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The Beat Goes On

A bout with throat cancer hasn't hurt legendary rock musician Levon Helm's desire to perform

by Doug Blackburn

This article first appeared in the Albany Times Union, Sunday, January 16, 2000. Copyright © 2000, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. Please do not copy or redistribute.

Levon Helm was doing what he does best, leading the band from what he calls the best seat in the house, the drummer's stool, belting out song after song. But something wasn't right. The charismatic kid from Arkansas didn't sound like himself.

Helm, best known for his music with the seminal '60s and '70s Woodstock-based rock group called simply The Band, felt his voice growing more and more hoarse. This was two and a half years ago.

When he went to a blues benefit in Tunica, Miss., a couple days later, hoarse would have been an improvement. Nothing came out. Not a word, just a rasp.

``I think there's that secret little spot back there in your mind where you know something's wrong, but you don't want to admit it,'' said Helm. ``You put it off, you know. But my family and friends made me go to the doctor, and that's when you start dealing with it.''

The diagnosis was grim but not fatal. Helm was found to have cancer, a malignant growth on his vocal chords that required a series of 25 radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. The last radiation session was late summer 1998.

Eighteen months later the soulful voice that belted out ``The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'' and other classics for The Band (which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994) is a raspy, faint version of what it once was.

But Helm, 57, is reinvigorated as a musician. His latest band, Levon Helm and the Barn Burners, featuring his 29-year-old daughter, Amy, as well as Schenectady native Chris O'Leary, last year enjoyed a five-month stint in New Orleans and in December started playing weekly Wednesday night gigs at Joyous Lake in Woodstock. Saturday night they will be at The Egg in Albany.

When Helm was found to have cancer, Amy returned from Manhattan to be at his side. She regularly drove him to the clinic in Tarrytown, Westchester County, where he received his radiation treatments.

``He completely inspired me and kept me cool because of how blindly courageous and strong he was,'' Amy recalled. ``It really transformed our relationship, turned it into what I would call a huge gift.''

``There's something about linking arms with someone and going deep into that fear and hell that makes you just laugh and celebrate and feel a different joy, which I'm entirely grateful for,'' she said.

Levon Helm remembers it somewhat differently, that Amy was his pillar, and not the reverse. ``It was a scary damn thing. My family helped me, my daughter helped me a lot. You hate to cry and take on in front of your kids. That don't look right.''

Now they make music together, Levon leading the band from the best seat in the house, Amy singing the blues.

She divides her time between a studio apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, where she works in a florist's shop, and Woodstock, where her mother, Libby Titus, and her father and stepmother, Sandra Dodd Helm, all live.

Yet Helm, for the time being and possibly forever, does not sing. He can't. His voice won't let him.

``That's fine,'' said Helm, who has a recording studio in a barn on his Woodstock property. ``I never wanted to be a singer anyway. All I ever wanted is to be a drummer.''

Playing at Joyous Lake, a gritty roadhouse on Woodstock's main drag, on the last Wednesday in December, Helm wears a boyish grin as the band knocks out blues standards. His brown hair is thinning and a lighter color than it was a quarter-century ago, his cheeks and chin no longer covered with facial hair. Garth Hudson, his buddy, colleague and Woodstock neighbor for more than three decades, is sitting in on the synthesizer.

Helm seems blessed with an uncanny ability to land on his feet. When The Band initially broke up following a farewell performance on Thanksgiving Day 1976, a star-studded concert that Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese turned into the acclaimed feature-length film ``The Last Waltz,'' Hollywood came a knockin'.

He made his debut as Loretta Lynn's father in 1978 in ``Coal Miner's Daughter,'' and has appeared in about a dozen more movies, including ``The Right Stuff,'' in which he played Major Jack Ridley, General Chuck Yeager's sidekick. His most recent role was in the 1997 Stephen Seagal action flick, ``Fire Down Below.''

Helm also has written a memoir, ``This Wheel's On Fire,'' published in 1993. He and co-author Stephen Davis met during the past month to begin making plans to add a new final chapter to the book, one which will reflect on the December death of Helm's good friend and longtime fellow musician, Rick Danko.

The addition to the memoir will also discuss Helm's battle with cancer, which he only recently began talking about publicly. He feels blessed to have survived his ordeal, sings hosannas to the caretakers at Sloan Kettering whenever he gets the opportunity, and hopes that by sharing his story it might help someone else who gets a life-threatening diagnosis.

The one lifestyle change Helm is acutely aware of is quitting cigarettes. A three-packs-of-Marlboros-a-day habit ended when the doctors found cancer on his vocal chords.

``They don't know what causes cancer, but smoking doesn't help,'' explained Helm, who frequently says ``yessir'' or ``no sir'' when responding to questions. ``I've thought about it some. I think coughing is one of the worst things that happens to you, and the cigarettes make it worse.''

``I didn't realize until about six months after I quit how much those damn things were robbing me, no matter how good they are. I don't know what they put in those things because they sure are good,'' he said. ``But I have so much more breath now. Now when someone tells a joke I can laugh instead of cough.''

For Amy, this is her first time playing regularly with her famous father. She grew up around his music, though, and believes that he's playing better than ever.

``Someone's got to document what's happening. There are these amazing nuances and subtleties to his drumming now,'' she said. ``I watch him play and my jaw just drops to the floor.''

``It's like he's beating out all the stuff he couldn't talk about. I think his drumming has become his voice and he is playing the hell out of it,'' she said. ``It just makes me smile ear to ear.''

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