him, “Well, son, you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” Robertson recalls Dylan, onstage in Manchester, England, in 1966, facing down a hostile crowd and telling the band to “Play fucking loud!,” as they launched into “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Others moments are less familiar. He tells a story, equal parts harrowing and hilarious, of putting a strung-out Dylan in a hotel bathtub near the end of his England tour, in an attempt to perk him up for a meeting with the Beatles, who were waiting in the next room. Robertson ducked out of the bathroom to placate the Beatles—“Bob’s just freshening up”—and returned to find that Dylan had slipped, for a moment, beneath the water. Robertson writes admiringly of Dylan, but he renders him at a human scale, noting, for instance, the way that Dylan could suddenly turn cold on a person, for reasons that were clear to no one but Dylan himself.
Mostly, Robertson casts himself as a music fan who was lucky enough to see his adolescent radio dreams come to life. He rarely has a bad word for anyone, though he squeezes in a funny dismissal of the early Velvet Underground, whose live show sounded, he writes, as if they’d just gotten their guitars for Christmas. He offers a great description of spending time with Van Morrison, who hung out for a while with the Band in the town of Woodstock, New York, and later showed up to perform at “The Last Waltz” show wearing a private-eye trenchcoat, which he then ditched in favor of a “snug-fitting maroon outfit with sequins—something like a trapeze artist might wear.” In the book’s best vignette, Robertson recalls the night that he and Helm arranged to take two women to the drive-in for a make-out session, only to sit engrossed in the car as the black-and-white images of “The Grapes of Wrath” played on the screen.
Most of the book is similarly good-natured and self-effacing, but Robertson was not merely a fortunate bystander. He was a guitar prodigy, plucked out of Toronto by Hawkins at the age of sixteen, so young that club owners were reluctant to let him in their places for fear of losing their liquor licenses. His sound helped define Dylan’s high-electric period in the mid-sixties: that’s him on “Blonde on Blonde” and soloing on the famous bootlegs from the 1966 tours, on songs like “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” (At one point in the book, Robertson can’t resist mentioning the time someone told him that he had been Duane Allman’s favorite guitarist.) And, of course, he wrote most of the lyrics and melodies that fans of the Band have been singing and humming for the past forty-odd years.
But, while “Testimony” proves that Robertson is an immensely capable storyteller and a keen observer of the gifts of others, he is less adept at explaining his own creative process. He wrote the lyrics to the Band’s best-known song, “The Weight,” in one sitting, and remembers how, when asked where the song’s surreal, Bible-inflected story came from—with the characters Fannie, Anna Lee, Miss Moses, Luke, Carmen, and Crazy Chester, who have beguiled fans for years—he said, “I’m not too good at explaining song lyrics . . . but basically, it was all I could think of at the time.” The one specific influence he cites is the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. His description of working on another song, meanwhile, is so bland as to be almost impenetrable: “Like most songs I wrote, it was a combination of the real and mythical. That gave room for imagination and personalizing, along with vivid life experiences.”
The Band’s years in Woodstock—making music at the members’ pink ranch house, first with Dylan, in the famed “basement tape” sessions, and later for themselves—have formed one of the great legends of rock music, halcyon days of honest musicianship, rugged work shirts, and good country living. It was there, the legend goes, that the Band took all that it had learned from years on the road, which spanned much of the history of rock and roll to that point, and compressed it into its new sound—a confident but lightly worn mixture of blues, rockabilly, soul, gospel, and country. Yet Robertson also writes about a dark unease that took hold in the country, which got darker by 1970, after the Band had released its brilliant first two albums. Richard Manuel was succumbing to alcoholism (he would later commit suicide while on tour in 1986), and he, Helm, and Danko (who died in 1999) were getting mixed up with harder stuff as well, particularly heroin, which made them erratic collaborators. Robertson recalls a series of wrecked cars and missed practices. He writes that, as he stayed mostly clean, he became the group’s chief caretaker and organizer, a role that increasingly wore him out. Robertson took over the practical aspects of running the group, he says, because, essentially, no one else wanted to do it. “I was doing what needed to be done on behalf of the guys, but I didn’t want to be called the leader any more than Richard wanted to be referred to as the lead singer,” he writes. But this may be late-game spin—the person who lived the longest getting the last word.
The bad blood with Helm—which seems to have persisted despite the fact that Robertson visited Helm in the hospital as Helm was dying of cancer—is all the more devastating because, as “Testimony” makes clear, Helm was both his muse and his voice, on songs like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “Ophelia.” Robertson made his first trip south to the United States as a teen-ager, and promptly fell in love with everything that passed his senses. “To my ears, this was poetry coming to life,” he writes. “The names of the towns and the rivers, the names of all these characters, everything has its own rhythms down here.” And Helm, whom Robertson recalls as appearing like a “young beam of light on drums” when he first met him, was his way in.
As Greil Marcus argued in the 1975 book “Mystery Train,” the Band’s ability to give voice to an idea of America at the moment it did had much to do with the fact that four-fifths of the group was Canadian. “They had come here by choice, after all. They had fallen in love with the music, first as they sought it out on the radio and on records, later as they learned to play it, and, wonder of wonders, define it.” Yet it was Helm, raised in Elaine, Arkansas, who gave these Canadian vagabonds a real foothold in the Southern American culture to which they were drawn. Robertson’s mixture of outsider naïveté and enthusiasm was a necessary part of writing one of the Band’s most enduring songs, the Lost Cause lament “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” in such a way that it might be heard today, unlike so many other neo-Confederate rock songs, as performative and observational rather than explicitly political. When he set out to write it, he reports in “Testimony,” he had to go to the library to look up Civil War history—it was a song of the South, once removed. Its brilliance is complicated, and tenuous, and in the wrong hands it fails completely, as when Joan Baez recorded an oddly upbeat and mindless version of it, in 1971. When Helm sang it, he made it sound much older than it was, as if it had been written in 1869 rather than 1969. “His truth in that vocal could tear your heart out,” Robertson writes, of Helm’s performance of the song during “The Last Waltz” show. “It took me back to when I first wrote that song, wanting to come up with something that Levon could sing better than anyone in the world.” This desire was the Band.
But the Robertson-Helm feud is an old and perhaps irresolvable story. In “Testimony,” Robertson chooses mostly to celebrate his late brother in arms rather than re-litigate their disagreements. He does point out, several times, that Helm wasn’t, as he writes, “a song person”—meaning that he could play like the devil but was rarely interested in writing. Additionally, Robertson points out that Manuel’s contributions—he was the writer or co-writer of several of the Band’s first songs—sharply diminished as his personal struggles mounted. In the end, Robertson emphasizes, gently but clearly, that the Band’s beloved songs—and the harmonies, ingenious instrumentation, and transcendent sound contained therein—wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t taken the plain initiative to write them in the first place. Robertson was a heady operator, but he was also the group’s bridge from the basement to the wider world. There wouldn’t be a story of the Band, or a villain to give it drama, without him.
Ian Crouch is a contributing writer and producer for newyorker.com. He lives in Maine.