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The Great Divide

Levon Helm, the heart and soul of The Band, looks back in anger.

by Robert Wilonsky

This article first appeared in The Dallas Observer, February 1999.
Copyright © 1999 Robert Wilonsky, New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Music Photo
The world's greatest Band, from left: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. Photo by Elliott Landy.

Music Photo
Levon Helm now, keeping the bitter backbeat. Photo by Butch Dener.

Music Photo
Past-modern: young men wearing a vintage sound. Photo by Elliott Landy.

Music Photo
The Band, recording its second record. Photo by Elliott Landy.

It is too hard to listen to the interview with one of the greatest singers of the 1960s -- too hard, because the Southern-boy twang in Levon Helm's voice has turned to mush, as though it has been filtered through granite and broken glass. The voice that comes through the phone lines is unbearably harsh, like static turned up to 11. His words are often incomprehensible. They collide with each other, blurring into this protracted, hoarse rrroooooaaaarrrr that becomes particularly painful to withstand when he raises his voice, which he does often. There are times when all you can make out are the expletives, which roll from his mouth like boulders, one after the other till they threaten to crush anyone who stands in their way: "I don't need to be patted on the fucking back," Helm thunders...or hisses from his home studio in Woodstock, New York. "I don't give a shit."

The 58-year-old Helm has been ill of late, though no one will say exactly what was wrong (most likely throat cancer), so perhaps that explains the demise of that once-beautiful voice, heard loud and proud on such immortal songs as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" or when Helm's Jack Ridley served as Chuck Yeager's voice-over conscience in The Right Stuff. Or maybe his voice has been drowned in the bile that creeps up whenever he talks about The Band -- not the version he's been hauling around since the mid-1980s, the emasculated post-Robbie Robertson Band whose members supposedly danced their last waltz in 1978, then decided it wasn't enough. His anger is for that original incarnation which, in the late 1960s, made two of the most indispensable albums in the history of recorded music. The man could spend the next lifetime just clearing his throat. All that bitterness makes it so hard to speak clearly.

The occasion for this conversation is the recent release of Jubilation, The Band's third post-Last Waltz album and the one that most easily recalls Music from Big Pink and The Band. Though it's only an echo of such landmark albums -- albums that blended soul with country with R&B with blues with bluegrass with gospel till everything old did indeed become new and mysterious again -- Jubilation has enough warm, wonderful moments to make it seem necessary. Especially since 30 years later, there still exists no band like The Band, not even young acolytes such as Jennyanykind, mimics without meaning. Jubilation is acoustic and rickety, the sound of old men having a ball acting their age. Where once Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson were children constructing sounds from time-worn instruments, young'uns dressing up like Appalachian crackers just back from serving with Robert E. Lee, now they're folk musicians upholding tradition -- this time, their own.

And for a while, Helm speaks of this in equivocal, gentle terms. He talks about how, for the first time since reuniting with Hudson and Danko and a slew of younger men called in to take Robertson's and Richard Manuel's places, The Band returned to Helm's home studio in Woodstock to recapture that "clubhouse feel" that made Big Pink and The Band sound as though they were recorded on a back porch in 1859. He talks about the choice of instruments -- the dobro used by new guitarist Jim Weider, the stand-up string bass played by Rick Danko, the trombone and other horn instruments used by Tom Malone of the Late Show with David Letterman band. And he talks about trying to write and perform songs that would be as "long-lasting" as those on The Band's first two records.

Such decisions were made based on the fact that Jubilation, released at the end of last year, would hit stores exactly 30 years after the release of Music from Big Pink, the album that proved it was possible for four Canadians and an Arkansas refugee to make old-time, acoustic American music in an electric age. Levon had history on his mind as he and his Band-mates assembled the song list (the tunes have names that sound like old folk tunes: "Book Faded Brown," "High Cotton," "Kentucky Downpour"), the guest list (including Eric Clapton, among those invited to cut in during The Last Waltz 23 years ago), the whole blessed shebang. There is even a song, "White Cadillac," dedicated to forgotten rockabilly legend-in-his-own-mind Ronnie Hawkins, the man who hired and inadvertently assembled The Band in the late 1950s.

