Rock and Roll Book Club: Robbie Robertson's 'Testimony'

Bill DeVille with Robbie Robertson's 'Testimony'
Bill DeVille with Robbie Robertson's 'Testimony' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

I finally finished my Christmas stocking stuffer! Robbie Robertson's book is called Testimony. The book covers the his life through the Band's Last Waltz finale. Robertson was only 33 at that time. The book actually covers more of his youth in Toronto, Canada and his time with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks than it does with the Band.

I was never a superfan of the Band and I know very little about Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, but I found this to be a great read. I found it's sweet to hear Robbie speaks fondly of his old bandmate and sort of older brother, the late Levon Helm. Robertson truly admires Helm's southern upbringing, his musical savvy, and his soulful tearjerking vocals. In the book it seems like their friendship soured due to disagreements over songwriting royalties and Helm's drug use. I got the impression that Robertson was the most sober musician in the Band.

Robertson must have kept a diary during those early days. He tells some stories you just can't make up, like when Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks played in this burned-out shell of a club outside of Dallas, which was owned by an amphetamine-popping guy by the name of Jack Ruby — whose name had yet to be added to the history books, for his most famous act.

There are lots of Dylan stories and memories in Testimony. From Bob frantically banging out songs on his manual typewriter, to Robertson's playing guitar in Dylan's band when he went electric. I learned that The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan was only intended to be demos for artists to hear songs they might cover, and it ended up being one of the most widely bootlegged albums in history.

He tells the story of the Band's most famous song, "The Weight," which he wrote at his place in Woodstock. "I sat with a little typewriter, a pen and legal pad, and a Martin D-28 guitar that said Nazareth, Pennsylvania, on the label inside the sound hole." Inspiration is sometimes right in front of your eyes! Stories like this are golden!

Robertson hung out with the Beatles after a show in his native Toronto in 1966, and John Lennon showed him his custom-made joints disguised in a pack of Lark cigarettes. Lennon says, "Beatles have to take precautions."

"I could only conclude," Robertson writes, "that John had someone make the cigarette and package them exactly as they would in a factory. Must be good to be a Beatle."

The Band's years in Woodstock, New York were almost derailed by car wrecks that nearly took the lives of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, not to mention Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident that nearly took his life.

I thought Testimony was an excellent read. Though, I think I need to read Levon Helm's book, This Wheel's on Fire, to hear the other side of the story. I was glad to hear that in the days prior to Helm's death in 2012, the former bandmates did reconnect and mend fences.

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