Rock ’n’ Roll, Minute by Minute

Unknown

Testimony, by Robbie Robertson

As with so many music fans, I loved The Band’s music. It harkened to history, but while doing so it had a way of being contemporary. I had thought the bandmates would have done that on purpose, but no, they weren’t that self-aware. Instead they loved old fashioned rock ’n’ roll, gospel, folk music, and country equally, and allowed those influences to meld into their musical sound. Robertson’s book is all about himself, but underlying that is the history of rock. And as such it’s a form of cultural digest of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies.

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Many will read this book, anxiously flipping pages hoping to get a whiff of the famed dispute between Robertson and drummer/singer Levon Helm. Robertson alludes to some of that issue, referring to Helm’s heroin addiction and emotional volatility, but it’s clear the author didn’t wish to dig up those bones after so many years. What Robertson did is detail virtually every moment from the time he joined Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks until The Band dissolved temporarily after the famed Last Waltz concert. The book seems overlong, Robertson’s accounting too detailed, but I don’t think this was a random occurrence. The life of any artistic person is that way—days and nights uncounted of planning, sketching, noodling on piano or guitar as one attempts to squeeze from latent skills a creative expression of some vague idea that just won’t let go of the artist.

By Robertson’s accounting and as a sixteen year-old, he attracts by chance the notice of Hawkins and refines his guitar chops and performing persona with Hawkins’ band, The Hawks. During the next couple of years, the band adds Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Robertson details the years that follow their abandoning Hawkins to back up Bob Dylan, and then venturing out finally as The Band. They aren’t part of the “peace and love” crowd; they carry blackjacks and pistols, and in one instance toy with holding up a high stakes poker game. They drink heavily and abuse drugs. And still they manage to develop their individual crafts and merge them into the unique musical vehicle that is The Band.

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Robertson’s writing voice is much the same as his speaking voice, colored with street and back-alley musical lingo that manages to be highly expressive while forgoing purple prose. As such, this is a memoir that’s unusually well written. Robertson manages to draw the reader into their shabby but creative world, and this reader felt compelled, with the reading done, to re-watch The Last Waltz with a whole new appreciation of their quirky, highly improbable musical world.

My Rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

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The Unknown War

The Wind Is Not A River, by Brian Payton


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Did you know that during World War II, the Japanese actually invaded the American mainland? Neither did I until I followed up on the history Payton’s story was built around. Actually “mainland” may be a bit misleading; the Japanese invaded the two westernmost islands, Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian chain. This story was withheld from the American public so as not to worry them unduly about the state of the war in the Pacific theater.

The story: John Easley, a Canadian journalist, cons his way onto a U.S. bomber in order to follow a story, using his brother Warren’s name and Canadian military rank. The plane is shot down, and only two on the plane survive: Easley and a young boy named Karl Bitburg the only survivors. They hole up in a cave on Attu, live on mussels and shore birds, keep warm by burning driftwood and coal they steal from the Japanese. Soon Karl is gone, leaving John to brave the frigid elements. Meanwhile, Easley’s wife, Helen, cons her way into the Aleutians in search of John, and the story alternates segments on John’s survival and Helen’s fated search for him.

This isn’t The Bridges of Madison County, and it isn’t Jack London’s To Build a Fire; it’s an inventive and nearly true story of noncombatants caught in the tangles of war. As such, Payton has dreamed up an inventive tale that keeps you wishing and hoping.
Payton has chosen to write his book in third person, present tense, a choice that can work well in short fiction, but in a novel it leaves this writer too much aware of the narrator, thus creating distance between reader and writer. There are ways to make such a structural choice work: leaving long narrative passages in that person and tense, but when closer to the characters and in dialogue, it would have worked better to switch to past tense. But still it’s a difficult choice. The book seems to have suffered from editing, too; there are a sufficient number of typographic and grammatical errors which my distract a reader.

But the book remains worthy of a read. I only wish Payton’s editorial choices had been ones to leave the novel more transparent to the reader. Then I would have declared the book a keeper.

My rating 16 of 20 stars.

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you