At the beginning of The Last Waltz, the 1978 Martin Scorsese documentary that captured the final concert by the original lineup of the Band in 1976, guitarist Robbie Robertson attempts to describe the show to the director. Editing himself in real time and keyed up on a combination of adrenaline and cocaine, he takes a couple of passes at his answer to make sure it rings the right notes of humility and gravitas.
I thought about that little scene frequently as I was going through the pages of Testimony, Robertson’s recently released memoir. Testimony primarily covers his tenure with the Band, starting with the group’s days backing up Southern roustabout Ronnie Hawkins and folk-rock’s premier poet Bob Dylan, and ending just after the final notes of their last hurrah in San Francisco on Thanksgiving night in 1976. Here at last is Robertson’s big chance to get his side of the story down on paper, ringing those same tones of modesty and wonderment.
Unfortunately for Robertson, his well-documented ego keeps getting the better of him. Although Testimony is decidedly well-structured and compelling, it’s also Robertson’s attempt to paint the self-portrait of a tortured genius, besieged on all sides by the awful commercial demands of the Band’s label and the encroaching influence of hard drugs on his careless bandmates (which, to be fair, was a huge problem). In his telling, Robertson always seems to know what’s best for the group and hardly touches anything beyond booze and weed. And did he mention that he’s a hotshot guitarist who has played with the best musicians around and rubbed elbows with the cream of the cultural world?
The truth, of course, is a lot more complicated than that. While acknowledging their own failings, many of his former bandmates have complained about being cut out of a fair share of the songwriting credits, and have said that The Last Waltz was forced upon them. Robertson doesn’t address these things, preferring to put a rosy-colored glow on his glances at his ex-bandmates at the end—after a few hundred pages of dredging up their addictions and questionable behavior, since most of them aren’t around anymore to call bullshit.
In other words, this is exactly the kind of book that students of rock history should have expected from Robertson: a one-sided testimony from a star witness, representing himself, with no defense team on hand to cross-examine. Case dismissed.