Levon Helm Returns to Blues and Tries to Put the Past to Rest

Rolling Stone's 2000 feature on the Band's co-founder

April 27, 2000
levon helm
Levon Helm of The Band.
Andrew Lepley/Redferns

This story is from the April 27th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.

A little more than thirty years ago, Levon Helm, a back-country Arkansas boy in love with the blues, moved to Woodstock, New York, to be near Bob Dylan. He was the one American in a quintet otherwise consisting of Canadians. They called themselves the Band, and their first record, Music From Big Pink, named for the house near Woodstock that they shared, was an instant success, and it remains one of the watersheds of American music. As Eric Clapton has put it, "Back in 1968, a record called Music From Big Pink changed my life and changed the course of American music." It was the Woodstock sound – a kind of revolutionary revisionism, a radical return to popular music's storytelling roots, with songs of farmers and soldiers, quiet nights and good women.

Levon Helm, the Band's co-founder, its drummer, mandolin player and guiding spirit, as well as the vocalist on many of its most popular songs – "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek" – still lives in Woodstock, though no longer at Big Pink. The road leading to his house starts off as yet another gently curving blacktop through a pleasant middle-class country neighborhood. But before too long, the road shakes free of the houses and the woods start closing in. All that marks Levon's place is a numbered mailbox; from there you take a twisting, pitted dirt driveway through woods that right now are showing the havoc of a recent storm, with trees lying on the boggy ground, their torn-out root cavities filled with rain and leaves. Suddenly you're in a different sort of atmosphere, a landscape in which a guy with a twenty-gauge shotgun and a couple of plaintive hounds wouldn't be out of place.

There's a wooden sculpture of a black-and-white cow in front of the house, and when Levon answers the door, I comment on it. "A friend of mine dropped it off a couple of days ago," he says. And then, cryptically, he adds, "He had some problem with a turn signal." The house itself is wooden, simple, certainly not a mansion but with some size to it and a lot of funky charm. He lives here with his wife, Sandy, a pretty, soft-spoken woman a decade his junior. It seems to be laundry day – there are a multitude of plastic baskets overflowing with clothes. We repair next door to Levon's studio, a barnlike space filled with instruments, recording equipment, and dozens and dozens of cases of Coca-Cola.

It's Sunday afternoon, and Levon is hooking up with his daughter, Amy Helm, who was born back when the Band was minting gold with every record. Then, Levon was living large with the glamorous and compelling Libby Titus, who is now married to Steely Dan's Donald Fagen. Amy is an attractive woman in her late twenties, with the open face of a 1940s movie star and amber waves of hair. She and Levon are putting together a set of blues-based children's songs to perform for kids in Sloan-Kettering's pediatric-oncology wing in New York City. Levon's relationship with Amy has always had music at its core, but now the apprenticeship has a new urgency. Without it being explicitly stated, Levon is passing the torch of his knowledge to Amy, for her to take the vocals he is no longer able to manage.

As we settle into the studio, Levon puts his current situation in stark perspective. "Two things people don't want – poverty and cancer," he says. "And I had them both."

Throat cancer, curable but leaving in its wake a throat badly strafed by the burning cure of radiation treatments, one of those violent miracles of modern medicine that might make future generations cringe when they learn about it. Levon's voice was one of the signature sounds of the second half of twentieth-century pop music – a pungent blend of mountain music, blues and rock & roll – and it saddens and terrifies to think of that sweet snarl of flesh and sinew overcome by rampaging cells. (To give causality its due, it should be pointed out that Levon spent a number of decades as one of those hellbent-for-leather Southern smokers, good for three packs a day.)

"When I got my diagnosis last year, it scared the hell out of me," Levon says. "But thank God for my baby. I didn't want her to see me scared, so I acted like I wasn't." His voice has the same mixture of vulnerability and resilience as his words. He is one of those people who have made the journey from renegade to father figure without losing a bit of charisma. His smile is sly, compelling; his blue eyes radiate mischief and energy.

In the most terrible times of the illness and the radiation treatments, Amy took care of her father. Levon could not speak at all, so they worked out a makeshift code of whistles and whispers. It was as if Amy had to enter the very core of his silence in order to hear him, and the experience seems to have transformed her. She began to hear what he heard, feel what he felt. And though her voice is her own – jazzy, urbane – her father's sensibilities inform her every performance.

"When I sing, I can hear exactly where he'd go," Amy says. "I'm listening to his secret voice, and it's guiding me."

Amy picks up Levon's mandolin and strums it absently. "Being with my dad during that time taught me everything I know about courage," she says. "It was like the illness was a window in the wall of this great figure, this star who I was always sort of in awe of, and through that window I could see a man I had never seen before, a hero."

I glance over at Levon to see how he is taking this moving declaration of love and loyalty, and I'm surprised to see that he has left the room.

"I used to think that maybe I wanted to be a shrink," Amy is saying. "Or maybe work with children. I still want to do these things, maybe even sing in a gospel choir."

Suddenly, Levon is back, carrying three bottles of Coke. "Just make sure that gospel choir's got a full rhythm section," he says, laughing.

The rehearsal begins. Dressed in jeans, boots, a leather flight jacket and a blue silk scarf around his throat, Levon picks up his slategray National steel guitar. Amy plays the mandolin. They spend a few moments tuning up. "Hit your A," Levon says. "OK, baby, hit your G. Aw, that don't sound worth a damn." And then – bang – they jump into a blues lilt celebrating the beauty of broken things. "This nickel's no good, you see/There's a hole in the middle that goes right through/I said that's OK/There's a hole in the doughnut, too."

Andy Warhol once remarked that one day everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. It's probably one of the most quoted quips of the past fifty years, but it's not particularly true. (It could be that nothing Warhol said was particularly true.) Most people live in complete and unyielding obscurity, known only to their families and friends, which is why what happens to, say, rock musicians who are no longer famous has become an obsession for Americans, and a kind of grim entertainment, too. We tune in to those where-are-they-now? programs on VH1, trying not to cackle too loudly when we see pop idols from the past grown heavy around the middle, playing the oldies circuit or teaching music at some Midwestern high school. We feel the difficulties and obscurity of our own lives somehow avenged when we see that our former space cowboys have all become men who have fallen to earth.

Which is to say, people assume that Levon Helm's life is miserable because he isn't headlining huge concert halls anymore. Instead, he's become the drummer and spirit guide for the Barn Burners, a local blues band specializing in covers of songs that Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon played fifty years ago. At first glance, this seems like the trajectory for a kind of tragedy, like the story of some once-great boxer who has to keep on punching to pay off back taxes, falling lower and lower on the undercard.

But the sense one gets after spending time with Levon is that he is experiencing a rebirth of enthusiasm for playing, reviving himself with long cool drinks from that wellspring of American music – the blues. Someone – it may have been Townes Van Zandt – once said that in music it's either the blues or it's zippity doodah, and Levon quotes this remark at least four times in our series of conversations. "Right now," he says, "I've got more good musical energy than I've had in my whole life. I'm back to my true calling, which is being a drummer. And I'm playing the blues, man, the real Delta blues."

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