Conversations with Rock's Great Drummers

Levon Helm

by Max Weinberg

From "The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock's Great Drummers" (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1984). This article is copyrighted, please do no copy or redistribute.


"At all costs, let's laugh!"

BY THE TIME he was twenty years old, Levon Helm had worked his share of roadhouse saloons. Born near the Mississippi, in Arkansas, Levon had been raised on music, nourished by the spirituals and country songs his family loved. He came of age during the rockin' fifties, and with Memphis rhythm & blues nearby, found his own expression in rock & roll. As he traveled, Levon carried the spirit and wealth of his Southern musical heritage.

Levon got his first taste of the big time with a local rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins, and his band, the Hawks. Their sound was wild and raw. They hit the road, beginning a history that unfolds as one of the most romantic and well-known in rock & roll.

The Band's origin goes back to Levon's days with Hawkins. Through the efforts of talent scout "Colonel" Harold Kudlets, the Hawks traveled to Canada, where, as an authentic rockabilly import, they received great acclaim.

The road took its toll, however, and one by one the Hawks -- all but Levon and Ronnie -- returned to the South. Replacements were found in time: Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel on keyboards, Rick Danko on bass, and Robbie Robertson on guitar.

Though Hawkins, too, eventually left the group, the band began to play out its own saga of the road. After spending countless hours on behind-the-bar bandstands, Levon's group struck a singularly determined stance. Against the rapidly changing musical trends of the sixties, Levon's band held fast to rock & roll in its most classic and penetrating form. Little by little, they gathered steam. Bob Dylan, who was in need of a guitar player and drummer, heard of them, and Levon and Robbie made the connection, performing with Dylan at his first electric shows in 1965, and eventually Garth, Richard, and Rick were called to join up. Pleased with his new sound, Dylan took the band to Europe in 1965 and 1966, though, for reasons explained during our conversation, Levon hung back.

The band returned to North America more convinced than ever that the time was right for them to do their own thing. Returning to the group, Levon moved up to Woodstock, New York, where the rest of the group had settled in. The years together had given them a collective ease with the music; they were a true ensemble. In songs tailor made, Levon gave voice to Robbie's visions, and a sound emerged that was uniquely the Band.

The most absorbing piece I've ever read on the Band appears in Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train. Against a backdrop of denial in late sixties America, the Band reaffirmed -- for themselves and for us -- that such traditional values as family, home, brotherhood, and country made sense and should be cherished. Marcus views this reaffirmation as the Band's most important contribution.

Their point of view was subtly expressed and is best illustrated by the classics Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). The best of the songs -- "The Weight," "Chest Fever," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "King Harvest," "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek" -- inspire a poignancy that grows stronger with the passage of time.

Levon plays the drums and sings with a conviction and emotional intensity that rings true. That he does both at the same time is remarkable. His beat is lively, whatever the mood of the song. The muffled cadence of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," the tumble-down tom-toms of "Up on Cripple Creek," and the weary yet determined backbeat of "The Weight" show Levon to be one of the rare breed of drummers that are able to set not only the beat but the scene of a song's story as well. Perhaps this is what journalist Jon Carroll meant when he said that Levon is the only drummer who can make you cry.

I talked with Levon in the kitchen of his home in Woodstock. We sat by the fire, and he told me a story that started down the Mississippi, from Memphis.

LEVON: I come from a little place near Helena, Arkansas, called Marvel, which lies about seventy miles across and down river from Memphis. We lived on a cotton farm on the other side of Marvel. My father was a cotton farmer and a musician. He played country dances and helped me with my repertoire. Dad taught me some nice old songs.

MAX: Where you were growing up, Memphis was the place to be for young rock & rollers. Were you able to see some of that scene?

Well, in my dad's mind, I know there'd be no thought that would have prevented him from drivin' up to Memphis if someone that was playin' there was someone he wanted to see. In my family a music show was always high-level entertainment. But, as far as good music was concerned, in my neck of the woods, we sure had our share.

You see, Helena had a radio station, KFFA, and the king of that station was Sonny Boy Williamson. As a kid I'd go into Helena with my dad, and one of my first business stops would be the radio station. Sonny Boy would come on every day at dinner time-high noon. They called it the "King Biscuit Hour." I'd try to get there on time to catch Sonny Boy and the King Biscuit Boys record and broadcast live from the station. He used to show up out in Marvel on a Saturday afternoon in a bus that had "King Biscuit Time" written on the side. He'd lay out a tarpaulin on the ground and set his mike on it. Then he'd open the back door of the bus and there'd be a piano in there. He'd pull out some drums on the tarp, set up a couple of amps, and have some guitar players plug in. Then of Sonny Boy would set up his amp with a hand mike. Boy, was that good!

