“He got what he wanted but he lost what he had.” Rock writer Greil Marcus, aficionado-scholar of American music, cultural history, and of The Band, uses this Little Richard quote as a jumping off point to tell the story of American rock ‘n’ roll music in his 1975 work Mystery Train.
Little Richard’s line is the quintessential punishment that often seems to accompany American success stories, like those of Jay Gatsby or Charles Foster Kane. It doesn’t seem to apply to that of Robbie Robertson however, co-founder, main songwriter, and lead guitarist of The Band. (Robertson is Canadian after all.) From a reading of his recently released autobiographical work Testimony: A Memoir, one can conclude that Robertson got a great deal of what he worked for and managed to not lose everything that he began with.
Instead of sacrificing or wasting, he gathered, accumulated, and expanded. As an individual and as a writer, Robertson seems to be acutely aware of his vast past and how it shaped him, presenting it in Testimony with all the detail and vitality of yesterday’s events.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “storyteller”—and rather obnoxiously so—as “someone who tells or writes stories.” Sure, but what makes a good storyteller? Perception, awareness, insight, objectivity, passion, respect for truth, concern for communication, and an allegiance to an authentic representation of self experience.
Robbie Robertson, main songwriter and lead guitar-player of ’60s–’70s rock group The Band, truly is a storyteller by the way he perceives, reflects upon, and puts forward personal experience to an audience. Select any one of his numerous songs from The Band’s catalog and consider its writerly prowess: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (1969, The Band) provides a raw and moving illustrative glimpse into the Southern experience during America’s Civil War. “Acadian Driftwood” (1975, Northern Lights-Southern Cross) offers a poetically concise history of the Acadians’ banishment during the French and Indian War. Thusly—if any rock songwriter could conjure up a voluminous and satisfying autobiography, a work that demonstrates a keen grasp of an overarching storyline, it would be Robertson.
Testimony is an origins tale that tracks the progress and growth of a major artist whose initial passion for music—and telling stories—never seems to wane over the course of the tale’s run. Robertson uses his book to provide an account of The Band’s formation, from its earliest beginnings as rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins’ backing group The Hawks (1958-1963), to its evolution as Bob Dylan’s backing band (1965-7), and eventually into The Band which released its first record, Music from Big Pink in 1968. As Testimony propels itself forward, Robertson’s narrative enthusiasm for his art never seems to lessen, even with his and his group’s increasing fame and exposure to success.
Though the story of The Band features a slew of recognizable artists from ’60s and ’70s culture, it is Robertson’s early story, the story of his childhood, youth, and path to artistic discovery that defines Testimony’s quality of loveliness. Somehow he manages to offer the first part of his personal story, the part in which he becomes Robbie Robertson, in a manner that narratively keeps at bay his impending artistic and commercial success.
Robertson tells his life story like a novel, in which he builds characters—like his mother or his first guitar teacher or Levon Helm or Bob Dylan—bit by bit, scene by scene. He never assumes that the reader knows the individuals in advance, he does not rely upon their public personas to pre-suggest backstories. Famous figures, like Ronnie Hawkins, The Beatles, Dylan, and a sea of others lose their Mount Rushmore-esque frozenness and instead assume animated and malleable personas through Robertson’s writing. His characters are imperfect and flawed; they are lovable. Robertson paints all of them in the same multi-layered way, and the dialogue that he provides for the scenes from his life has the same present-moment energy regardless of the point in time when each scene took place.
At certain moments, Robertson jumps around a bit in history—an approach rather frustrating as in Neil Young’s otherwise-stellar autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, in which he tended to jump time gaps a bit too wide to achieve cohesiveness. When Robertson does so in Testimony, it works the way successful film flashbacks do, when the viewer or reader is taken far ahead or backward just enough, and is then returned to his last known location rather quickly so as to remain captivated by the story being told.
All the while one gets the sense that Robertson’s main motivation consistently was his deep love and passion for The Music. This is highlighted by different scenes in Testimony in which a young Robertson is clearly enthused by seeing his blues, jazz, and rock idols perform live, and in which he and Levon Helm listen to the car radio during tour travels. Robertson—in the context of the scene at hand—riffs and raves on about the songs and artists that they listen to, and although Robertson wrote Testimony as an older man, he manages to recapture and communicate youthful exuberance in his retellings. The book’s tone is honest, believable, straight-forward, story-oriented, and emotionally relatable.
For the tome’s narrative time span, Robertson rather intelligently ends Testimony with the initial end of The Band and its 1976 Last Waltzperformance, sidestepping his interesting solo career that followed which included a string of albums, film scores, and other important artistic pursuits. In his accounts of The Band’s album-making experiences, Robertson assumes and articulates his rightful place as lead guitarist, songwriter, and ideas man, yet at the same time seems to tell of the musical antics fairly, refusing to take sole credit for any one song or situation.
One of The Band’s many strengths was its communal ideology—it had three lead singers (Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko) rather than one sole frontman, and the most anonymous group name in rock ‘n’ roll history. It makes sense then, that Robertson would exhibit a similar democratic awareness while articulating his personal story.