At the Helm
Drummer Levon Helm spent a lot of years smoking a lot of cigarettes, so it wasn't the biggest shock in the world when, in 1997, doctors told him he had throat cancer. But what the white-jacketed men and women of New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center did to rid him of the renegade cells clogging his gullet certainly took him by surprise.
"I didn't really have a lot of surgery other than just exploratory stuff," Helm says from his Woodstock, New York, home. "What they mainly did was 28 of those radiation treatments, and, boy, that stuff is hot! But it works, you know; it's just a miracle. We live in a wonderful age, and there's some folks down at Sloan-Kettering who're guardian angels. You can fight back and you can win. They'll help you."
But the battle took its toll. Prior to his affliction, Helm possessed an indelibly American speaking voice -- one capable of evoking much of the country's history, from its pioneer beginnings to its modern essence, with every syllable. Director Phil Kaufman is among many who recognized the power of this instrument. For 1983's The Right Stuff, an adaptation of a Tom Wolfe novel about the early days of the space program, Kaufman wanted a narrator who could merge native heroism with aw-shucks modesty simply by opening his mouth -- and the man he chose for the job was Levon Helm.
The radiation bombardment changed all that. Helm was unable to speak for around a year after it began -- "I could whisper, that's all" -- and when the ability to converse aloud finally returned, it did so in a guise he hardly recognized. "It don't hurt to talk now," he says in what's left of his voice, a boisterous, sharply accented rasp with an occasional metallic timbre at its core. "It's just kinda like when you're hoarse -- like that hoarseness you get in your voice? You just have to talk through it. You have to kinda force your voice a bit more."
Singing isn't agonizing, either -- but it's not pretty. The man whose crooning, by turns elegiac and rowdy, stamped "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and many other numbers by the Band, an act as unique and influential as rock has produced, can't carry a tune anymore, or even pick one up. When trying to sing, he concedes, "I just don't know where it's gonna go!" After a mad cackle of the sort he unleashes regularly, he adds, "I might get into some comedy music, you know, because I'll aim for a note and that damn thing'll take off! Yeah, boy."
As this response implies, Helm isn't spending his time moping about the lousy hand he was dealt. He's simply happy to be alive -- so much so that the mutating of what he refers to self-deprecatingly as "my thin-ass voice" doesn't seem like that big of a deal. "I'm so lucky, because my first love is playing drums. I never did want to be no singer, you know -- and I never was, really!" The cackle again. "But I still want to be a drummer; I'm still aiming for that. I don't play first chair yet, but by God, I'm still in the game."
Helm's squad these days is the Barn Burners, a blues combo that features lead singer/harmonica player Chris O'Leary, guitarist Pat O'Shea, bass fiddler Frankie Ingrao and Helm's daughter, pianist/vocalist Amy Helm, of whom he's fiercely proud. "This ain't no case of Amy taking advantage of Pops playing music for a living," he says. "This ain't no charity case, 'cause Amy can cut the mustard."
The ditties Amy and the rest of the Barn Burners deliver aren't new. "We only do classic tunes by one of the classic players, you know," Helm says. "Muddy Waters or somebody like that. And I love to do it, because I always wanted to play the blues. That's kinda what my little contribution to the Band was. That sorta bluesy sound that the Band has? You can blame most of that on me. And it don't never get old, 'cause it gets you up and moving. Blues music is the most danceable music of all, you know? It's not too fast and it's not too slow, and you can kind of catch up with it. It's got that long kind of a stroke to itself, and you'll kinda stretch your foot out there, you know, and you'll wait for that backbeat to drop, and when it finally does, it feels so nice.
"When people say the blues is dead, I don't know what the hell they're talking about," he goes on. "Because blues is where the fundamentals of music are. Whatever you want to play, whether it's country or rock and roll or anything, you could do a lot worse than learning the blues. And that's us: still learning. We try and play them better than we did last night -- and we played them pretty good last night! But we're going to play them better tonight, yes sir. We're going to sing them better and get more in the middle of the note and be more on pitch and in tune. Just better."
For most music lovers, of course, no cover song, energetically performed though it might be, is likely to top Helm's finest turns with the Band, and he's at peace with that. "I've got pride in that music, I surely do," he says. "I made it and turned it in. It's my music. Damn right I got pride in it." But at the same time, he acknowledges, his memories of the Band aren't all positive -- and when it comes to Robbie Robertson, the man widely identified as the Band's leader, and its longtime manager, Albert Grossman, none of them seem to be. At the mention of these men, or the music industry in general, the pure, childlike joy he exudes while talking about the blues instantly turns to bitterness of the blackest sort. "Thinking 'bout some of the old times is painful," he allows. "Painful."
