by Robbie Robertson
My favourite concert film is The Last Waltz, the farewell gig for The Band, directed by Martin Scorsese. (Here is the IMDB link to the film's credits http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/?ref_=nv_sr_1 )
It has an enjoyable roughness to it and a list of performers to die for, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Dr John, Bob Dylan and on and on. Check the link, especially the rousing Who Do You Love by Ronnie Hawkins.
Before the Band was The Band, they were The Hawks, backing group for the excitable Ronnie Hawkins and they gained much road experience touring with him. Hawkins was the leader, a mentor and something of a talent scout, as well as a growly lead performer. He was a wild man and the lifestyle of his travelling rock and roll circus played along with the definitive interpretation of such an existence - drugs, booze, women and all the ballyhoo.
There were a number of Hawks incarnations but five musicians emerged eventually and decided to go their own way. Around 1964, after a few years as Hawks, Canadians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, and Arkansas's Levon Helm began a journey that saw them collaborate with many musicians and songwriters, most notably Bob Dylan. They recorded and toured with Dylan (1965 - 1967) and endured the infamous booing phase of Dylan's career when he started using electrical instruments, thereby annoying the hell out of the acoustic folkie purists around the world. Bob Dylan and the five would record a lot of songs that emerged as bootleg albums and, years after they were recorded, as a more official collection called The Basement Tapes.
At first they had no name (they were 'Bob's backing group') but by 1968 they became The Band. Music from Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, Cahoots and more albums offered something distinctive, something that sounded different from conventional rock bands, primarily due to the members' multi-instrumental talents and, especially, the keyboard wizardry of Garth Hudson.
By the time of The Last Waltz, band members seemed to have reached the end of the line for all sorts of personal reasons. The collegiate spirit and enthusiasm they enjoyed in their formative years had all but evaporated. A final concert blow-out (25 November, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco) seemed to be the best way to put a full stop to the narrative.
Robbie Robertson's autobiography Testimony is his account of where it all started, where it wobbled and where, when and why it all came to an end for The Band. On many levels, it is a great rock and roll story, written well and chronicling the highs and lows of an amazing group of individuals who, it seemed, could turn their hands to any aspect of roots, country, folk, rock and old-time music, and make a pretty good fist of most of it.
The book is nearly 500-pages long (apparently it was a lot longer than that pre-editing) and it does contain a lot of technical descriptions of instruments and recording techniques that weren't of much interest to me. But much of the story is compelling and it does reflect a very significant period in music history.
The Band disintegrated and, despite a few reunion and revival attempts without Robertson, they were all shadow performances of what had once been a period of creative brilliance.
Outside the book, there are people who like Robbie Robertson and people who dislike him. There are those who see his version of events as self-serving and accuse him of unfairly hogging much of the credit for The Band's game plan and success. Well, it is his autobiography! But as an interested reader, I felt quite a bit of honest analysis and self-criticism in the story. There have been arguments, disagreements and bitter feelings from some former members of The Band during and after The Last Waltz.
Robbie Robertson writes: "The Band had come to a crossroads. So many mixed emotions lead to confusion, and confusion can lead to self-destruction. The feeling was if we can't break something else, we'll break ourselves. None of us wanted to destroy the thing we loved but we didn't know how not to, and we didn't know how to say goodbye."
Testimony is one of the best books I've read on bands and rock and roll.
Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. He was 42.
Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999. He was 55.
Levon Helm died from cancer in 2012. he was 71.
At the time of writing:
Robbie Robertson is 73.
Garth Hudson is 79.