The title of this memoir, Testimony, begs the question, where’s the cross examination?

This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the BandMy jokey reference has to do with the feud between Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. That tension is finessed in this intriguing view of one of rock’s great bands, the Americana rockers, the Band. Levon’s main complaint in his book, This Wheel’s on Fire, was that Robbie pretty much broke up the band by hoarding songwriting credits, and the money that brought his way. Robbie claims that he insisted on equal credits, shared royalties early on, but later in the book mentions, without explanation, that he made sure Richard and Rick got credit on one of his songs. Obviously he wouldn’t have to do that if they were taking equal credit.

It’s an unsettled argument. I tend to come down with tradition. The songwriter gets songwriter royalties, the performers get performance royalties, so that’s just standard. REM deviated perhaps by sharing equally but Stipe only did the lyrics so that makes sense. It is absolutely true that the other members of The Band gave the songs personality, contributing mightily to their success… yet, that is recognized in performance royalties. But I ain’t arguing, I don’t get any of that action. Besides, Levon seemed like an ornery cuss sometimes, even without the array of paranoia-inducing drugs he, and they, got into. Witness him leaving the band when they were touring with and getting boo-ed by Dylan’s folk fans for going electric. Witness him pulling the scope out of his nose-throat exam in that documentary. And witness Levon, Rick and Richard all going stupid and doing heroin. So, petty stuff went on, yeah, but what music came out of that combination of personalities. They probably could have made interesting music getting lyrics out of the phone book but Robbie’s lyrics hit a chord with the public.

Testimony by Robbie RobertsonThe Last WaltzIn Testimony, the book covers Robertson’s early life but ends after the Band’s filmed finale in the venue they first played as the Band, San Francisco’s Winterland. This was the acclaimed film, The Last Waltz. It is so hard to get and hold a band together, a truth echoed in Robbie’s observation when he spent time with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo and of course in his own band. This is a fun part of the book, little teasing introductions to celebs Robbie routinely ran into – Jonie Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Miles Davis, Henry Miller, David Geffen, Charles Loyd, Neil Young, Jamie James (Jimmie Hendrix), Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, SLN crew, endless musicians, apparently totally comfortable and un-awed. Just as Previte the gangster found himself the smartest guy in the room, so did Robbie, often enough to insure his acceptance in those rarified circles.

At 15, Robbie’s then band opened for Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto. Ronnie was impressed and invited the precocious guitarist to audition. He dropped out of high school and trained to Arkansa, was given a chance to prove himself and worked to make that happen. They had to disguise his age since they were playing clubs he was too young to enter – fake mustache, etc;. Levon Helm, the only other eventual Band member at the time, became Robbie’s mentor and confidant. Personnel changes and Ronnie Hawkins’ eventual shift in interest whittled the group out and down to the five guys who made music history, first as Dylan’s backup band, then as the Band. It was their musical mastery and Robbie’s songs (and Dylan’s) at the heart of their taking the country by storm. Funny, in some of Dylan’s interviews he complained about getting bands together in high school and having someone come along and steal the players. He finally got his revenge by swooping in on Ronnie Hawkins, taking the Band on tour.

CarnyI watched an interview with Robbie, promoting his book, on youtube. He wasn’t asked if he’s still making music or much about what he’s been up to. Immediately after The Last Waltz, he was in a film with Gary Busey and Jody Foster, Carny it was called. But apparently he made enough money and got enough of the spotlight that he could just do whatever quiet thing he decided to do. Which, wikipedia tells me, is a lot: producing other artists, doing film scores, solo albums, co-writing, getting awards left and right. Having a rich, princely life.

Gangster by George AnastasiaThe first song Robbie got published, at 15, was stolen by a mob-infiltrated publishing company. Which brings me to another book I’ve been reading, Gangster by George Anastasia. This is a genre I return to periodically, that I find fascinating for some reason. One of the many despicable things mobsters do is move in on an established business, like the publishing company, and take it over, or demand a percentage of the profits for “protection,” maybe use if also for money laundering.

Ron Previte was nudged out of the Air Force when his incorrigible thievery became obvious but not proveable. With an honorable discharge he was able to join the Philadelphia police department where he took his skills to new heights. Again his behavior, not so uncommon for awhile in that department, became a liability when a reformist Chief came aboard. Nudged out again he took up security work at the new Atlantic City casinos. Now the thievery got truly imaginative, profitable and decadent. Eventually he was busted and became an informer for the New Jersey State Police. This allowed him to pursue his criminality unimpeded. Disgusted with him after some years the state passed him onto the FBI.

His casino and street work had brought him into contact with the Philadelphia mob and since he was such an “earner” he wormed his way into their hearts. He discovered that he was pretty consistently the smartest guy in the room so didn’t mind ratting these sorry guys out, feeling that it was only a matter of time before they were all in prison anyway. Over a period of years he wore a wire and got the goods for the FBI. He continued his shake-downs, extortion, drugs, receiving stolen property business (never murder he claims), making substantial money all while drawing a salary from the Feds and allowing them to fund schemes designed to lure mobsters into drug deals and various other illegal operations in order to get them off the streets.

Previte seemed to admire the old time gangsters with their Omerta and so-called “honor” but the new version, typified by New York’s John Gotti, was foolishly flamboyant, way too public, courting the media, public and ostentatious spending, seeking celebrity… obviously bringing attention to themselves in ways that would advantage the authorities who wanted to bring them down. Omerta of course was the code of silence practiced by the older generation but suddenly, facing life in prison, many criminals, even high-ranking Cosa Nostra made members, did deals with prosecutors that decimated the ranks. There certainly was no lack of replacements but it was becoming more and more stressful and risky to pursue criminality for profit. The deal-making with authorities became quite contagious and, at least for awhile, the Philadelphia mob was in disarray.

The government made a deal with the highest ranking mobster in Philadelphia to testify against his former cronies, which didn’t work out so well for the government. Juries returned “not proven” verdicts on all charges dependent on boss Ralph Natale’s testimony. The government had Natale but gave it up for nothing, as it turned out. The big boss is handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ron Previte however, with his tapes, was more successful, putting many of the crew in for relatively long terms. They were not convicted of the murders they were surely guilty of, disappointing the prosecutors and FBI, having traded the top boss for a chance at the others, especially the real boss, Joey Merlino. They did however put top cadre away for a good many years, 14 for Merlino, not enough given his crimes, but still… and the Feds were moving in on the replacement boss, Joe Ligambi, now presiding over only about a dozen members, down from 70. And the 300 pound “fat rat”, Ron Previte? Five years probation and a million dollars for risking his life to make those recordings. Of course the vacuum created by good police work was soon filled by Russian and East European gangsters, another story.

The feature image is an illustration by the author, Tom Ferguson.
Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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