That's a pity, since Helm bore witness to some of the most memorable moments in the annals of rock music. Born in 1940 in Marvell, Arkansas, he began playing the guitar at age eight, but switched to the drums after seeing a performance by the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels. This outfit inspired "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," a tune on the 1970 long-player Stage Fright for which Robertson, who changed the first initial of the Walcott name from "F" to "W" because the latter sounded better to him, was listed as the sole songwriter -- a slight that frosts Helm to this day. "I lived that story," he barks. "I'm the one who went to Walcott's Medicine Show, not him."
After moving to Memphis while still in his teens, Helm began getting work as a musician from the likes of Conway Twitty and was eventually recruited by Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly belter also from Arkansas, to pound the skins for his support band, dubbed the Hawks. Over the next several years, four young Canadians -- guitarist Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson -- drifted into the lineup, and when Helm decided to leave Hawkins's employ in 1963, they went with him. Levon and the Hawks, as they called themselves, subsequently relocated to Greenwich Village, New York, where they came to the attention of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan at the very moment that he was contemplating how to transition from folk-music mainstay to eccentric rocker. In July 1965, Dylan went electric for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival with the assistance of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; a month later, at an equally controversial show before 15,000 cheering/ booing ticket buyers in Forest Hills, New York, he was joined on stage by Robertson and Helm.
Dylan and Helm subsequently got into an argument that resulted in the drummer being left off a 1965-66 world tour; during this jaunt, Mickey Jones did the timekeeping for the Hawks. But following his fabled 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan summoned the Hawks, Helm included, to Woodstock, where the musicians produced a casually brilliant batch of tunes that were widely bootlegged and finally released officially in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
"That was during the time that Bob was showing the Band how to write songs," Helm says. "Now, you've gotta get this right: None of us except Garth read or write music. So with arranging and songwriting, all that stuff, all you're doing, really, is making up music. You make it up in your head and you tell each other about it, and then you turn on a tape recorder and you listen to it back, and you hear what sounds good and what don't sound good. And what don't sound good you start changing, and shit that's embarrassing to sing about you don't sing about, and if a word don't fit right, you change it and use something else. And that's how we did it."
This same technique was employed during the making of the Band's first album, 1968's Music From Big Pink, which was named for the pink house in West Saugerties, New York, where it was conceived. The platter was solid from top to bottom, with Band originals such as "To Kingdom Come," "Chest Fever" and "The Weight" stacking up impressively against three tunes -- "Tears of Rage," "This Wheel's on Fire" and "I Shall Be Released" -- written or co-written by Dylan. But despite rapturous reviews, it didn't sell well, and Helm believes the group's contract might have been dropped if not for a little help from their friends. "Capitol Records decided that Big Pink was an artistic success because all the Beatles were crazy about it," he says. "So they told us they were going to keep us. We were supposed to just keep trying real hard."
They did: 1969's The Band is the quintet's peak achievement thanks to great material -- not just "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," but "Up on Cripple Creek," "Rag Mama Rag," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" and many more -- that sounded as if it could have been written a hundred years earlier or a hundred years in the future. Helm chalks up its timeless quality to top-notch engineering by the likes of Tony May, a willingness to sweat the technical details, and loads of teamwork. "We learned how to work with each other," he says. "And sometimes we would have to do the song to figure out if Richard should sing it, or Rick should sing it, or I should sing it -- and that still didn't settle it sometimes, so we'd all take a verse each. The Band's thing was not to have a lead singer. We weren't going to have a lead singer out there with a goddamn big ring on his finger making all the money and getting all the girls and all the goddamn bouquets and everything else. We didn't have to worry 'bout that bullshit."
But this creatively idyllic period didn't last for much longer, at least from Helm's perspective. A year after The Band, the five followed up with Stage Fright, which is split between first-rate stuff ("The Shape I'm In," "Daniel and the Sacred Harp" and the title cut are excellent) and increasingly self-conscious songs that seem to lack the spark of their predecessors. Helm agrees with this appraisal. "We did it right for two and a half, three years -- long enough to do The Basement Tapes, Big Pink, The Band and part of Stage Fright. And after that, the writing was on the wall."
If so, that writing was probably credited to Robertson, who wound up with the lion's share of the Band's royalties. "He did it all," Helm practically spits. "He wrote it all out and we supposedly read it and did it exactly like he told us to. That's his version, anyway. But the true version is that the five of us put together the songs on those first few albums, and after that, there was no more collaboration and no more records cut by the Band. Oh, there were some best-ofs and a lot of live shit, but no more original stuff -- and there still ain't."
That's not strictly true. After Stage Fright, the Band made three more studio discs --1971's Cahoots, 1975's Northern Lights--Southern Cross and 1977's Islands -- to go along with the superior 1972 live set Rock of Ages, a couple of compilations, the 1973 oldies collection Moondog Matinee and the 1978 soundtrack to The Last Waltz, the group's official swan song (which Helm insists was shoved down everyone else's craw by Robertson). What's more, the studio offerings each sport a song or two that's quite admirable, and nothing that's downright dreadful. But they can't compare with the Band's best stuff, because, Helm contends, Robertson wasn't as good on his own as he was in tandem with the others.
