We sometimes forget that music plays an essential part in our lives. We listen to CDs or stream songs, often unaware of what goes into producing these tracks that give us such pleasure. For those of us who came of age during the rock and roll era, and for others who are interested in its music, Robbie Robertson’s Testimony takes the reader inside that world, showing its highs and lows.
In the late ‘50s, I moved from Calgary to Toronto for a couple of years with three girlfriends. Elvis was already popular, and we quickly got swept up in the rock scene that was invading the planet. At the Le Coq D’or, a popular lounge on Yonge Street, we discovered Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Ronnie and his drummer Levon Helm were originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, but they had discovered a receptive audience in Canada as well as talented musicians. Robbie Robertson was one of them.
I sometimes hung out with the group after hours. Robbie was just fifteen then and finding his way as a musician. He seemed shy and reserved, intent on mastering the guitar, he and Levon practicing various licks well into the night, trying to imitate the masters. But Ronnie had an ear for talent, and he quickly saw that Robbie had lots of it. Hence my interest in reading Robbie’s accounts of those days.
Robbie describes a fascinating odyssey from his half Mohawk, half Jewish roots to Malibu, where he eventually ended up in the early ‘70s. After the Hawks made their mark with Ronnie, they decided to go out on their own, booking gigs and making records. They were consummate musicians, constantly expanding their repertoire and improving their techniques. Eventually they connected with Bob Dylan, and that relationship helped them to find their own identity as a group, later becoming The Band.
Testimony, then, is a declaration, a confirmation of tumultuous years, focusing mainly between the late ‘50s and 1976 when The Band gave its last concert with Robbie as part of the group. During this time, The Band’s members hung out with many famous artists, including the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and so many more. Apparently, this memoir wasn’t ghostwritten, and I was impressed with Robbie’s strong writing skills. He vividly captures people, places, dialogue, the works, making this period come alive for the reader.
These pages show the behind-the-scenes life the musicians lived and temptations they faced on or off the road, including on-going struggles with drugs of all kinds. It’s a reminder that the great pleasure these talented performers give us often comes at an equally great price—their mental and physical wellbeing. Robbie has managed to prevail. Many others don’t.