Book Review: Robbie Robertson’s ‘Testimony’

Testimony Robbie Robertson

If you love rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to read Robbie Robertson’s “Testimony.” The lead guitarist for The Band shows off his storytelling chops, giving one fascinating anecdote after another.

Remember him talking in the interview sessions spliced into “The Last Waltz”? “Testimony” is a whole book like that.

The paperback is about 500 pages, and I devoured it in a few days. The only downside to the book is that it isn’t longer. Robertson is such a talented artist with a fascinating life; I wish the book went on to his solo career, including his success making music for movies.

“Testimony” focuses on the rise and fall of The Band, from its beginnings backing Ronnie Hawkins, to performing in the violent crucible of Bob Dylan’s transition to electric, to the days of being a group in its own right.

Drummer Levon Helm (R.I.P.) became very bitter at what he saw as Robertson’s abandonment of The Band after “The Last Waltz,” which was supposed to be the exclamation point before a creative hiatus for the group.

“Testimony” lets Robertson tell his side of the story, with a focus on his bromance with Helm that eventually gives way to his bromance with Dylan.

“Testimony” is not a revenge tell-all. It’s not trying to settle scores. Instead, Robertson’s voice is elegant and compassionate.

For you guitarists out there, you’ll geek out to Robertson’s technical notes on guitars, plus his songwriting descriptions.

The legendary Basement Tapes with Dylan in Woodstock are conjured in detail. I suggest reading Greil Marcus’s excellent “The Old, Weird America,” an exegesis of related musical folklore, to deepen your understanding of the Basement Tapes, and American musical history in general.

I hope Robertson comes out with part two of his memoir, just like I’ve been waiting for Dylan’s “Chronicles: Volume II”….