Who else did you listen to back then?

Well, Muddy Waters was very popular. So was Bill Monroe, and groups like the Carlyles, who were sort of a novelty act. Conway Twitty used to come through Helena. They were the popular acts. Also, Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns out of Mississippi and all the good rockabilly bands: Billy Lee Riley and the Little Green Men, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. People like Jerry Lee and Conway; why, I saw some great ones.

Who were the singers you admired as a kid?

Well, I always knew you couldn't get much better than Patsy Cline. And Lefty Frizzell was a favorite too. Ernest Tubb, George Jones -- man, they're good! But I think Lefty was one of the better ones, at that time.

Hour did you first get into playing and performing?

I had a guitar when I was a kid, and I played with my sister. We played at the high school anytime they would ask us. Lions Clubs, Rotaries, 4-H Clubs; 4-H clubs were the way a country kid got to travel around. Anyway, me and my sister would do some Chuck Berry tunes, Huey Smith stuff -- whatever was available. We would take the songs from the Hit Parade. We were just a couple of kids with a guitar and a washtub bass. Come to think of it, we were sort of a novelty act ourselves!

Who were some of the drummers around in those days that you listened to and learned from?

Well, I used to listen to Peck Curtis, who played with Sonny Boy. I'd seen Muddy Waters play and some of the big-band blues drummers, like those with Junior Parker out of Memphis. Big bands: eight, ten, twelve pieces.

How did they play?

To me, they played the right, way.

Levon, you were telling me earlier about an interesting musical development you saw happening in country and rock & roll back then.

Around this time, the electric bass first started to come around. As soon as that hit, the whole rhythm section changed. With an electric bass, drums, a guitar, and a piano, you had a full group. Then you could start adding horns. You had those two electric instruments, and they would sustain that bottom note. Like Scotty Moore, who played guitar with Elvis Presley. He'd be carrying along with his thumb and his pickin' finger on the bass strings and keeping the whole thing happening with lots of echo and reverb. And with his other fingers he'd be playing the melody. But when he wanted to stop and really bend those strings and make them cry and do what everybody likes to hear an electric guitar do, all of a sudden the bottom fell out. Now, with the electric bass, carrying the load, you could reach on up and grab your fill and pluck two strings if need be in order to fill that gap. Also, the electric bass caught on pretty quick because you didn't have to tie that big "doghouse" [stand-up bass] to the top of the car. And all of a sudden you had a guy that wasn't crippled from trying to play that damned stand-up!

Did you ever see Elvis perform live?

I did. I saw Elvis play with D.J. Fontana on drums, and Bill Black and Scotty Moore once in Marianna, Arkansas, in the high school gymnasium there. I'd seen Elvis about two or three months before, when it was just Elvis and Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar. It was fantastic, but when D.J. Fontana showed up on the scene, boy, was that something! He would just plant those drums! It'd always been that the rockabilly stuff was real bouncy, driving fours on the bass drum, almost like a jazz feel at times. Circling, just continuously circling. But when D.J. came in, all of a sudden he would plant that thing down and he would start stacking verses against each other with his fills, building up to the solos, and riding the solos in and riding them out. It was great because D.J. gave the music some foundation, some architecture. He was a hell of a drummer, and his technique was great. He had fast hands and could do them Buddy Rich kind of press rolls if he wanted to. He played like a Big Band drummer -- full throttle. He was also the first drummer from around these parts who didn't tune his drums Memphis-style. They had a much brighter sound.

What exactly is the Memphis style of tuning?

All the drums coming out of Memphis had a particular sound. And they got it by usually doing something simple like putting a piece of tape on the cymbal so that it wouldn't ring quite as loud. And they would take a towel -- or sometimes a Kotex, which seemed to have the right kind of weight and covered the right amount of area -- and tape the towel to the bottom side of the top head. And I would do that too because that's what I thought drums were supposed to sound like. They should have that flat sound, you know, a lot of wood in the sound. Like wood against skin. Not too much of a ring like you would normally get. If you hit a rim shot, it was not supposed to ring. It was supposed to knock. That's how everybody in my neck of the woods thought drums were supposed to sound. And the same with the bass drum. It was muffled down so that it was just a real good bump. It was more of a feel than a sound. It would just kind of split that music apart for a second. But what you would hear most was that backbeat. It would be coming in right on the rim shot, just crackin' and knockin'.

