Helm went back to the life of an itinerant musician, and met with praise for his portrayal of country singer Loretta Lynn's father in Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, and for his roles as the narrator and sidekick Jack Ridley in The Right Stuff. In 1983, Helm wanted to arrange a reunion tour of the Band, but Robertson would have nothing to do with it. Helm pushed ahead regardless, and he, Danko, Manuel and Hudson re-formed the Band, with guitarist Earl Cate, appearing at festivals and touring sporadically. The enterprise also exposed them to the sort of hazardous odds that Robertson had cited as reason to end the group. Early in the morning on March 4th, 1986, Richard Manuel, drunk and on coke, went into the bathroom of his Florida hotel room and hanged himself. His wife, Arlie, found him the next afternoon; Helm and Danko helped cut the body down.
The Band would continue, recording three albums, including 1993's excellent Jericho. Then, in 1998, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. He nonetheless continued to record a new Band album, Jubilation, and also worked with his daughter, singer Amy Helm. "When I got my diagnosis . . . it scared the hell out of me," he told Scott Spencer in an April 2000 Rolling Stone article. "But thank God for my baby. I didn't want her to see me so scared, so I acted like I wasn't."
He remained adamant in his denunciations of Robbie Robertson. In 1994, when the Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Helm had refused to attend rather than spend time in his former friend and partner's company. "Robbie's got people who'll say he wrote everything," he told writer Barney Hoskyns in 1998. "Those are the same people that are helping him spend the fucking money, but he knows it ain't right, it ain't fucking true." Robertson was unmoved by the claims. "I wrote songs before I ever met Levon," he told Spencer. "I'm sorry, I just worked harder than anybody else. Somebody has to lead the charge, somebody has to draw the map. The guys were responsible for the arrangements, but that's what a band is, that's your fucking job."
On December 10th, 1999, Rick Danko died in his sleep, at age 56. After Robertson appeared at the memorial service for Danko in Woodstock, Helmwouldn't enter.
In 2000, Helm didn't know if he'd ever sing again. He believed maybe he'd handed that gift off to Amy. "When I sing," she once said, "I can hear where he'd go. I'm listening to his secret voice, and it's guiding me."
It turned out that Helm wasn't done with his own voice. He endured nearly 30 radiation treatments for his throat cancer in his last decade, and his vocal cords gradually improved. To rebuild his finances after the treatments, he returned to the stage. ("Two things people don't want – poverty and cancer," he told Spencer, "and I had them both.") This time he would let fans come to him, turning a barn on his property into a makeshift live venue that hosted more than 150 sweaty, joyous Saturday-night shows, which he called Midnight Rambles. In that barn and at accompanying tour dates, he reconstructed a life of music and friendship, drawing in a wide range of notable artists such as Elvis Costello, Buddy Miller, My Morning Jacket and Sheryl Crow. "Every song is a celebration," Helm said in 2008. "We've got so many great singers and players – that's what's so fun. We can go to the Beacon Theatre and play, but it just don't sound as good as this old barn."
In his last years, Helm made the best albums he had ever made under his own name, Dirt Farmer (2008), Electric Dirt (2009) and Ramble at the Ryman (2011). There were no burdens of proof remaining for him, no myths to be staked. He stood justified in his own heart, in his own life, in his own house.
This story is from the May 10th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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