The Jubilant Levon Helm
by Matt ThompsonFrom Flagpole magazine, April 2000.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
See also Matt Thompson's concert review of Levon & the Barn Burners.
"That ol' wheel is gonna roll around once more...
and when it does, it's gonna even up the score."
Despite its relative youth in the canon of human achievement, rock music has already proved itself rather mercurial. Just when it seems the music is getting too big for its britches or the record companies seem to have too much power, rock and roll comes back from where it was born, back from the inner-city streets and hardscrabble country farms to reinvent itself. Whatever spirit of rebellion drives rock and roll then strips away the pretentiousness and the pomposity of the music and takes it back to the roots.
This happened back in '63, when the Beatles and the Stones reminded American listeners, in a roundabout way, about the blues and R&B after far too many years of teen idols. It happened in the late '70s, when the punks did their damnedest to let the air out of arena rock. It happened just 10 years ago, when Nirvana reminded us that good lyrics are still important now and then. With the faceless, manufactured nature of modern pop music and the soullessness of techno, we're past due for a rejuvenation as the new millennium starts.
Maybe we need one like we got back in 1968, when four Canadians and one Arkansas good ol' boy, in the midst of the Age of Aquarius and the whole psychedelic revolution, released a simple album of roots-based rock and roll that set the pop music world on its ear. They were The Band; the album was Music From Big Pink, and the wheel turned 'round once more.
"I am as fascinated by it as I ever was," says Levon Helm. "I've spent half a lifetime watching it and trying to figure it out, and, damn, I'm still amazed by it and haven't gotten it no more figured out than the first day. I don't forget the songs, though. It's easy to forget 'em, but it's our job as musicians and it's up to us to make sure people don't forget 'em. That's what The Band was all about, and that's what the Barnburners are here for."
Helm was, of course, the Arkansas good ol' boy drummer of The Band, perhaps the finest musical group in rock and roll's short history. In the span of only three albums, Helm and The Band created some real classics: "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "This Wheel's On Fire" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," just to name a few. The Band's musical ability was stunning. Each member was capable of playing a number of instruments with proficiency. The lyrics were deeply rooted in American mythos; while everyone else at the time was calling for the downfall of governments and "up-against-the-wall-motherfucker" values, The Band told tales of our forgotten or ignored past with such honesty and purity, that even 30 years later, one is stunned by their impact. Even the Beatles and Eric Clapton radically changed their music due to the Band's pure musical honesty.
"In a way, what we did was sort of anti-psychedelic," Helm reflects. "We were hard-headed enough to not want to be a part of that whole thing. I was pretty much tired of the whole folk scene at the time, and the only American music that was having any impact was Motown. We just tried to play something that was familiar to us and didn't have no idea of being right or wrong; we just wanted to be us."
Now, some 30 years later, the wheel has turned back around for Helm. His new outfit, The Barnburners, is going back to rock's roots: the blues. The band, which includes Helm on drums, guitarist Pat O'Shea, harp man and vocalist Chris O'Leary, bass player Frank Ingrayo and Helm's own daughter Amy on vocals, plays classic blues tunes by giants like Louie Jordon, Muddy Waters and Rice "Sonnyboy Williamson" Miller. Based in Woodstock, NY - the original home of The Band - this group, according to Helm, is still paying its dues, but has the same sort of drive, intensity and love of roots that made his first band so special.
"These kids don't wanna play nothing but the blues, and that suits the hell out of me," he enthuses in his craggy Arkansas twang. "There's nothing more I like hearing. Hopefully, we're building another good band. I don't know how it compares, really; it probably doesn't.
"When The Band was coming up, a lot of this stuff was unknown, so you got a lot of hindsight. Today's music has such a broad spectrum, you can pick what you like. It seems there's so much music, and half of it's going to hell in a handbasket, so you might as well play what you like."
Helm's love of music stretches back to his youth on a farm in tiny Marvell, Arkansas, when he took up the guitar at age eight. He switched to the drums after seeing the F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels (later immortalized in The Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show"), because you could see everything from the drummer seat, simply put, "that's where the best seat in the house was." Absorbing the country music broadcast by the Grand Ole Opry and soaking up blues from the King Biscuit shows beamed in from nearby Helena, his interest in rock and roll was sparked by seeing Elvis Presley perform. Helm soon began sitting in with fellow Arkansan and future country god Conway Twitty. After a while, he hooked up with rockabilly Johnny-come-lately and all-around-character Ronnie Hawkins, who took the young drummer to Canada. There, The Hawks were formed, the core of which later made up The Band.
After tiring of Hawkins' rather dictatorial leadership, The Hawks went out on their own, recording a few singles before hooking up with Bob Dylan, who used the group as his backing band for his legendary and controversial turn towards electric music. Helm, uncomfortable with the boos and catcalls folk purists were throwing at Dylan, split from the group and went back to Arkansas.
He returned in 1967 to Canada, as the group now known simply as The Band began work on Music From Big Pink. The debut, as well as the self-titled follow-up and Stage Fright, were landmarks in rock and roll and produced a number of rock standards, even though Helm is characteristically a bit more humble about his legacy.
"I really don't think about it," he says. "That was a special time. Everyone was in love with each other and was together in The Band. Them halcyon days - it goes to show people don't know what the score was. It's great people appreciate what we did now, but I don't see it that way, because I'm a little older and more concerned with the standards. Those first two albums are good songs; they're done right. Too bad you get thieves in and they tear shit up."
Predictably, inter-band squabbles and management difficulties, particularly between Helm, guitarist Robbie Robertson and manager Albert Grossman, tore The Band apart. By the mid-'70s, it was finished. The enmity with Robertson lasts to this day, and The Last Waltz, a 1977 farewell double live album, spelled the end of The Band until the members reformed in 1982 as a touring act without the guitarist. Tragedy came in 1986 when vocalist/pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide. The Band soldiered on, healing itself the only way it knew how: through music.
"You got no choice when you hurt that bad," Helm says quietly. "The only thing that can save you is music. Musicians should know that; people should know that."
The Band produced a trio of respectable albums in the '90s, Jericho, High On The Hog and Jubilation, before the death of bassist Rick Danko late last year. Helm and surviving original member, genius organist Garth Hudson, decided to lay The Band to rest with the death of their two vocalists (Helm's own voice has been ravaged by throat cancer to a near croak). However, that sad fact is also a time for joy for Helm, as his Barnburners are rapidly becoming a group of note. His excitement for this new musical experiment comes through the telephone line. The group's love of blues classics shows how, both for music and the man known as Levon Helm, the wheel has come back around and is ready for another spin.
"Anything that I've been fortunate enough to play on that turned out good I'm happy about, but that was yesterday," he explains. "I've still got to do stuff for today. With the Barnburners, we're learning 'em the blues, because these young people don't know 'em like they should. Blues just gives you more stretch to the beat, and what we do is good for dancing, which is what it's all about, really.
"I ain't found nothing better than music that just makes you feel good. I've met a lot of good people through music. I've met a lot of assholes, too, but I've shook a lot of good hands."
WHO: Levon Helm & The Barnburners