"We were trying to come up with some songs that would last hopefully as long as some of the Big Pink songs did," Helm says. "You never know if you're going to win or lose that one, but that was the intent. We wanted to try and come up with something that people wouldn't just get tired of by week after next. Hopefully, the songs would be fun to play for a crowd of people at a dance or at a show or whatever. Hopefully, the damn songs would last a little bit."

And they just might. The songs on Jubilation, especially Garth Hudson's keyboards-and-angels instrumental finale "French Girls," sound very much like the musical equivalent of yellowing pictures uncovered in attic chests. They're newfound vestiges of a bygone age, and to hear them now is to marvel at the shine that lies beneath so much dust. But Jubilation received as much attention upon its release as a whisper in a nuclear blast. Despite guest spots from Clapton and John Hiatt, the record has come and gone straight to the bargain bins in your local record stores, next to Jericho and High on the Hog, the two other post-Robertson releases that seem somehow hollow without his and Manuel's presence.

But Helm will not give up the good fight even in the face of dwindling album sales that often threaten to tarnish the legend. In fact, he partially admits that The Band exists in 1999 just to spite those who said it couldn't, shouldn't, be done -- Capitol Records, The Band's home in the '60s and '70s; the critics whose adoration turned to vilification in the 1990s; and especially Robbie Robertson, who was blamed for the death of The Band and is now the head of A&R at DreamWorks Records. Helm doesn't even mention his old buddy by his first name, referring to him instead only as Robertson -- as though he's a stranger, someone he never much cared for or, more accurately, someone he is convinced plunged a knife in his back and left it there. The wound has not yet healed -- it likely never will. There's blood on the tracks and everywhere else.

And here is where it all falls apart, just a few minutes into the interview...and it was all going so well. As he's talking about Jubilation (and perhaps never was an album so ironically titled), Helm suddenly begins lapsing into expletives, never-ending rants. His voice rises. His words sound as though they're covered in grit and metal shards. He goes immediately from talking about how he hopes "lightning will strike the same place more than once" to how record labels ain't nuthin' but a bunch of "cheap sons of bitches" who'll goddamned ruin the hard-workin' man.

Just like that, the man whose absolutely beautiful voice carried "The Weight" all those years ago, who went "Up on Cripple Creek" and was there "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," turns into the last angry man in rock and roll. All joy leaves his voice, all sense of accomplishment and pride disappears. Suddenly, Levon Helm becomes so angry he stops talking about music and instead turns his attention to those who ruined music for him. Every sentence is laced with venom as he insists he's never been paid for The Last Waltz (the Martin Scorsese-directed film or the three-album soundtrack, released on Warner Bros. Records) or Across the Great Divide, the three-CD boxed set Band retrospective Capitol released in 1994.

"We don't get any royalties for The Last Waltz," Helm repeats so often during the interview. "That's the biggest rip-off that ever happened to The Band. Put that in your fucking write-up. I ain't kidding you. If you got a lawyer that can sue the motherfuckers -- I ain't got that money myself -- and knows how to sue them, you tell him I'll split it with him. They're fucking thieves."

And then Helm's story deteriorates into the sad, familiar tale of the rock and roll hero who finds himself standing alone, with empty pockets to show for all his hard work. It's a story recounted time and again by bluesmen and rock pioneers, black men and white women, and Helm tells it with so many years of accrued bitterness wearing on him. He's nearly buried beneath the weight of such absolute hatred.

He is told that it's absolutely inconceivable that The Band received no money for The Last Waltz. And he becomes livid, misunderstanding it to mean: You're lying.

"Shit, man, come on," he barks. "Do you think that Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Little Richard and all these guys that have been making records, ya think they're bullshittin' you? You think they lost the fucking money? Or you thought us being white, maybe we didn't get fucked as bad? Hey, let me tell you something, son -- a nigger's a nigger to these motherfuckers. It's got nothing to do with color."

And it gets worse.

It shouldn't have ended this way -- not in a heap of profanities, not in such acrimony. Robertson and Helm were once the best of friends, and it was Helm who introduced the Canadian-born Robbie to the exotic sounds of the Deep South when they were both very young men. Levon took Robbie to Arkansas in the early 1960s, introduced him to gospel music and field hollers, allowed him to feel music he had just once heard. And Levon let Robbie meet his old man, who told Robbie that the South would indeed rise again.