Another hot Memphis drummer back then was Jimmy Van Eaton, Who played on Jerry Lee Lewis's greatest hits. Did you ever run across him?

No, I never met him, but according to a story I heard, when they cut Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin'," Jimmy had a cigar box taped to the top of the snare drum, and he'd carry the backbeat and do his licks and fills on the cigar box that was sittin' on the drum. Of course, that made his snare respond -- it sounded more like a drum than a cigar box -- but it didn't have that real loud overring with all that metallic sound. That was what you tried to avoid.
"A drummer has to be really careful because his instrument sounds the worst of the bunch if he's not.... It sounds like somebody dropped the kitchen stove if you don't watch out."

I've often thought that in those early days of recording, the drum sound they came up with was a result of having to settle technically for what they had.

I think you're right, and I think it also forced a blend in the room so that the microphone naturally picked up what it was most in favor of. But at the same time it would only get what the band would send it. Sun Studios was a real small place; I don't think there was even room for all the musicians. Playin' in such confined quarters makes you cut back, tone down, and blend yourself more into the sound. A drummer has to be really careful because his instrument sounds the worst of the bunch if he's not. You know, it sounds like somebody dropped the kitchen stove if you don't watch out. So growin' up around Memphis, that's what we were taught to do -- get that snare drum tuned down so that the louder you played it, the better it would sound. And the louder you played it, the more thud, bump, and feel you could put on the bottom of the music.

When did you start drumming with groups?

I was fourteen or fifteen when I started going up to Memphis and seeing the players. But when I got a little older I was one of those people who had to stay out all night, who couldn't go home. Eventually I had a couple too many and sat in with somebody one night. The drummer got ill or didn't show up, so I just sat in. I watched a few of the drummers, and it looked so easy. So I ended up playing at a dance one night. Then Ronnie Hawkins and Jimmy Ray Paulman -- the guitar player who played with Conway Twitty -- started the Hawks; they got Will Pop Jones, who was Jimmy Ray's cousin, but there was nobody around Helena and Marvel who could play the drums. There were two or three guys like me who would try, but none of us had any drums. Somebody told Ronnie that I could play drums, and to and behold, they came out to the farm. I told them flat out when they asked about my drum playing. "You bet," I said. "Let's go. Where can we get some drums? Where can we borrow a pair?"

We looked around, and I think Charlie Halbert -- one of our local promoters back in them days, God rest 'im -- helped us out. You could pawn a guitar or a set of strings on a handshake with Charlie, even get the money to go join the union. He had a real love for the music. He kept us together. He gave Hawkins a place to live, let me pawn a guitar two or three times. Drove us to Memphis when we needed a ride.

Was this around the time you had the Jungle Bush Beaters?

Yeah. That group was back in my high school days. That's when I would get together with Thurlow Brown. Now, all of Thurlow wanted to do was play his guitar. If he wasn't playin' his guitar, he didn't want to do nothin' but farm, or something else that made sense to him. And around those parts he was the best. He wouldn't travel with anyone, didn't want to leave the farm. But you could whistle something to him, and he could play it in harmonies for you. Play it one time and he'd know it by heart. He was the first musician I knew that could run up and down the neck of a guitar and hit all those bar chords and augmented and diminished things. So he and myself and a few other people would get together; a fellow named James Shottard in Marvel had a doghouse bass with a pickup, and he would send that thing through an amplifier. We picked up a schoolboy who played the snare drum. 0l' Jim would play that doghouse and Thurlow and me would play our guitars, and that was the Jungle Bush Beaters.

After that, you joined the Hawks. Levon, what was life on the road like with Ronnie Hawkins?

Well, most of it was pretty funny. My attitude at the time was the same that it was in high school: The goofier and funnier it is, the happier it is. At all costs, let's laugh. That's why life on the road was anything from aggravating the desk clerk in the hotel to throwin' a cherry bomb in a car where someone was sleeping. I always aimed for the laughs. We always worked fairly regularly, so I can't remember there being any hard times, struggling from one town to another. The Colonel handled things back then as he does now.

Would you tell me about the Colonel?

I started playing with Hawkins when I was in high school. When I got out of high school, we took off, playing distant points. We'd drive two hundred or three hundred miles to play dances. We got hooked up with the Colonel through Conway Twitty. You see, the Colonel at that time had all that territory -- Southern Ontario, Quebec, and places along the Canadian border like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. The Colonel was from the Toronto area.

