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book review

The Band, comprised left to right of Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, whose Testimony recounts the life and times of one of Canada’s most iconic contributions to the rock ’n’ roll cannon.

If you were alive and musically conscious in the late 1960s, you might well have been astonished by a group with the humblebrag name, the Band. Four Canadians and one Arkansan produced a sound unlike any other, at once timeless and modern.

Their subtle, suggestive, sometimes cryptic songs channelled a reinvented America, with its carnies, struggling dirt farmers, Civil War survivors, worried men, religious strivers, even self-destructive rockers.

Listen to the first, astonishing, album, 1968's Music from Big Pink (named for a house the Band lived in near Woodstock, N.Y.; yes, that one), and even these many years later, you'll find a revelatory distillation of gospel, mountain music, string band, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel, New Orleans jazz and piano roll, all propelled by strong narrative, unusual, haunting harmonies and a sense that the music was being improvised.

The Band, until its dissolution, was very much an egalitarian ensemble, with three lead singers and tight, innovative musicianship. But their greatest songs – The Weight, Chest Fever, King Harvest, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, It Makes No Difference, Acadian Driftwood – were largely the creation of Robbie Robertson, unlikely child of a brief affair between a Mohawk woman and a Jewish Torontonian of dubious probity. (Robertson's biological father, whom he never met, died in a roadside accident.)

The Band's story has been told before, notably in Barney Hoskyn's excellent Across the Great Divide and singer/drummer Levon Helm's memoir, This Wheel's on Fire. But Robbie Robertson's memoir, Testimony, showing off the story-telling chops he says he learned from tales heard in the longhouses of his mother's Six Nations reserve and from reading the screenplays of Akira Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel and others, is a particularly rich stew of incident and anecdote. It's also a standout in a recent rivulet of aging-rocker memoirs from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson and Chrissie Hynde. (I do wish, though, that the book had included an index and, more important, a full discography.)

Robertson was hired as guitarist by Arkansas rockabilly wild man Ronnie Hawkins, then a frequent performer in Toronto (and now long a Canadian citizen) when he was 15 years old. His tales of a naif's growth in those early, formative, raucous, raunchy days, both for Robertson and for rock 'n' roll, provide some of the book's most vivid pages.

His adolescent sense of excitement and amazement jump off the page as Hawkins carts him off to New York, where he meets great songwriters such as Doc Pomus, and the team of Leiber and Stoller. Then, contrapuntally, off to the honky-tonks and blues bars of Arkansas and Mississippi. The effect was electrifying, and young Robbie's love of the songs of the South was born there. He immersed himself not only in the music, but, much to the quizzical amusement of Hawkins, in Southern literature: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor.

His long apprenticeship with the good-natured but hard-driving Hawkins was also his introduction to the other members of what would become, serially, the Hawks and the Band: Levon Helm preceded Robertson, but Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and the musically sophisticated Garth Hudson soon joined them. Embedded within the narrative are incisive, warm, sometimes critical portraits of all four.

Readers may be excused for occasional pangs of envy, not so much for the rowdy rock 'n' roll life of drugs and sex (about which Robertson is always ambivalent) as for Robertson's front-row seat, and often more intimate, encounters, with many musical and cultural icons: Otis Redding, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Carly Simon, but also Marlon Brando, Henry Miller, Salvador Dali and Allen Ginsberg. These short, lively anecdotes are usually incisive and often quite funny.

The most memorable portrait is that of Bob Dylan, with whom the Band had a long and fruitful relationship, from backing him on an ill-fated electric tour (folks fans were outraged at what they saw as Dylan's betrayal; he didn't care) to The Basement Tapes, an eclectic collection of more than 100 often brilliant songs, from original compositions to resurrected traditional tunes.

After Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle accident, the members of the then-Hawks moved to the Woodstock area and much of the book is an account of those years: the superb music-making, the marriages and children, the growing drug use and drinking, the frequent car crashes, and then the move to Malibu, Calif., and the celebrity culture that seems on occasion to dazzle Robertson perhaps a little too much, and often to the vexation of his Band-mates.

The book ends when Robertson is just 33 (he's now 73 and, with Hudson, the Band's only survivors), with the brilliant concert at San Francisco's Winterland, immortalized in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz.

Tired of the road, tired of rock 'n' roll excess, tired of watching Manuel, Helm and Danko descend into drunk/drugged hells, missing his family, Robbie Robertson hangs up his rock 'n' roll shoes.

But there is an unwritten aftermath. In his own 1993 memoir, Levon Helm scathingly accused Robertson of hogging songwriting credits, snatching authority over a band that had been constitutionally democratic, and of making The Last Waltz his personal vehicle. Robertson's account of Helm, who had been his nearest friend (and who died in 2012), is mostly warm and even tender. (In their impoverished early days, the two even came dangerously close to staging a holdup.)

But, as Ronnie Hawkins once told this reviewer: "Robbie was the only one who took care of business." So, rather than leader of the Band, a role he disavows forcefully and frequently, let's just call him first among equals, a status Testimony so eloquently confirms.

Former Globe Books editor Martin Levin, a long-time Band devotee, wrote The Lonesome Death of Richard Manuel for Toronto Life.