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Levon Helm

[Barney Hoskyns]  by Barney Hoskyns

This 1998 article by The Band biographer Barney Hoskyns was commissioned but never published by Rolling Stone. Copied from the Rock's Backpages web site. Copyright © Barney Hoskyns 1998, 2000. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Levon Helm is perched on the arm of a carved wooden chair in his large house-cum-recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y., and he’s cackling his head off.

“Yee-hee-hee! Awright boys!” he howls, a hunched, skinny figure slapping the palm of his left hand with an imaginary sheaf of papers. “Let’s jest matriculate it up the field now... matriculate it up the field! Heh heh heeahhh!!

Across the table, chewing on a string of red licorice, Helm’s all-purpose right-hand-man Butch Denner gives a deep, appreciative laugh. Maybe he’s heard Helm’s irresistible imitation of Hank Stram, the coach who took the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl, before. Maybe not. Either way it’s a hoot, a brilliant turn prompted by the game the two men are watching on this sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-January - the NFC championship battle between the Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons.

Helm, born 58 years ago in a tiny hamlet in Arkansas, is rooting for his fellow southerners - “the noocomers”, as he calls them - and loosing a steady stream of football-related minutiae and apocrypha. Names like Slangin’ Sammy Ball resound in this darkened corner of the recording studio, where a couch and some chairs are loosely arranged around a T.V. set. Taking up most of the space on the couch is an outsize toy gorilla sporting an ancient pair of Foster Grants.

“Hell, Butchie, that guy’s burdened by greatness,” Helm chuckles, referring to Falcons running back Jamal Anderson. “Yessir, he’s burdened all right. Heh! ’Member when we wrote that tune ’bout ol’ Michelle Shocked? ‘The Burden of the Greatness in You’? Man, weren’t she a piece ’a work? Heh heh heahhh!

There is no laugh quite like Levon Helm’s raspy chuckle. It’s the sound of a man who’s lived well and partied hard. Rick Danko, Helm’s great soul mate in The Band for nearly forty years, recalls that when the two first played together behind Ronnie Hawkins in the early sixties, the laugh was so loud that it would cut through the band’s deafening Bo Diddley riffs.

Yet the laugh today is a little more hoarse than it used to be, and the speaking voice is sometimes so faint that one feels guilty asking him to talk at all. For last summer Helm was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords, a dark irony when one considers that, in addition to being one of the greatest drummers in rock history, he also possesses one of its finest voices: he was the lead singer on such Band milestones as 'The Weight', 'Rag Mama Rag', 'Up on Cripple Creek', and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'. For a man who has lost many rock & roll friends to early deaths - and who by his own admission has had a bout or two with drug addiction - the diagnosis came as a sobering shock.

For now, Helm is confident that he’s beaten the cancer. “I didn’t have to have any chemo stuff,” he says. “They tell me they think they got it, and God, I pray they did!” Next to living and dying, his admits that his biggest concern now is never being able to sing again. “I’ve never thought much about singing, because Richard Manuel was always The Band’s lead singer,” he says. “But now that I can’t, fuck, I really want to!”

If anything, the wake-up call of Helm’s cancer has only increased his natural vivaciousness. Currently he is pumped up about Jubilation, The Band’s latest album, and about the Classic American Cafe, a New Orleans roots’n’roll supper club of which he is part-owner, and which opened shortly after Christmas. (It should come as no surprise, given the rich inspiration New Orleans has provided for The Band’s music, that Helm is planning to rope in a slew of Crescent City legends in order to jam at the club with them. “There’s so many of them, and damn, I wanna play with every one of ’em!” he says.)

Helm talks, too, of sessions with Catskills neighbours Mercury Rev - like Garth Hudson, The Band’s eccentric keyboard genius, he plays on the sublime Deserters’ Songs - and with Johnnie Johnson, the pianist on countless Chuck Berry masterpieces. “We had a Sunday up here where it just was damn magic, man,” he declares. “Mainly because of Johnnie and the way he was playin’, it just got everybody into a high gear. Damn if we didn’t sit here and record, I think it was eight or nine songs, all of ’em good ones. It was like it had a mind of its own. Truth is, I’ve enjoyed playing a lot more since I got sick, ’cause that’s all I can do.”

