Musician Robbie Robertson’s ‘Testimony’ is a first-rate tale of his years with The Band. Robertson appears Friday, Dec. 2, at Seattle’s University Book Store.
In 1960, 16-year-old Robbie Robertson took a train from Toronto to Arkansas to join up with a rockabilly band led by singer Ronnie Hawkins. It was a journey by the young Canadian guitar player that would change American rock ’n’ roll. In the South, Robertson would befriend drummer Levon Helm, and they would form The Band.
That trip starts Robertson’s delightful new memoir, “Testimony” (Knopf, 512 pp., $30). The Band would go on to make important records (“The Weight”), star in one of the greatest concert films ever (“The Last Waltz”) and back Bob Dylan during his seminal creative period in the ’60s.
Most rock memoirs are written to pay bills, settle scores or make a claim to the author’s place in history. Those aren’t Robertson’s motivations. He’s already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has had great success.
The author of “Testimony” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, at the University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St., Seattle; $30, includes the book; sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
He is diplomatic when talking about The Band, specifically Helm.
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Helm began as Robertson’s friend, but by the time the group broke up, Helm skipped their Hall of Fame induction to avoid Robertson. Helm’s autobiography claims Robertson’s vocal mic wasn’t plugged in during the filming of “The Last Waltz,” and that Robertson edited the film to inflate his role.
Robertson ignores those attacks, saying it was Helm’s drug addiction during that period talking. “It was like some demon had crawled into my friend’s soul and pushed a crazy, angry button,” Robertson writes. Drugs in the end meant the destruction of The Band, and their friendship, he writes.
When Robertson does get catty, it’s only with HIS reckless romances, including Carly Simon and Edie Sedgwick. His biography covers a 33-year span, but he writes in scenes rather than as a chronology. It’s an interesting choice, but it probably makes those scenes less emotionally powerful than a typical life story.
But when those scenes are about music, they are beautifully crafted. Seeing a Howlin’ Wolf house concert, Robertson was transfixed. “The night was the most frightening musical experience I’d ever had,” he writes. “It felt way too good.”
Dylan doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the 512-page book. Once he arrives, though, Dylan has a way of overshadowing everyone else around him.
Robertson backed Dylan for almost a decade, but even he can’t seem to quite figure Bob out. Robertson serves as best man at Dylan’s wedding, and ends up mixing Dylan’s album “Blonde on Blonde,” both at the last minute. Dylan doesn’t show at that mixing session, leaving Robertson alone to mix what many would argue is Dylan’s greatest work. “It showed how difficult it was to screw up a record that great,” Robertson writes.
Stories of the lauded “Basement Tapes” provide some of the book’s best scenes. These songs, dashed off by Dylan with The Band in the basement of a house they nicknamed “Big Pink,” ended up as one of the most famous bootleg tapes of all-time. They became an official release in 1975, though Robertson finds their quality inferior.
Still, the sessions were extraordinary. Dylan knocks out “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” on a typewriter in a few minutes, and takes those lyrics to Robertson and his fellow musicians. On the spot, a song is written and recorded — a great song. Others follow.
“We had all completely fallen under the spell of this atmosphere of devil-may-care creativity,” Robertson writes.
Many readers will feel the same way about “Testimony,” which by detailing a legendary time in musical creativity, casts its own magic.