So, through Conway Twitty he brought up Southern rock & roll groups to play Canada and those parts, and he would take the musicians from Ontario and send them down South to play. There was always that kind of interchange, and it worked. The same type of music was popular in both areas. A funny coincidence, I guess. This was in the late fifties, I'd say. T always enjoyed it; I like traveling. I certainly didn't see myself sticking around one place very long if I could go somewhere else.

Anyway, with Hawkins we'd go down home and head out to the local Cadillac place. He'd sign for me, and I'd drive new Cadillac out of of there every now and then. Sort of a sport, you might say. Gradually, Jimmy Ray and the Arkansas players were replaced by the guys who became the Band. We were up in Canada, and somebody would take off or somebody's wife was having a baby. So Robbie came in, Garth came in. Garth, at the time, had a good group up in Detroit. Robbie had a group in Toronto. Rick had a group down in the Simcoe area, and Richard had his group up in Stratford. And we'd play together. For instance, Hawkins would get Rick Danko's band to open for us at a big Sunday night dance. And between his show and ours, Hawkins would try and hire him. And that's just about the way it eventually went.

There were other good members who came through, like Stan Szelest the piano player from Buffalo, and Rebel Payne, the bass player. He was from Buffalo too. The one that was the big reward for us, though, was Garth. To get Garth Hudson, that was a big day because nobody could play like Garth anywhere. He could play horns, he could play keyboards, he could play anything and play it better than anybody you knew. His old band up in Detroit had horns and horn charts and sounded exactly like ol' Garth wanted it to sound. So Hawkins finally just bought Garth's time to work with us. He had to leave it open so that Garth could pursue his other band. Once we had a musician of Garth's caliber, we started sounding professional. You might say Garth spread the icing on the cake.

The Band's music and message have been interpreted as an attempt on your part to reaffirm certain traditional values of community. Was that done consciously?

Well, I don't know. I think the Band might have been the benefactor of those kinds of feelings wanting to happen and the times sort of creating it. The Band seemed to come along at a time when we were a bit of an option, musically speaking. Our music was a little bit different.

Community? Well, you know, we were part of it, but I don't think we actually started that concept in music. Woodstock had always been one of those places for musicians, artists, and craftsmen to work out of. There were certainly a lot of players around when we showed up. And we had the benefit of being here when a lot of it happened. We played the Woodstock Festival, and the times being what they were and with that amount of people, it was sort of in the cards for us. The Band just rode through on that crest.

Once you realized that you presented an alternative to what was happening in rock & roll in the late sixties, did you try to keep that particular thing going?

Well, probably on our later records we were guilty of using patterns and formulas, in some regard. Things that worked for you in the past, you have a tendency to want to use again. By the time we got our recording contract, we were already old enough to shave, so to speak, and we'd been playing for a long time. By then, we wanted success, naturally, and we wanted to please our families and friends. But we wanted to do it on our own terms, and that was a conscious effort. We decided we'd go with our music a certain way. Some things we would do and some things we wouldn't.

We never did want to take that full-throttle sort of commercial gear. I never wanted to be recognized on the street and mobbed. I like going to places without all that star stuff. I like applause when I'm out on the stage, but I like to leave after the show and go in a bar and enjoy the rest of my life. We tried to do it that way. As for writeups in the magazines, we tried to keep it on a review basis as much as we could. We would invite press people to come to our shows and give them a seat. We hoped they would review the show or our record and leave our personalities out of it.

The first time I saw the Band play was in 1969 in New Jersey at the Garden State Arts Center. I was impressed with the control and presentation of the show.

We tried to stack it up. There weren't any jokes in our show or introductions or long-winded conversations. It might have hurt the personality of the group a little bit, but it left a lot of room for more songs.

Did touring have any effect on what you did in the studio?

Yeah, by the time the Band hit the road we had a few albums out. There seemed to be a few times in the studio when there was a piecemeal kind of work situation; we'd go in and cut some tracks and then go back in later and do some harmonies. It was a different way of working. We really got into doing studio work. You'd do harmonies in a song and turn around and make tracks for another song, and go back and put the lead vocals on a song you worked on a week ago.

Do you think you lose a, little something doing it that, way?

Well, I think so. You get a satisfaction out of getting a lot done; three songs or four songs completed in a work day. But it's not as much fun as it is going in and recording and mixing it, listening to it.