Helm is rarely happier than when talking of idols like Johnson. During our conversation he springs to his feet and leads me through to the living quarters where he resides with his wife, Sandy, and a portly labrador named Mavis. Occupying pride of place on the wall of the cluttered kitchen is a picture of Muddy Waters receiving the keys to Woodstock, encircled by Helm, harmonica great Paul Butterfield, and assorted local dignitaries and dogs. For Helm, that icy morning in February 1975 may have been the emotional peak of his career.

The large wooden structure that houses Helm’s studio sits at the end of a winding driveway and is a virtual carbon copy of his RCO Studio, a building razed to its foundations by a 1991 fire and described once by Libby Titus - Helm’s former common-law wife and the mother of his 28-year-old daughter Amy, herself a terrific singer - as “Levon’s swampy Ponderosa”. Woodstock, a five-minute drive from the property, has been good to Helm. “Above all, it’s been very forgiving,” Helm grins. “It’s a town full of good people. Without having any kind of regular scene except a couple of recording studios, it’s really good because there’s no commercialism, and it just makes it quieter. People aren’t apt to come bothering you. Every now and then somebody’ll pull in lookin’ for Dylan, but that’s about it.”

“Levon, interestingly, has always sought out the locals more than the artistic types here,” says Happy Traum, veteran folkie and long-time Woodstocker. “He used to have these Fourth of July barbecues, and there would be at least as many of the local plumbers and carpenters and stonemasons there as musicians and artists. He always gravitated towards those people. In essence he’s the real thing, in terms of being a real working man.”

Traum, like his brother Artie, is one of many friends with an open invitation to drop in at the studio for a spot of informal jamming. “Levon is always willing to play,” he says. “He’s got a great spirit, and if you go over to his house he’s more than likely to pick up a mandolin or sit down at the drums.” For Traum, the change in Helm since the diagnosis of his cancer has been pronounced. “Levon’s illness has obviously had an impact on him, and in a sense a very positive one. I’ve rarely seen him so gregarious and cheerful since he’s come through the other side. He seems to have been given a new lease on life. He’s been really ebullient, like he’s got a real spark in him.”

Back in November, on a quiet midweek night before winter hit Woodstock, Helm had sat in the same vast room and talked of his early inspirations in Arkansas and Memphis. In the hoarse-throated 58-year-old man you could see and hear the ten-year-old kid who’d sat entranced at the feet of bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson in Helena, Arkansas: a towheaded farmboy watching every lick Williamson’s drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis played. This was the Levon Helm whose deep steeping in the blues and country and gospel music of the American south provided the marinade that gave The Band its singular flavor.

“Levon is authentic, he’s the real thing,” says John Simon, who produced The Band’s timeless debut Music From Big Pink (1968) and its even more hallowed successor, The Band (1969). “He does not have to change who he is to make his music. Which is significant in this world of rock and roll, because so many people are just middle-class kids from Levittown, Long Island, who put on clothes and grow beards as if they are Levon Helm.”

“There were people who were very nonplussed when we said we were working with Levon Helm,” says Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. “Well, I like people from that era. You go to the source, you don’t go to somebody who says they can play like Levon. It’s worth getting it from the horse’s mouth.”

The story of how Helm ventured up to Canada with rockabilly roughneck Ronnie Hawkins and helped recruit the four raw Canadians who later broke away with him to form Levon & the Hawks - the prototype Band - is one of the great tales of rock and roll. “Levon was my left arm, my right arm, and both legs,” says Hawkins on the phone from his farm in Ontario. “I knew that he was specially talented: talented musically and blessed with a smart gene. Levon had it, we just didn’t know what it was. It took all those years later to look back and see how super-talented he actually was.”

How the Hawks attached themselves to the amphetamine comet that was mid-Sixties Dylan, screeching across the firmament with him before trailing him up to the rural sanctuary of Woodstock, is an even more striking story. Indeed, the only real flaw in Dylan’s much-ballyhooed Live 1966:The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, belatedly released last year, was the fact that Helm wasn’t on it - he had jumped Dylan’s ship the previous November, unable to take the jeering of the folk purists a minute longer.

