Tuesday, March 22, 2022
I'm presently reading Robbie Robertson's Testimony, at least in part because I am interested in the question of whether Robertson can really be said to have been the auteur of The Band. Levon Helm contended that The Band's songwriting process was chiefly collaborative, and that all of the members should have received songwriting credits and royalties. Robertson is credited as the songwriter for pretty much all of The Band's best known material. Notably, Helm and Robertson are the only band members to have written memoirs, and only Robertson and Garth Hudson survive today.
Greil Marcus described the work of Dylan and The Band as being about, "the weird, old America", and I would contend that this is more true of The Band than of Dylan- Bob writes about a lot of things (although mostly he writes about Bob Dylan). The Band's subjects seem more narrowly focused, and seem largely concerned with life and adventures in rural America. Robertson, a Canadian who grew up in Toronto and whose mother was Cayuga and Mohawk does not seem to have any sort of connection to those subjects, and Helm certainly does- but it's art, right? That's what artists do- they create things. They build worlds.
It is worth mentioning that the first anecdote in Robertson's book is about having to share songwriting credit with the head of a recording label. The song in question, "Hey Babalu", recorded by Ronnie Hawkins is a pretty good old-school rock and roll number, and that's interesting too- Robertson is a pretty pure rock and roller who doesn't claim the Blues much at all. The fact that he wrote something like this when he was 14 is at least evidence that Robertson knew his way around songwriting from the beginning- there really isn't any competing evidence on Levon's side. In fact, Helm only gets songwriting credit on some scattered numbers by the group: "Strawberry Wine", "Life Is a Carnival", "Ophelia".
That's on one side of the ledger. On the other side is that Music From Big Pink, The Band and Cahoots, the sides that The Band's reputation as a stand alone act were built on sound like they came out of a deeply lived place.
The Band made two great albums, and some others that are pretty good. By the time they reached the Last Waltz it is obvious that drugs and alcohol were consuming everyone except Robbie. None of the members went on to produce anything on the level of their work as The Band, although Robertson's soundtrack work is well-regarded.
One of the pleasures of life in the 21st Century is that I can stream the music I am reading about. Robertson's prose is pretty clunky, but the songs- whoever the auteur, are pretty wonderful.