Rock ’n’ Roll, Minute by Minute

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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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