They hooked up almost 40 years ago, when Helm -- who, at the age of 17, drummed behind Conway Twitty's kit -- went north with Ronnie Hawkins and, one by one, recruited Robertson, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson, the final man to join at the end of 1961. Back then, the boys were known as The Hawks, learning their instruments as they played one-two-three-four barroom rockabilly behind their overbearing leader.

It wouldn't take long for The Hawks to outgrow Hawkins. On the three-CD bootleg Crossing the Great Divide: 1961-1991, Helm sings "She's Nineteen" (recorded on September 18, 1961) with The Hawks backing him, and the song's more powerful than anything Hawkins himself would release on the Roulette label from 1959 to '63. Levon was 21 then, finding his voice, confidently learning how to mix the sweet-soul vocals of his youth with that magnificent gruff gospel-growl that would appear on Music from Big Pink. But even then, you could hear his bandmates playing something more than just blues-rock -- Robertson's guitar twists and turns in on itself, like Muddy Waters holding the instrument for the first time in his life. By 1964, The Hawks found they didn't need their namesake anymore and split (or were fired for not paying a $50 fine for bringing girlfriends to a club), and recorded here and there as Levon and The Hawks and the Canadian Squires. One surviving Squires single -- "Leave Me Alone," recorded in 1964 and also available on the bootleg set -- sounds like every other rock song from the period, a hand-jive raver with Helm sounding very much like a white boy singing black.

But in 1965, Levon and The Hawks recorded a single for Atco, and while the A-side "He Don't Love You" wasn't anything special, the B-side foreshadowed what was to come. "The Stone I Throw," guided so forcefully by Hudson's organ playing, was the first song on which all the members of The Hawks sang together, and it wasn't exactly a rock song or a blues song, but something bigger -- almost gospel, like some newly discovered hymn being performed by five white boys during happy hour at the neighborhood dive.

In September of that year, the boys were contacted by Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, about backing Dylan on a series of dates -- his first electric tour. At first, only Robertson was taken along, then Helm was hired when Robbie voiced his dislike for Dylan's drummer; eventually, all five members of The Hawks were brought in. But Levon couldn't stand the barrage of catcalls with which Dylan was greeted when he plugged in and turned up; the purists considered him a Judas (a cry made famous on the Royal Albert Hall bootleg recorded in 1966 that became an official release only last year), and Helm couldn't take the outrage heaped upon him every night. He would eventually claim he "wasn't made for booing" and quit The Hawks, being replaced by Mickey Jones, a Dallas boy who had played with Trini Lopez. While Dylan and The Hawks were ushering in a revolution, Helm was in New Orleans, washing dishes.

"I had a little short career there -- about a day and a half -- in the restaurant business," he says now. "I signed on there at The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans and got caught eating one of the entrées and had to leave."

Soon enough, after the boys had moved into a pink house in Woodstock -- so serene a setting, surrounded by 100 empty acres and a pond -- Helm returned to the fold, but not before Dylan, Robertson, Hudson, Danko, and Manuel had recorded dozens and dozens of songs down in the basement of that big pink house in Woodstock. Helm showed up in 1968 as Dylan and The Hawks were finishing their collection of basement tapes; he appears only on the later tracks, playing drums and harmonica. But he was there long enough to catch up on what the boys were doing, playing old songs that became new songs that merely sounded vintage. Even now, it's hard to differentiate the old folk tunes from the songs they made up on the spot.

Robbie Robertson would tell rock critic-author Greil Marcus that The Basement Tapes -- only a fraction of which have ever been released, the rest left to bootleggers and fanatics to pore over as though it were the Holy Grail of rock and roll -- were simply a "goof," the sound of musicians playing "with absolute freedom." But Marcus, whose 1997 book Invisible Republic tells the hidden story of the tapes, didn't buy it, insisting they revealed "the undiscovered country" -- in other words, America.

Marcus, speaking from his home in Berkeley, California, says there was nothing accidental about the Big Pink tapes. Marcus says that after Invisible Republic was published, he received a call from folklorist John Cohen, who told Marcus that in 1967, Dylan invited him to a party at his Woodstock home. Then, a few days later, Dylan phoned Cohen again and asked him to bring his banjo; Cohen agreed. Dylan then phoned once more and asked Cohen if he also had a dulcimer he might be able to bring to the party.