"Look at the writer's credits on those last records," he says. "There's no credits for Garth, there's almost no credits for Rick, and there's none for Richard. Hell, Richard finally just quit writing, and so did everybody else -- everybody except for the genius. He still writes. It just ain't worth a shit. He even turned Indian, and that didn't work." (To read Robertson's Westword profile, see "Native Intelligence," August 20, 1998.)
After the Band waltzed away in the late '70s, Helm performed with the RCO All-Stars, a cooperative that included Dr. John and three-quarters of Booker T. and the MG's, and put out a couple of well-liked but light-selling solo albums. He also did some acting, most notably in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, a vivid biography of country singer Loretta Lynn for which Sissy Spacek won a Best Actress Oscar, and The Right Stuff. Helm, who had a featured role in the movie in addition to his gig as narrator, recalls, "I got to be with Royal Dano and Kim Stanley every day for about a month, and whenever I could, I'd ride back to the hotel with her. She'd tell me, 'Get out your harmonica and play me that Louis Jordan song,' and I'd play her 'Caledonia Boy.' Son, I can think of worse times to have."
He experienced plenty of those down the line. In 1983, Helm, Hudson, Manuel and Danko got back together under the Band moniker, but without Robertson, they received little attention. Finally, three years later, a distraught Manuel hanged himself with his belt after a show in Winter Park, Florida.
In his 1993 autobiography This Wheel's on Fire, Helm recounted this incident, but he spent more energy attacking Robertson for shortchanging his onetime partners. "It's the managers and accountants and the lawyers who get most of the money," he says. "But they usually pay one turncoat enough to keep his nose powdered pretty good, and that's what happened. Albert was the teacher, and Robertson was the teacher's pet. He did what Albert told him, and he's still in Hollywood because of it."
In 1994, the Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sans Helm, who didn't want to be on the same stage with Robertson. But Helm stuck with Hudson and Danko, and during the '90s, the trio recorded three albums for indie imprints: Jericho, High on the Hog and Jubilation. Unfortunately, the CDs sank quickly. "People didn't even know they came out," Helm says. "We did those records for little companies you never heard of for, like, fifty grand a pop, shit like that. And what kind of record do you want for forty or fifty grand? You want a Grammy winner?" Then, in December 1999, a seriously overweight Danko died in his sleep. Robertson showed up for Danko's memorial, but no one from Capitol Records did. "Bastards," Helm hisses.
The label comes in for more criticism from Helm in regard to its new reissues of the Band's Capitol library. Eight albums, from Big Pink to Islands, have been carefully remastered and supplemented with thorough liner notes by Rob Bowman and a slew of extra cuts and oddities -- even a vintage Stage Fright radio commercial that ends with the corny line, "And the Band plays on." But to Helm, "It's just a big, goddamn hype. Don't mean nothing. And I'll tell you something else: No matter what they say, I didn't have anything to do with it. They say I was right there, thicker than thieves with all of them, helping to put this whole thing together, but that's another big lie. I don't even got copies of them. You think they sent me a courtesy copy -- one of those for my family? Shit, no. Fuck my family. They don't care about my family.
"But I tell you what -- it's pretty much even. 'Cause if you think they don't like me, I sure don't goddamn like them."
It's no wonder Helm likes the blues. During his recovery from cancer treatments, he says, drumming with the Barn Burners was "the best therapy I got, and it still is. I've played so much that my style's changed quite a bit. I use a mallet grip more than I used to, I use a traditional grip less than I used to, and I set up my drums a little different: no padding, no governors -- just wide open. And I'm having a lot of fun."
He'd like the Barn Burners to make an album sometime soon, but he hasn't yet contacted any labels to see if any are interested in signing the group. Were he able to sing, this task would likely be easier, but his doctors hold out no great hope for a breakthrough. "They just tell me to do what I think I can do, and that's about it. They don't want to be responsible for what I sound like!" he says, guffawing. "But it really don't bother me, honestly."
In this respect, Helm has little in common with another vocal icon, Julie Andrews, whose singing voice never returned following the 1997 removal of benign throat nodules. Andrews filed a lawsuit against her doctors that was settled out of court, and in recent interviews, she has spoken openly about how profoundly her condition has affected her psychologically and has detailed the efforts she's making to one day sing again.
At the mention of Andrews's name, Helm is filled with empathy. "Oh, boy, bless her heart," he says, on the edge of emotion. "I mean, she did The Sound of Music. God almighty -- now, that's a loss."
Tell Helm that many people feel the same way about him and he's taken aback.
"Well, that's awful nice to think that; that's a hell of a compliment just to be in the same sentence with her. God love her, I hope she's happy. 'Cause there's worse things in life than not being able to sing. Lord knows there are."
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