In July 1966, Dylan suffered a motorcycle accident, and ended up with a concussion and broken vertebrae of the neck. He retreated to his home in Woodstock, New York, with his wife and children, and invited the Hawks. After Danko called Helm and told him that a major recording contract was in the offing for the group, the drummer rejoined them. When Helm arrived on the scene in late 1967, "I could barely believe the level of work they'd been putting out," he wrote. "The boys had also discovered how to write songs." Part of that body of work – stream-of-consciousness apocrypha such as "This Wheel's on Fire" and strange, funny parables such as "Clothes Line Saga" – was released as The Basement Tapes, credited to Dylan and the Band.
Woodstock – a rustic mix of New York City and country, redneck and counterculture – was the perfect setting for the Hawks, and Helm in particular. "You'd see them at the hardware store, or drinking beer with firemen," remembers one local. "They lit up the town." "From that first day, the Catskills reminded me of the Ozarks and the Arkansas hill country," Helm would later write. "I had a shock of recognition. Going to Woodstock felt like going home."
In 1968, Dylan returned to his official recording career with John Wesley Harding. The Hawks declined to record with him; it was time for the group – which took on the name the Band - to make its own move. In 1968, the Band released Music From Big Pink, and it was in that album that the legacy of the basement sessions found its greatest fruition. These were songs about either a lost America – not just musically, but also spiritually – and about people who needed to find something, maybe hope, maybe mourning, maybe companions, to withstand that loss. Perhaps the best example of Robertson's gift in this regard was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," from 1969's The Band, about the pain and the scars that the Civil War still leaves on the American soul. Helm sang it from the vantage of a broken Confederate at the tail end of the conflict, in a mix of ache, pride, defeat and grudge. The effect of the Band's music ran deep: The Rolling Stones and the Beatles abandoned baroque arrangements for music with taut rhythms and lean embellishments; Eric Clapton left behind Cream's avant-garde pyrotechnics; and the Grateful Dead emulated both the Band's themes and styles in Workingman's Dead and American Beauty.
But at the height of their influence, the Band began to fall apart. Helm, among others in the group, had developed a heroin habit. "I'd feel hypocritical about soft-peddling this," Helm wrote in his autobiography, "because it was part of the scene and part of the era." As Robertson became an increasingly dominant force in the band – writing most of the music and determining the thematic gist of the albums – ties between the members began to strain. Helm accused Robertson of assuming song credits wholesale, and ignoring what he saw as the Band's crucial collaborative aspect. Helm told Robertson, "Robbie, a band has to stick together, protect each other, support and encourage each other, and grow the music the way a farmer grows his crops."
For a moment, in early 1974, it looked as if the decline might turn around. Dylan decided to end his eight-year sabbatical from concert appearances, taking the Band along with him in an ambitious and sweeping trek across America. The shows provided some of Dylan's fiercest performances ever. "With Dylan," Greil Marcus wrote, "they were once again the best rock & roll band in the world."
A little over two years later, Robertson, fed up with the touring and partying, brought it all to a halt. He announced that the Band would be playing their last shows – at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving night in November 1976 – and recruited director Martin Scorsese to chronicle the event for a feature film, The Last Waltz.
"The only problem was," Helm recalled, "I didn't want any part of it. I didn't want to break up the Band." In a confrontation over the matter, Helm told Robertson, "I'm not in it for my health. I'm a musician, and I wanna live the way I do." Robertson said, "I'm tired of the danger out there. How long before the odds run out? How long before someone dies? It's a done deal." Helm was furious: "I'll fight you tooth and nail just to feel better about it."
The rancor persisted for a longer life than the group's teamship. In 2000, Helm told Rolling Stone , "What was that movie? Just a lot of self-serving tripe Robertson had something to prove. He wanted to show that he was the leader of the Band, and that's what that movie is about . . . I've never gotten a check for it in my life."
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