"It turned out Dylan wanted John to bring all his traditional instruments, because he wanted him to play stuff in a casual manner so Robbie and Richard would get interested," Marcus says, referring to it as Dylan's "surreptitious" history lesson. For The Hawks, Marcus says, "it was like falling into another world. Exactly how they understood it changed from day to day, but the thing about the Basement Tapes is that it was a secret intervention. They were acting out another music, and they did not intend for anyone to hear this stuff."

"We won't retire, and we won't die, and they won't come on and try to kill us."
That secret intervention would lead to two of the most beguiling albums ever made: Music from Big Pink, released in July 1968, and The Band, which followed in September 1969. Both albums sounded like nothing being released at the end of the decade; indeed, they were meant to stand in direct opposition to the electric, psychedelic, purple-haze, this-is-the-end rock and roll being made by the likes of Hendrix and Morrison and the rest of those groovy San Fran boogie bands. Reborn as The Band -- the perfect name for an outfit in which everyone played everything, sang everything, and contributed solely for the cause -- four Canucks and their Arkansas compatriot set down roots and played them like guitar strings. They dressed like refu-gees from a Sam Peckinpah western, sang about brothers lost to the Yankees in the Civil War and farms lost to the government, and made spooky, delirious, merry-go-round good-time music using organs and mandolins while the rest of rock and roll was tuning out and turning up.

In a documentary about the making of the second record, Robertson and Helm -- speaking separately, never shown together -- talk about how they wanted to recapture the sound of an America that had long since disappeared along with the railroad. They talked about how the harmonies on their records were accidental, the sound of men singing as high as they could, but also of how they imagined their music as the soundtrack to a place that no longer existed. They were storytellers, caretakers -- historians with guitars, finding so much promise and danger across the great divide. And as Helm and Robertson and producer John Simon talk about The Band in this documentary, they do so with tremendous looks of delight and satisfaction smeared across their faces; they surely knew they had taken history and made history.

Robertson, in two separate interviews with the Dallas Observer over the years, has always shied away from talking about his intention when writing such songs as "The Weight," "To Kingdom Come," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "Rag Mama Rag," and the like. So too does Helm insist now there wasn't nuthin' to it -- just some guys trying to make good music and have a hit record, if luck bit 'em on the ass.

But, Marcus says, with their first two records, there's no question the members of The Band were "demanding a new set of values...I am utterly convinced that from Richard to Robbie to Garth to Levon to Rick, they not only knew what they were doing but passionately believed it. They felt what passed for real music was bullshit. And I also think that the experience they had with Dylan in '65 and '66, along with their own sort of country-punk attitude toward the world they got as The Hawks, set them up with great good humor to be utter pugnacious and recalcitrant about setting themselves up against the Doors and the Strawberry Alarm Clock and every band like that.

"But for Levon, I don't think he has a clue as to how permanent his contribution to our culture is and how deep it is and how recognized it is."

The Band would release five more studio albums from 1970 to 1977, each with their handful of special moments, though none as revelatory as those on the first two albums. The end would come on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. They had decided to film a final concert with special guests joining them for the long goodbye: Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, even Neil Diamond. It was decided that Martin Scorsese, quickly becoming Robertson's new best friend, would direct -- and according to Helm, Robertson inexplicably became the star of the movie. Scorsese featured him in long, loving close-ups and made him the focus of the interview footage interspersed with the concert shots. Tensions mounted when Robertson insisted on the inclusion of Diamond -- Robbie had just produced The Jazz Singer's 1976 schlock-rock masterpiece, Beautiful Noise -- and suggested Levon cut Muddy Waters in order to shorten the running time. Or so the story goes.

When Helm talks about The Last Waltz now, he does so with disgust, accusing Robertson of lip-synching his way through the concert -- in fact, he was openly just mouthing the words, and the record was overdubbed -- and of collaborating with "Score-eatzi" to steal the movie from the other four members of The Band.

