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

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Levon and the Barn Burners play a weekly gig at a Woodstock club, and they've spent time on the road, as well. Recently they headlined a concert back in Levon's home territory – Little Rock – where they were joined by the Cate Brothers, blues singer and harpist James Cotton – one of Levon's close friends – and Levon's first boss, Ronnie Hawkins. For a while, Levon held part interest in a New Orleans club where he and the Barn Burners gigged regularly.

His enthusiasm for the Barn Burners is immense, almost insistent. When I ask him what he's listening to these days, he says, "The Barn Burners." He knows it sounds a little strange and he shrugs, laughs. "I like listening to us, going over it, seeing what we're doing right, what we're doing wrong and where we could get better." And when I ask him where he'd like to be a year or two from now, he says, "By then, I'd like to have one or two Barn Burner CDs out and a couple more in the works."

Forsaking mainstream popular music for a complete devotion to Delta blues, Levon has made his peace with a career that will likely never be filled with the splash and cash of those halcyon days. "I never wanted that damn mess," he says. "I'm doing the best work I've ever done. Maybe I can get back to singing again. That's a joyful thing, singing. We'll have to wait and see. But whatever happens, I might not ever fill Madison Square Garden again. That's all right with me – at least I won't be playing no zippity doodah."

A few days after going to New York with Amy to play for the kids at Sloan-Kettering, Levon is scheduled to go back to the city to play in an all-star benefit for the Rainforest Alliance. Up to the very last day, Levon tries to figure out a way to get out of it. He's worried that people will be expecting the old Levon, the "Rag Mama Rag" Levon, the singing Levon, and he can't bear the idea of disappointing them. But the posters are up, the ads have run in the paper, and Levon's name figures prominently in the promotion. In the end, it's just too much trouble to blow the gig off, and, filled with trepidation, Levon drives down to Manhattan.

The benefit is at the Beacon Theater, an ornate old picture palace, the sort of rococo venue that used to grace every American city of any size, when culture was spelled with a capital C and theaters were like churches.

The full house cheers as the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Shawn Colvin and others come on and off the stage. When Levon is announced, a huge welcoming roar rises up from the audience. The spotlight finds him, wiry, clean-shaven, sitting in that familiar half-turned way, riding his drum set as if it were a high-stepping horse. He's playing behind Kim Wilson, perhaps the most fabulous of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, on a powerful rendition of "Early in the Morning." A couple of songs later, Phoebe Snow joins in on a pyrotechnic "Drown in My Own Tears." Later on he plays behind Robert Cray and Dr. John, and even supplies the infectious groove for James Taylor's interpretation of "Barefootin'."

Throughout, a spotlight remains on Levon, and it seems that at any moment we are going to hear his soulful, twangy voice. And the silence, let me tell you, the silence is piercing.

When the concert ends, Levon stands with the other musicians as the crowd cheers its appreciation. They might not have gotten the trip down memory lane that some of them had been hoping for, but they'd heard consummate blues and R&B drumming, tough, swinging and supple. Beaming, Levon takes in the cheers, pointing back at the audience with his right hand and clutching his drumsticks in his left.

"All I ever wanted to be was a drummer, and that's what I am," Levon tells me after the show. I look for some sadness in his eyes, some regret that he wasn't out there singing the old songs, some discomfort with what to some would seem like reduced circumstances. But there is none of that. What I see is the look of a man who has put in a good night's work doing what he loves best.

Levon has been drumming for nearly forty years. Raised on a farm in Marvell, Arkansas, he hooked up with the strutting, howling rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who took the teenage Levon on tour to Canada, where they played "places so tough, they make you puke twice and show your razor before they let you in the door." Hawkins was the kind of larger-than-life showman who saunters over to the guitar player during a solo and fans his Stetson over the guitar, as if to prevent it from bursting into flames. But like Levon, and many of the great white Southern players, he had a taste for the blues.

Hawkins and Levon also had an uncanny knack for hiring the right sidemen. While they were up in Toronto, they recruited the rest of what would become the Band – Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko. They were called the Hawks then, and when they wearied of working for Hawkins, they set out on their own, becoming Levon and the Hawks. Then came the turning point, in the person of Bob Dylan. They had the sound Dylan wanted when he was sloughing off his folkie beginnings and making the transition to a more rock & roll direction. The Hawks began touring with Dylan; Dylan referred to them simply as "the band," and before long they started to capitalize the T and the B. Enter: fame. Enter: bushelbaskets of money. Enter: lawyers, accountants, managers, hangers-on. Enter: acrimony.

And when acrimony entered, it pulled up a chair and stayed for good. In the years the Band was together – 1968 to 1976 – whatever competition there was between the five of them stayed beneath the surface. They were, after all, enjoying a success that probably none of them had ever thought possible. But as their careers progressed, there developed a question among them, at first nagging and unspoken, and then quite pointed, and that question was: Did the Band have a leader? And if it did, then who was it? Levon's point of view was, and is, this: "How do you ever figure out who wrote what when you got five guys spending every day with each other, all playing, all contributing ideas?" But as it turned out, the Band's lead guitarist – Robbie Robertson – got the credit for both the music and the lyrics to most of the great Band classics. And with the credit came the considerable publishing income those songs have generated. It seemed that in Robertson's view, he was the Band. The other guys were there to help realize his vision.

Robertson is very aware of Levons's hard feelings toward him, but he maintains that the credit for those songs is where it belongs. "I wrote songs before I ever met Levon," he said to me. And as to his being the "leader" of the Band, he said, "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 being a band is, that's your fucking job."

One thing both Robbie and Levon agree on is that it was Robertson who wanted to call it quits. When he'd had enough, when life on the road began to exhaust and frighten him, and he began developing an interest in producing records and getting into the movie business, Robertson said it was time to pull the plug. But the idea of breaking up the Band was anathema to Levon. Even when he felt Robbie was selling them out – "I always had the feeling the meeting had started an hour earlier," is how he puts it – Levon still wanted to keep the thing going. When Robertson said he was afraid of dying on the road, Levon countered, "I'm not in it for my health."

Robertson couldn't take the Band's name with him, and after heading off in different directions for a few years, Hudson, Danko, Manuel and Levon began performing again as the Band in 1983. But the dates were fewer and less lucrative. And all of them had to work with other musicians to keep things going. (Levon, with his dangerous good looks, also had some nice paydays as a film actor.)

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