Was that the way the early LPs were done?

It seems that it was more that way because we knew less about recording back then, and we became more involved in the recording end as we went along. It kind of satisfied me, I guess. I like recording, but I don't have to do it in order to be happy. I'd much rather play and perform.

One of the most distinctive features of the Bands music is the use of the half-time feel, like on "Don't Do It" and "Ophelia."

Well, it's the way to cut the time on country music. A lot of country music's best houserockers are kind of a 2/4 jump. It's fun to play like that, but you can hardly dance to it. So, if you halve it up, you can get a handle on it.
"You know, sometimes I get a kick bearin' down on it, just flesh against wood. It gives you a certain satisfaction, burning one of them press rolls up. It might sting a little, but it's worth it."

Though you project strongly, your touch is kind of soft. Have you always drummed that way?

Well, I've tried to. I've always thought that's the way to play. I got to see Louie Haynes with Cannonball Adderley. I got to see some great musicians over the years, and you see somebody like that play and you can tell, y' know, that the thing not to do is to just get it down on the floor and stomp hell out of it! (Laughs.) You're supposed to kind of dance the beat along. The way the really great players work is not frantic and out of control. But, you know, sometimes I get a kick bearin' down on it, just flesh against wood. It gives you a certain kind of satisfaction, burning one of them press rolls up. It might sting a little, but it's worth it.

When you recorded with. the Band, did you drum and sing simultaneously?

Yup. Sometimes maybe we could leave the master vocal on for everything except the choruses. Maybe we'd come back and redo the choruses and get 'em real straight up and down. But that's the best way to do it, play quiet and sing the best you can. And then go back. A lot of times you're pullin' against yourself. That's what was always the thing with me. Sometimes I would have to record a tune six, eight, ten times to really get it.

Like, it took "Up on Cripple Creek" a long time to come around. We cut it two or three times, but nobody really liked it. It wasn't quite enough fun. We fooled around with it, and finally one night we just got hold of it, cut it one time, turned around and doubled up a couple of chorus parts, harmony parts, and that was it. On to the next one.

What comes through on those records is the ensemble nature of the Band.

Well, that was always one of the pleasures of playing with the group. We would start working on a tune, and the song would dictate who would sing it and who would play the supporting roles. And luckily, nobody had such a big head that you couldn't get a tub over it. So there never was any of that jealousy -- "You got to sing the last one" -- there wasn't any of that stuff.

You once described that type of thing in a way that really struck me. You said, "You. weren't up there to do what, you wanted to do, you were there to do what you were supposed to do."

Well, that's true. I remember one time in particular that I was real proud we'd played that way. We did "The Ed Sullivan Show" years ago. It was a big day in our lives, and there's two things I can remember most about it: that I couldn't sleep for two or three days before we played, and that when we played there were no voice monitors. The guitar and bass were going through the same amp, and they were about as loud as an acoustic guitar. The piano didn't even have the top up on it, and we're singin' in just natural acoustics. We're set up tight, in some kind of T formation, bouncin' off of each other. We did "Cripple Creek," and we pulled it off, even though we really couldn't hear anything.

The image the Band projected was pretty wild for the time. It was sort of like...


Right; you. know, play an occasional show and head back up into the mountains. I remember an article in Life magazine in 1969 that played up that image. How did you feel about that public conception?

Well, from this side it was pretty easy to take because all we were doing was going into the studio and recording tunes. And every now and then there'd be something come along that sounded like a whole lot of fun, so we'd do it. In between those times, we just stayed home and lived as best we could. But we still managed to do some interesting things. We went to Europe a couple of times, which was tricky because they were having those Vietnam peace negotiations in Paris, and there were all the American servicemen who had left over moral obligations and conflicts within themselves and gone to Canada and Sweden. We played Sweden, and had a press conference there. And of course they wanted to talk about all that stuff. We just wouldn't get into it very much. I said to them that we came over there to play music, and if any of them had any money and wanted to buy a ticket, they were welcome to come to the show. We just sidestepped the political things, and if they wanted to talk about anything further than that, I'd just tell the press, "Look boys, these other guys in the band are from Canada. They don't even know what the hell we're talkin' about."

What was playing the Woodstock Festiral like?