"I don't want Muddy Waters' family to think that I'm getting a fucking nickel out of The Last Waltz," Helm says. "Because I know they've been fucked from the very beginning, and I want them to know that I have too. It was Robertson and Score-eatzi and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid for The Last Waltz, and they still get paid, I guess. I've never gotten a check for it in my life.

"And you'd be surprised how many people see The Last Waltz and they look up there and they see Robertson up there pantomiming, acting his ass off, and they actually think he's making music. They think he's singing, he's making all that music -- a little bit of smoke and mirrors, and they think, 'Goddamn, I'm seeing the real fucking thing, right there in front of my eyes.' And it's the biggest bunch of bullshit in the world."

When The Band said farewell, it appeared to be for good: Robertson went to work assembling soundtracks for Scorsese films; Hudson and Danko made their own music. And Helm cut some solo records, played with the RCO All-Stars, wrote a nasty, now-out-of-print autobiography, and appeared in such films as Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff.

But in 1982, Danko and Helm met in Woodstock and recorded together; eventually, Hudson and Manuel were brought back in. Robertson either wasn't asked or he wasn't interested -- most likely, both. Four years later, during a tour in the middle of Florida, Manuel went to his motel room and strung himself up from the ceiling. He killed himself rather than suffer through one more show as an emasculated version of a legend. Better to end it than live on the road as a lower-case band paying homage to The Band. But Helm, Hudson, and Danko kept on, eventually recording Jericho in 1993 and High on the Hog in 1996. Today, they sell at discounted prices even in the shrink-wrap.

But Helm keeps on: Just a few weeks ago, he opened a club in New Orleans, and he records with local bands around Woodstock, including an outfit called Crowmatix. Jubilation may well transcend the pain and suffering of the past 20 years -- the disintegration of friendships, the death of comrades, the whole bloody mess of it. But Helm can't bring himself to talk about his love for music; he says it's there, all right, but hidden behind the regrets and the empty bank accounts and his hatred for the record labels that robbed him and, yes, broke up The Band.

"We were trying to be as musical as we could be, and I didn't give a good goddamn what Greil Marcus or anybody thought of us, because I was doing the best I could," he says. "I knew that in my heart. It was the best I could do, and I didn't have any second thoughts about it. And I'll tell you what it won for me -- no matter how honest my intentions might have been, Capitol Records done just what every fucking record company has ever done. Fuckin' thieves."

He talks about how record labels broke up the very best bands in the world: Roy Orbison's Teen Kings, Elvis Presley and his Sun Records band, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and so forth. As far as he's concerned, it was the music business that destroyed The Band -- someone anointed Robbie Robertson a god, and the rest of the men could be discarded as though they were annoyances. There are old stories that circulate about how Robertson actually bought the rights to The Band's songs from his mates when they began pissing away their royalties on drugs, booze, and women. Helm has heard the stories and insists they aren't true -- OK, they're "bullshit."

The way Helm tells it, The Band exists in 1999 just to prove it can't be destroyed -- that, or as a cautionary tale. He talks about how he'd like "women and children" to read this article, how young bands need to be warned against signing to major labels that will divide and conquer them, how there's so much evil still conspiring against him. That may not be much of an inspiration, but at least it's something.

"We won't retire, and we won't die, and they won't come on and try to kill us," Helm says of labels. "We're just stuck at a Mexican standoff. If anybody wants to do something positive, fuck throwing bouquets at us -- let's throw some cow piles at them motherfuckers. Let's give some shit to somebody that deserves it. I don't need to be patted on the fucking back. I don't give a shit. But I tell you what I'd do. I'd stay up all night and drink goddamned dirty water just to get to kick them son-of-a-bitches in the nuts one time. Me out there with the big stick. I'd love to hold the stick around them bastards, yeah, boy. There's where the hurting is.

"They're the son-of-a-bitches that don't pay nobody, and it don't make no difference how much time or effort or heart we give a record, they don't goddamned appreciate it. They're going to sell it, and they're going to cheat you out of it, and they're going to break you up as soon as it's to their advantage. They have to turn one player. Everyone should know that before they start building their band. Youngsters should know that they'll try and turn one of them. With us, it was Robertson. They turned one guy, and then the rest of them they sent home. Except we wouldn't go. We still keep hanging around."

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