Sunday, November 17, 2019

Nurse the Hate: Robbie Robertson's "Testimony"

I finally just read Robbie Robertson's book "Testimony".  Robertson is the guitar player for The Band, a sacred cow in the world of roots rock.  No matter what you feel about The Band's later Seventies rock excesses, their first two records "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band" are undeniably great.  The Band later succumbed to a familiar recipe for 1970s band death of drugs, fame, drugs, and ego.  And drugs.  If you ever want to witness first hand the destructive power of cocaine, try to sit through the interview sections of the 1978 documentary of The Band's final concert "The Last Waltz".  Robertson is so fueled up on coke his ego explodes unchecked across the screen while other band members squirm uncomfortably on couches nearby.  It's really something.

Robertson gets the last word on The Band's story as the other members have passed away with the exception of keyboardist Garth Hudson who I assume is rebuilding a vintage Leslie organ in woodland Canada.  Robertson had been vilified by Levon Helm in his book "This Wheel's On Fire", a bio on The Band.  Even now, in towns like Nashville where criticism of The Band or Levon Helm is openly dangerous to your health, the accepted version of events is that Robbie stole Levon's Southern background for the songs and later clipped the money away from the rest of the guys.  The truth appears a bit more gray.  Luckily for Robertson, he gets the last word.

Robbie's version of events are that he wrote or at the least initiated the songs and the other members were credited with arrangements as noted on the credits.  By the third record "Stage Fright, Levon/Richard/Rick are all drunks and/or junkies and he's pulling all the weight himself.  This could be true as the quality of the songs begins to plummet by the fourth record.  Of course, one could argue that if he was coming up with all the great songs in the beginning, he should have kept coming up with at least pretty good songs by record #4.  The material gets lightweight by the "Cahoots" LP and the "Moonlight Matinee" set of R&B covers during full on out of control behavior from Helm/Manual/Danko suggests that maybe Robbie is fudging on the amount of collaboration that happened in The Band.

What I find most damning is buried on one single page toward the back of the book.  This is Robbie's version of how he ended up with all the publishing rights.  His breezy account is that Richard Manuel felt guilty he wasn't pulling his share with the songwriting so in a fit of guilt tells Robbie he wants to get his publishing bought out.  Miraculously Rick walks by and says that sounds like a pretty good idea and suggest maybe Levon would want to take a buyout too.  Robbie maintains a "Huh, well I never thought of that, but I suppose I could...  Are you guys sure?  I don't know if that's a good idea.".  It was just a funny little thing that happened.  Oh, and the fact that Robbie had been hanging out with Albert Grossman and David Geffen probably had no factor in the incident at all...

Yet, Helm/Manuel/Danko were fuckups that partied their way through the 70s, so that comes at a cost.  Babysitting those guys had to be brutal.  The stories of destroyed cars, nodding off at sessions, cancelled tours run through the book.  They only have themselves to blame.  They didn't have to sell their publishing rights.  They were industry vets at that point, not little kids.  And if Levon was such a songwriting force, where are his songs?  I mean, I could get beaten with a tire iron in Nashville for even suggesting it, but if Robbie had the initiative to create and bring in songs celebrating the Southern heritage that Levon had showed him, maybe Levon could have written the songs himself.  That's on Levon.

Robbie pushes the narrative he was peddling in The Last Waltz for the breakup of The Band.  "Hey man, we had to get off The Road.  The Road was going to kill us."  As examples, he points to a bad flight and a boat mishap with a clearly drunk Richard fractured his neck.  But how much touring did they do?  I looked it up because Robbie kept talking about how dangerous its was being out on "The Road".  He goes on and on and on about it on The Last Waltz.  Here are the numbers...  In 1976 they played 26 shows.  In 1975 they played once.  In 1974 they played 83 dates as part of what was the biggest tour of all time to that point, a package featuring Bob Dylan, a massive cash grab.  In that, they played multiple dates in the same cities, so it was 53 different cities.  In 1973 they played 5 shows in 3 cities.  They didn't play in 1972.  In 1971, they played 27 shows.  That's an average of 32 shows a year across those six years.  "Yeah man... We were doing almost three shows a month... You don't know what it's like to be dancing on the razor like that man..."  What a bunch of shit.

The bottom line was the backstage drugs and post show partying might have killed them.  They were all doing mountains of cocaine, cases of cognac, and plenty of heroin.  What Robbie should have said was "Yeah, we had to get off the road because we were all drug addicts and drunks" instead of that mystical "The Road" trying to conjure up a doomed fate out of their control like Buddy Holly.  They were traveling first class in jet airliners, tour buses and trains.  It's not like they were driving around in a van like D. Boon and Mike Watt at 4am.  It's disingenuous.

Like the subject matter of many of their songs, "Testimony" is folklore from a bygone era.  These are tall tales from when musical dinosaurs walked the land.  It might be the truth, it might not.  It's probably Robbie's truth, and that's all one can reasonably expect.  The Band, when you get down to it, are two great records and an extremely fortunate gig as Bob Dylan's band during what is arguably the most important and legendary tour of all time, the 1966 Euro Tour.  The same craftsmanship that was applied to the early songs is also applied to the men in this bio.  No matter the facts, the stories are colorful.  



At November 22, 2019 at 8:17:00 PM EST , Blogger Cy Zibrik, MPA said...

I’ve always hated The Band. Never thought they were any great shakes.


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