That was a pretty good one, a pretty good gig. It was a little bit long, because by the time we got to play, it was a Sunday night, and they'd been going like that for, well, a long time. Some of the people had been there at the site for four nights or more. And it'd been raining. I don't know what people thought was going to happen -- probably that there'd be a riot and everyone would break out and eat their way back to New York City, eating every cow and pig and barbecuing everything in sight. But inside there was a bunch of people having a pretty good time. With the times being what they were, there was what looked to be a lot of drugs, judging by people's behavior. It was just like some of them looked to be real tired and a little unhealthy.

Backstage was like it usually is for us: We would go in, shake hands, eat, play our gig, and split. There was never anything social. We never hung around.

Now, jumping ahead four years to Watkins Glen; that was even more interesting because the people's frame of mind was really right on. Everybody looked healthy; traffic would jam up, and people would get out of their cars and toss Frisbees and play guitars and relax. At Watkins Glen the people were on close to eighty or ninety acres with roads and sidewalks and flags. It looked like little towns out there. The authorities tried to shut it down, right? But the townspeople wanted to have it because it meant a lot of income for the town. They were having the festival at the racetrack, and in the last days they made the promoters buy several hundred thousand dollars' worth of crushed gravel and put down all those damn sidewalks and roadways. And then after that, they made them get another five hundred of those port-a-john toilets. One day before the music got started they made them buy another sixty-grand worth of storm fencing. The townspeople were going for it, but they had the county health department to worry about. There were about five violations that could shut the festival down. But they'd get on the phone and call in a hundred fifty thousand dollars' worth of whatever was needed. Drop it right in front of you.
"We would start working on a tune, and the song would dictate who would sing it and who would play the supporting roles. And luckily, nobody had such a big head that you couldn't get a tub over it."

Do you remember what you. felt like right before you went on, looking out there and seeing all those people?

It was shocking. I had things that made me more nervous, but that was really a good one for "Let me get it!" A funny thing had happened there. We played for about half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes, and it started raining. Rick and Robbie took their hands off their instruments and ran to the side of the stage. And about this time a friend of mine, Jack Wingate, from London, Ontario, Garth's hometown, shows up and pulls out a bottle of that Glen Fidich Scotch. So we have a couple of social pulls on it; Garth has a couple of pulls too. All of a sudden Garth wants to play. And he goes back out and it was great. Garth started playing just beautiful stuff. You couldn't put your finger on it, but it stopped raining! All of a sudden it just dried up.

Your longtime on-off association with Bob Dylan has always been subject to close scrutiny. What effect did he have on the Band?

Well, I know he always had fun playing with us. We always felt like we were making music together. And he really opened up the door for us. Up until that time, we were just a backing band.

There are many stories about how Dylan picked up the group. Is it true, that when you and Robbie went with Bob to do the Forest Hills gig, you'd joined up without Bob ever hearing you play?

Yeah, I believe that's true. Unless he heard a tape that somebody had played for him. But we didn't really know one another. After we played that show-this was after he'd made his "electrical debut" -- he was talking about doing a long tour and taking us along. The Forest Hills date was like finishing up a commitment for him. Robbie and I finished that with him; then we got the whole group together and played all over the country.

You were still playing with them?


Then you left. Why?

We'd been together during that period for a couple of years. We toured Texas and California and a lot of the United States. Then the tour went to Australia and Europe, but I passed on that part. You see, Dylan would play Fort Worth, Texas, and it would be like any other Saturday night -- great fun. People would be dancing and clapping along. But then we'd play Boston or the wrong part of the country, and we'd get an audience of folk purists who didn't believe in electricity or those who used the stuff. Bob would go out and play for an hour or so with his guitar and a couple of harmonicas. Then he'd come off, take a breath, and we'd all go out with him. We'd bring a couple of electric guitars, electric piano, organ, and a set of drums. Man, you'd think that Adolf Hitler had had the nerve to show his ugly head!

The crowd would boo. You'd finish a number and they would boo. Now that's a hell of a feeling. It didn't take me long to get a bellyful of that. I was starting to get a little hot under the collar. I could take it here -- this is my country. But I couldn't see taking it in Europe. For the first time I couldn't stick to my policy, which was to whistle while I worked. I just said to everybody that I was going to take a pass when we finished the U.S. commitment, and that they should start to think of somebody to replace me. They got a fella by the name of Mickey Jones. I wished them good luck -- there was no problem. It was just something I had to do.

Did you ever think that move could end your association with the group?

Well, yeah; I looked at it both ways. I felt that it might be a temporary thing. I knew that everybody else eventually wanted a recording contract of their own and to do something other than to play with Bob. But at the time it wasn't hard to imagine that it might not go that way for me. Maybe I'd have to play with some other people. But that would be all right. I went back to Arkansas and played with the Cate Brothers a bit. They're a good outfit, and I ended up playing music just the same.

