Thoughts on Robbie Robertson’s Testimony

I just finished a biography of Pink Floyd, another favorite band of mine, and noticed some striking similarities between them and The Band. Both are primarily known for two or three key albums; both had a strained attitude toward touring and performing; both fell apart due to internal strife having mostly to do with songwriting credits; and both reformed a few years later without their principal songwriter. History, of course, is written by the survivors and in Testimony, Robbie Robertson, one of only two surviving Band members, gets a chance to set the record straight — and skew it slightly in his favor. Levon Helm, who passed away in 2012, published a memoir a few years back attacking Robertson for all the credit he took for the band’s songs. And there’s Barney Hoskyns’s impartial (but imperfect) biography, Across the Great Divide. The truth, I’m sure, lies somewhere in the middle of these three books, so I approached Robertson’s memoir with an open mind, not wanting to distract myself with rumor and conjecture.

Halfway through the book, though, I began noticing something strange. Robbie Robertson, it seems, never met a person he didn’t like, never heard a song he didn’t like, never ate in a bad restaurant, or watched a bad movie. This may be true, and in that case, he’s lived a truly extraordinary life. And a memoir doesn’t have to settle any scores, of course. (Robertson, for instance, has nothing bad to say about Albert Grossman, who famously ripped off Bob Dylan.) But the effect is a curiously monotone portrait of what was an amazingly volatile time, both for America and The Band.

Things started getting rocky for The Band almost as soon as they hit the big time. Stage Fright, released only two years after their debut, already showed their powers waning — though Robertson maintains this album contains some of his favorite songs. Cahoots, released the following year, was a train wreck — though Robertson focuses on the only truly good songs on that album, rightly so of course.

Today, Robertson is the curator of The Band’s legacy, similar to the role Jimmy Page now holds in regard to the Led Zeppelin catalog. He has overseen remasters of all Band albums, as well as releases of some deep archival material and a remaster of The Last Waltz. So it makes perfect sense that he wants to paint a gilded picture. As a longtime Band fan, I’ve always assumed Robertson wrote most of the songs; after all, the other guys’ solo output contained very little original material, and even their post-Robbie reunion as The Band consisted mostly of old songs and covers.

But at the end of the day, none of that matters. What matters is that these songs exists, period, and that they couldn’t have been made without the entire group. Rick Danko’s soaring vocal on The Unfaithful Servant. Levon Helm’s explosive performance of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down on The Last Waltz. Garth Hudson’s soulful keyboards on Rags and Bones. Richard Manuel’s voice that broke hearts with everything it touched. And Robbie’s understated guitar playing.