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When the bear submits her manuscript, her editor tells her to lay off the philosophizing. “Your experiences are important,” he says, “not your thoughts.” This is somewhat odd advice to give a literate bear, who presumably could hold a reader’s attention whatever the subject. At any rate, it’s not advice that another Canadian émigré, the guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, takes much to heart. His new book, TESTIMONY (Crown, $30), gives wide scope to his musings on family, music, recording, life on the road, and that subject dearest to the memoirist’s heart: himself.

“Four Canadian rockers held together by an Arkansas drummer” is what Greil Marcus called them: guitarist Robertson; singer and pianist Richard Manuel; bassist and singer Rick Danko; organist, elder statesman, and technical wizard Garth Hudson; and everybody’s favorite, Levon Helm. They met while backing Ronnie Hawkins, an unspectacular rockabilly crooner who mustered a following north of the border. After flying the Hawk’s coop, the band that would become the Band toured behind Dylan and relocated to Woodstock, where they smoked weed, noodled around, crashed sports cars, and composed much of the material that would appear on Music from Big Pink and The Basement Tapes. These were, along with The Band, two albums that — Marcus again — “gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed.”

The Band in Woodstock, N.Y. © Elliott Landy/Redferns/Getty Images

The Band in Woodstock, N.Y. © Elliott Landy/Redferns/Getty Images

There’s some great writing on the Band out there for the curious or the high-minded. Testimony is a book for the fans. Robertson is a fun raconteur, with a good memory for a compliment. George Harrison, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix — they all paid their respects. Sometimes it took a minute to get on his level. “The highly regarded mastering engineer” Bob Ludwig called Robertson up to “apologize profusely” for having said that the rough mixes on The Band were too heavy. “He’d realized that the album had a depth and richness, with a unique character that he couldn’t even describe.” When Joni Mitchell “properly listened to what I did, it slayed her.” Robertson always counts his blessings. Of producing Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise: “I was grateful to have had another terrific musical experience while pulling off something that most people thought went totally against the grain.”

The grossest moment in Testimony comes when Robertson answers the charge that has dogged him for years — that he stole publishing rights from his former bandmates. The year is 1976. They’ve just wrapped Northern Lights–Southern Cross. Their best days are well behind them.

Richard told me he was really sorry that he hadn’t contributed to the Band’s songwriting for such a long time. . . . I held no resentment for that; I knew you can only create when you feel the spirit. . . . But Richard . . . felt bad about it, and offered for me to buy out his end of the publishing. I disagreed. “They say never give up your publishing.” But he said he didn’t want to have this burden hanging over him and he could use the money now. Rick overheard the conversation and said he also thought he hadn’t come through on his end of the bargain. If I could afford it, he’d like to be bought out too. . . . Garth was quick to say he had something to buy and could use the cash. Levon was hesitant, and I reminded him what they say about publishing and asked him to hang onto it.

Robertson neglects to mention that Manuel, who suffered from a substance-abuse problem for the ages, hanged himself in a Florida hotel room in 1986. Let’s just say this: when your junkie friend comes to you and asks you to screw him over for a fix, and you oblige, and he goes back to the road to make a living, and kills himself, and then you write a book that says, “It was his idea!” you do not come out looking like a winner.

Playing nursemaid to a bunch of ambitionless drunks and dopeheads couldn’t have been easy. (Robertson didn’t want to do heroin, but, you know, it would have been nice to be asked. “They probably knew I would condemn this hard-core interference with our work, so I didn’t really expect an invitation, but hell, I was no angel.”) He checked out after The Last Waltz, but the others continued to perform together. Without Robertson, though, they didn’t write any decent songs — they filled sets with back catalogue and down-home covers. The Band, like the body of Christ, needed all its members. As the music critic Barney Hoskyns put it, their unique genius was a matter of “Robbie’s insatiable need for artistic credibility” being “rooted” and given “flesh and blood” by the rest.

Robertson has the good sense to leave off testifying just when most people would stop caring, but I wish he had spared a few pages for his solo albums, or for the months in the late Seventies when he shacked up with Marty Scorsese. They installed blackout curtains and a cooling system so they wouldn’t know if it was day or night, and gorged on movies from the MGM library while inhaling mountains of cocaine. That’s how the young lions did it in L.A.

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