Those must have been some wild gigs with Dylan.

Well, the fellas still laugh about some of the stories. One chick attacked Bob and was going to punch him out. A couple of people in a couple of places really took it as far as they could. These people were flat out against us. But as far as I was concerned, there was never any falling out with us.

How did Dylan deal with it?

Well, I guess Bob figured it was his row to hoe. Maybe he thought he had to hoe every one of them to get to the point where he would be accepted. I went along. I helped him hoe quite a bit. I was on all those long rows, you might say. But then, I just decided that when we got to the short rows. I'd just let him kinda do it himself. Some of those gigs weren't anything to jump up and down about and celebrate. It was another shitty day in paradise. But then, it could have been completely different -- and it was. If we were in Fort Worth, it'd be wonderful. The people would dance, clap their hands, and have a good They'd talk to you, invite you to have a drink with them. You know, that's why we were playing music -- to get to meet people and enjoy that fellowship. It won't work if you both don't show up. But the next night you'd be in Boston or somewhere where there would be a lot of folk purists. The minute that' saw that electric guitar -- they'd go wild. I figured I'd go home, play some dances, and wait for the times to catch up. Eventually, when everybody got back from the tour and was back at Woodstock, we started getting a few nibbles as far as recording and releasing an album on our own without Bob. Once that started happening, I headed north, and we began what was later released as The Basement Tapes.

Did you really all live in that big pink house?

There were about three of us who stayed there at the house: There were also a few other places. We had three or four houses between us all. We weren't on top of one another but there was a certain type of clubhouse atmosphere. Everybody showed up, ate breakfast, and went into the studio to rehearse.

Working with Bob must have had quite an effect on the three main songwriters, especially Robbie.

Well, Bob certainly made everybody more aware of how to write. We used to have a great time sitting around and remembering old tunes. He and Richard Manuel would start notes to each other in a typewriter. One would go by and type up a verse, then the other would happen by and type a verse. There was a lot of fun to be had on that level.

Was there ever a time before Big Pink and John Wesley Harding where a follow-up album to that '66 tour might have been a Dylan-Band collaboration?

We never did think of it like that. We were just documenting songs and having fun and thinking we would come back and redo a lot of those tunes -- take them into the studio under the right conditions and really give them a full chance. We didn't do that with most of the songs, but Garth had the equipment and turned on the machines, and sure enough, we had the whole thing on tape -- whatever was going on.

What's your favorite Band album?

The most fun might have been the live album with Allen Toussaint, the Rock of Ages album. That was a whole lot of fun, having him come up from New Orleans, and having that horn section play with us.

Man, that's first-class accommodations.

That version of "Don't Do It" is one of my favorites. Didn't you do a studio version of that?

Yeah, we cut it two or three different times. But the live album was the only time we put it out. It was always fun to play, and people always enjoyed it in our show. But we never could get it to fly right in the studio.

I'd like to talk some more about the Band's approach to recording and your method of getting that funky drum sound.

Again, that goes back to that Memphis sound. After J. M. Van Eaton and D. J. Fontana came through, there was Al Jackson with Stax -- his snare's got that all-American thud that the early Sun records had. You know, one of our first records -- it was a single and I forgot which one it was -- but it came on the jukebox, and it must have been twice as low in volume as anything else; it snapped me and the rest of us awake. We realized that when we went in and mixed, we tried to make everything so bottom-heavy. We were always so concerned about getting the right amount of presence around the bass pattern, so it would stick up there like a big pillar. And by the time we got the wood on the backbeat cuttin' through just right, we had to start redoing our stuff and mixing with more highs and letting a lot of that sound come through on its own.

Levon, I'm curious about the photograph that's on The Band record, a big room, set up very informally. Is that how you recorded?

Not exactly. There was a little bit more technique in the recording and miking end of it. Actually, a lot of that stuff was cut upstairs at A&R Studios on Seventh Avenue in New York City. We would usually use the big room up there on the seventh floor. That studio was so big, they used to do a lot of those live dance party records there. When we played there, I would set up in the middle of the room. They had a sound booth over against the wall. and Garth would put a couple of his speakers into that sound booth so he could (distort them, or whatever. The piano would be in a standard sort of place, and we'd pull a couple of chairs up for Robbie and Rick, and they'd pull tip their amps beside them. We'd have a couple of barriers around the drums to keep them from leaking. We'd have the mikes on the amps. The bass would usually go direct, and we'd have live vocals.

