Over the past few days, I've been reading Robbie Robertson's autobiography (or at least, partial autobiography) "Testimony", which begins with him joining Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and ends with 'The Last Waltz' – in other words, the pre-Band and Band periods in his life. It is very interesting to contrast his version of events with the version of Levon Helm, The Band's drummer, singer and occasional mandolinist. Serious historians could also reference Barney Hoskyn's book "Across the great divide", which I have only in hard print. The title of this book was chosen carefully; not only is it the title of the opening song from their best known album, it also hints at the great divide in the group.
What amazes me is how Robertson is able to recall and write about minor incidents, some of which happened over 50 years ago, including dialogue. True, Robertson does say at the beginning that he is blessed with a prodigious memory (this is in connection with some of his relatives), so his recollections may well be accurate.
Robertson and Helm basically tell the same story until The Band's eponymous second album (aka 'The Brown Album'). Not surprisingly, Robertson devotes more than a few pages to the electric Dylan tours from 1965/6 which Helm chose to forego, as well as to the early Woodstock days.
Only after the second album did The Band taste success, and with it become rich overnight. Their riches led to a surfeit of drug (ab)use and the creation of two versions of history. There are a few questions which arise from reading Robertson's book, such as...
• Did Robbie sing very much in The Band? Robertson writes about singing low harmonies and basically being a fourth, live, singer; Helm says that Robertson didn't like singing, that his vocal mike used to be turned off when performing live, and that their Woodstock performance was ruined by Robertson's vocals.
• Was Robertson the musical director of The Band or was it Garth Hudson (as per Helm)? Mention is made of Robertson 'conducting' by means of his guitar neck, which Helm disparages. As an outsider, I have to say that Robertson receives more than his fair share of screen time in “The last waltz”, whereas Richard Manuel can barely be seen.
• Who wrote 'Life is a carnival'? Robertson, Helm and Rick Danko receive a rare shared writing credit. Robertson writes “Rick and Levon came over to my studio in Woodstock one day, and I played them a song I was just finishing called ‘Life is a carnival’, whereas Helm writes the opposite: “The exception for me was ‘Life is a carnival’, which Rick Danko and I worked out music-wise and Robbie put to words”.
One very telling anecdote is that before ‘Music from Big Pink” was released, Robertson signed an agreement which split the songwriting royalties evenly between all five members. Not only this, but later on, Manuel, Danko and Hudson sold their shares back to Robertson; Helm requested time to think, but the subject is not raised again, so one doesn’t know whether Helm retained his rights. If this story is true, then most of Helm’s bitter tirade against Robertson is negated.
As Greil Marcus writes in "Mystery train" (197?), "In order to save the group, Robbie took it over. He took it over as lyricist, manager, strategist, savant, visionary and spokesman”. This is the impression that one gets from reading “Testimony”. Was it a good thing? As Robertson writes, after the second album it was him, three junkies and a musician suffering from narcolepsy. He had no choice.
History belongs to the victors; Manuel, Danko and Helm are dead and can’t react to what Robertson writes. All those who enjoy the music of the Band will be rewarded by reading this book.