“That was a dose of medicine,” he chortles. “A lot of places on that tour, there would be more booing after a song than applause. I took about one tour of it and when they got ready to go to Europe and Australia, that’s when I passed. They were on us hot and heavy, boy. Them beatniks was tough!”

What The Band did once they’d settled in Woodstock was patent an entirely new kind of roots music, a homegrown conflation of their many influences that offered a sense of rough-hewn rural calm in the aftermath of psychedelia’s excesses. Rooted in the ramshackle Americana of the “basement tapes” that they recorded crudely with Dylan in the summer of 1967, Music From Big Pink shook rock to its core.

“[Big Pink] had a shocking effect on more people than you could ever realise,” said Eric Clapton, who contributed some tasteful guitar work to Jubilation’s 'Last Train To Memphis'. “The sound of music changed drastically after that first album - everywhere.” Such was the effect on The Guitarist Formerly Known As God that he abandoned the metal blues of Cream, even making a pilgrimage to Woodstock to meet the mysterious quintet.

“In The Band we listened to each other, complemented each other, balanced each other out,” says the group’s bassist Rick Danko. “Back when people were stacking up Marshall amps and blowing out their ear drums, we were down in the basement at Big Pink trying to get a balance. Levon would leave a backbeat open for me, because he thought as much like a bass player as like a drummer.”

Until his illness, Helm had been playing less drums in The Band, the group he reactivated seven years after the 1976 swansong that was The Last Waltz, and whose core trio has been augmented by guitarist Jimmy Weider, second drummer Randy Ciarlante, and former Janis Joplin pianist Richard Bell. Soldiering on after the departure of Robbie Robertson - and after the tragic suicide of Richard Manuel in 1986 - the group has recorded three fine albums of amiable, sometimes moving, roots rock: 1993’s Jericho, 1996’s High on the Hog, and now Jubilation.

Helm has long maintained that Robbie Robertson took more credit for The Band’s music than he deserved, leaving a trace of bitterness that runs through any conversation about the group. For Helm, the other members had as much input into the songs as Robertson did. “It’s important to recognize Robertson’s role as a catalyst and writer,” he contends in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire, “but I blame [Band manager] Albert Grossman for letting him or giving him or making him take too much credit for the band’s work.”

“Robbie’s got people who’ll say that he wrote everything,” Helm says, fixing me with a steely glare. “Those are the same people that are helping him spend the fuckin’ money, but he knows it ain’t right, it ain’t fuckin’ true... and it damn sure ain’t fair for him and Albert Grossman’s estate to spend all The Band’s money.”

Many of Helm’s friends have urged him to get over his grievances and patch things up with Robertson, but Helm remains unforgiving, convinced that his former friend and musical blood brother stiffed him. “Ronnie Hawkins tells Levon he should bury the hatchet,” says Ian Kimmett, former manager of Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios. “And I kind of agree: when I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner to induct The Band, Levon didn’t even show up. But on the other hand, there’s a working-class part of me that digs it and says, Good for him!”

Helm is showing me around his studio, its walls and balconies bedecked with Canadian and Confederate flags. A blues map of the Mississippi delta is pinned up in the control room, and a set of organ pipes is lined up along a shelf. “Garth got the pipes out of a church,” Helm tells me. “They were gettin’ rid of them for some reason, and Garth was the man that had to have ’em.” He points out the seared timbers that provide the only lasting evidence of the 1991 fire.

“I think The Band has kept true to its roots,” he says. “I still like the game of it; I love trying to find the little hook. That was always what tickled me the most. We’ve been accused of being a deja vu act, but I’ve enjoyed it every time we’ve hooked it up. When we got to do Jubilation, it finally boiled down to the main thing was just The Band showin’ everybody that it could. That it could do it one more time thirty years later.”

Only time will tell if Helm will be able to sing 'The Weight' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' with the soulful southern passion he brought to their original versions. In the meantime he’s going to give his music the best shot he can. “If I can lose some more hoarseness, maybe I can sing a bit,” he says. “I might have to depend on Amy to get her old dad through these hoarse times. Hell, long as I can mumble along and help with the choruses I’ll be happy about it. Heh heh heeahh!

Copyright © 2000 Barney Hoskyns

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