For that second album, we'd go in and start around seven or eight o'clock at night. We'd get food sent in and have a good time until everybody started to get a little tired. It was fairly professional. We used The Basement Tapes as a reference point, a way to keep track.

Did it ever get down to where you had something on a rehearsal tape and went to record it, and it didn't come out as well?

Well, not really. We could usually manage to get a better sound. But every now and then you'd run across one that wouldn't want to happen right. Like "Cripple Creek," which took awhile. But after you get it, it's like, "Well, how can it go any other way?" How many of the Band still live in Woodstock?

Just Rick and myself. Garth has a place here and comes back and forth. But he's fairly involved with his studio in California. Robbie is mostly into the movie people out there. He always wanted to do that. Richard says he's gonna move back to Woodstock.

Is he out on the West Coast?

Yeah. Of course, Richard is one of those key guys. Rick too, because he helps Richard write so good. So I'm kind of lookin' forward to them get back together. Richard can write good songs when he wants to. And Rick knows how to get them out of him. Rick is like a musical sponge. You can drop just one bit of music out there and, boy, he can soak it up and squeeze out a cupful. He's one of the best guys to play catch with. If you got some musical balls to bounce around, he's the guy to play catch with.
"The most fun might have been the live album with Allen Toussaint, the Rock of Ages album. That was a whole lot of full, having him come up from New Orleans, and having that horn section play with us. Man, that's first class accommodations,

How do you feel about getting the opportunity to act in movies like Coal Miner's Daughter?

From where I sit, I scored big in that department. Doin' Coal Miner's Daughter, why, that was a lot of fun. They were all great people to work with. I didn't expect to get drafted, much less get to play. What a team! All you had to do was show up. To be a part of the team in that film, you couldn't miss. You have Michael Apted, the director, tellin' you, "That's fine. Now do the same thing, only say it slower this time. Take your time and really mean it." So you do it again a couple of times, and you get it pretty close. And then they turn the camera around to Sissy Spacek, and now we're cookin'. While I'm saying one of those things to her, they catch her just where it looks so pitiful you almost cry. Put that in there and it makes you look a lot better.

As a swan song and as a rock movie, The Last Waltz was bittersweet. After all those years spent together, how did you feel about ending it that way?

I was probably the least in favor of doing it that way, without being in any kind of intractable position. I was always one of the ones who enjoyed it less, as far as the Band going out of business. I thought people could do their own things within the framework of the group. I was glad that some of the people were able to get involved with what they wanted to have happen. Working with a group can make it hard for a lot of things to come your way. You don't get considered for some projects because you work under that kind of banner. I was glad to see that change. All of a sudden everybody was really on his own and doing the things he wanted to do. I could certainly see people not wanting to travel anymore. People had families, and we'd been doing it quite a while. I'm the one that don't mind traveling. The hotel manager don't bring me down. I'll sit there and jaw with him all day. I don't give a damn. But as far as seeing the Band fold up, I didn't take great joy in that part of it.

It's been seven years since the Band's last gig. What's the feeling like?

It's not been too bad because I've been real busy. Out of all them years, I played a lot of those nights. If I'd sat around and thought about it, it might have gotten to me, but I took advantage of who I knew and the musicians I was able to meet, and I got to play with quite a few of them. It's in my plans to play with the rest.

We began our talk earlier this afternoon with your memory of you and your sister playing and singing popular songs around your home town. Last week I saw you and Rick Danko at a small bar singing and playing what were probably some of the same songs.

Yeah, I've come all the way back to playing guitar and mandolin and harmonicas. But it is really all the same. The main thing that juices me up is to get over there the night of a job, wherever it is, and the man that's runnin' the joint knows I'm comin', and he invites me in and helps me get my stuff set up. And I play and he pays me. That's the only way I've ever really wanted it.

Selected Discography


With The Band
Music from Big Pink (1968, Capitol Records)
The Band (1969, Capitol Records)
Stage Fright (1970, Capitol Records)
Rock of Ages (1972, Capitol Records)
Moondog Matinee (1973, Capitol Records)
The Last Waltz (1978, Warner Bros.)

With Bob Dylan
The Basement Tapes (1975, Columbia)

Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars (1977, ABC)
Levon Helm (1978, Capitol)

With Ronnie Hawkins
Mr. Dynamo (1960, Roulette)

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