By Des Cowley
Testimony by Robbie Robertson (pb, William Heinemann)
I can’t remember where I was when Kennedy was shot. But I can recall the first time I heard The Band’s music. It was late 1969, and I’d taken a bus with my elder brother to a cinema in Parramatta to see Easy Rider. Clearly underage for the film’s Adult rating, the manager was called. My brother flashed his best mature demeanour, and, after vouching for my moral safety, we got in. I can recall to this day the scene of Peter Fonda ditching his watch, before Captain America and Billy rode out into the desert. Cue gentle mandolin chords, drums, and the haunting, aching beauty of Levon Helm’s voice: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about half past dead…” It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, music for the ages.
Of course, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, for me and Robbie both. Now, as one of only two surviving members of The Band, he has given testimony to how it all went down. His book begins in 1960, the year he took a train from Toronto to Arkansas, aged 16, to try out for a job playing guitar with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, led by Southern drummer Levon Helm. Robbie was soon paying his dues, performing rockabilly nightly for loose change. Along the way, new members got recruited, Canadians all: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson. It’s like watching Arthur assembling his knights for the round table, though, in this scenario, it is Arthur (or Ronnie) that ends up being surplus to requirement.
Robertson provides a detailed account of life on the road with the Hawks, and it is not till some 150 pages in that Bob Dylan enters stage left, hoping to entice Robbie, and later Levon, to join his band. When informed the Hawks come as a unit, Bob mercifully acquiesces, and musical history is forged.
The band (not yet the Band) toured the US with Dylan in late 1965, playing to irate audiences, before embarking on a world tour the following year, exhaustively documented on the recent 36 disc-set The 1966 Live Recordings.
Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident, all roads led to Woodstock, and to the basement of “a pink ranch style house in the middle of a hundred acres” that became known as Big Pink. Is there another house, aside from Nellcôte (scene of Exile on Main Street) so associated with immortal music? It was both laboratory and alchemist’s lair, inhabited by carnival musicians who looked like they’d stepped out of a nineteenth century photograph.
Away from the public eye, Dylan and the Band (minus Levon initially) were free to try out songs, toy with musical ideas, inhabit characters, tell stories. We are all familiar with the slice of history created there: the fabled Basement Tapes, the equally fabled bootleg Great White Wonder, and the Band’s masterpiece Music from Big Pink. Do we need to know more than that Eric Clapton broke up Cream upon hearing it?
The sudden fame and cash flow generated by the Band’s first two albums set in motion their tragic decline. With three unique singers, and an arsenal of instruments at their disposal, it should have been a home run. Robertson’s take – which was always going to vary from Levon Helm’s own account This Wheel’s On Fire – lays the blame squarely on drugs, alcohol, laziness, and growing family commitments. He increasingly found himself shouldering the burden, looking after finances, contributing the bulk of the song writing, becoming de facto leader. It was a game of diminishing returns, as the sheer genius of the first albums began to drop away. By the time of Moondog Matinee, the Band was marking time, gasping for air.
Robertson ends his book with an account of The Last Waltz concert. It makes for captivating reading, with filmmaker Martin Scorsese and his crew flying by the seat of their pants endeavouring to capture the moment. Rather than a whimper, this was going out in style.
To his credit, Robertson is generous about the extraordinary talents of his co-members, particularly Garth Hudson, a man of musical genius and modesty, who comes out best of all. He elects not to dwell on later song writing disputes, but does provide a spirited account of his contributions. While he is not a gifted prose stylist in the way Dylan is, he has nonetheless given us a big readable book, long on detail, that tells the story, as he recollects it, of a group of friends and musicians who, in a few short years, effectively forged a new genre of American music.