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

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Three years later, and ten years after the original Band's farewell concert, Richard Manuel hanged himself in a motel room.

It was Levon who had to cut him down. And now they were three. Danko, Hudson and Levon continued to play together.

The next to fall was bass player and singer Rick Danko.

The sad end comes just a few days after Levon's appearance for the Rainforest Alliance. Danko is found dead in bed, in his house a few miles from Levon's place. Danko was an openhearted, well-liked figure in the music world and around the Woodstock area in particular. Levon grieves for his friend, but it's part of Helm's nature that the sadness also touches off a deep, moral, even righteous anger.

The anger flares when I ask him about The Last Waltz, the movie of the Band's 1976 farewell concert. Levon crosses his legs and leans back in his chair – but it's not a gesture of ease. It seems that he's forcibly keeping himself from leaping to his feet.

"What was that movie? Just a lot of self-serving tripe. Look who produced it – Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson. Well, I don't know about Scorsese, but Robertson had something to prove. He wanted to show that he was the leader of the Band, and that's what that movie's about: Robbie Robertson and the Band. Let me ask you this: How many shots of Richard Manuel are in that movie? If I'd had all the lawyers and accountants working for me then, I'd have been the star of that movie. But I'll tell you what, I'd have had some shots of Richard Manuel in it. Man, you should have seen what got pushed out of that movie to make room for Robbie taking credit for all the things he never done."

Rather than agitating himself with these bitter memories, Levon seems to relax as he gives voice to what he considers the injustices of the past. "You know what The Last Waltz is?" he says. "The Last Rip-off. I've never gotten a check for it in my life. It was Robertson and Scorsese and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid, and they still get paid, I guess. I've never gotten a check for it in my life." (Robbie Robertson sees the situation very differently. When I ask him about The Last Waltz, he tells me, "I never got any money for it, and neither did Martin Scorsese.")

The next day, Levon attends Danko's funeral, and then, a couple of days later, there's a memorial for Danko at the nearby Bearsville Theater. The sky is gray, and the rain is cold and steady. About 300 people wait in line for the theater doors to open. Suddenly, Robbie Robertson appears, dressed in a long black overcoat, flanked by a small entourage. He moves toward a side entrance, quickly. He makes eye contact with no one as he is hustled into the building.

Out of loyalty to Danko and concern for Danko's family, Levon has forced himself to come out for the memorial, but he and Amy are lingering in the Chinese restaurant next door. He is trying to work up the will to walk into the theater. But he can't. "I don't want to sit there with a bunch of guilty-ass people who had their hands in Rick's pockets. You want to know what killed Rick Danko? He worked himself to death. That's what happens when people steal your money." (For the record, Danko's weight had reached beyond 300 pounds when he died, and he had recently been arrested on a heroin charge.)

And Levon doesn't want to be around Robertson. "I don't want to see any of those crocodile tears," he says. "This whole thing's got nothing to do with Rick. This is about something else, about people trying to put themselves in a better light. I don't want any part of that. I just don't. Can't do it. This whole thing is just too fucking sad." Finally, Amy, hovering protectively over her father, says, "Come on, Dad. Let's go." She looks at me, shrugs. "Sorry, but this is too weird."

And, anyhow, it's Wednesday, the day of the Barn Burners' weekly gig at the Joyous Lake. Levon and Amy want to rest, get ready for the music.

At the memorial, on a stage decorated with Persian rugs, columns and pedestals, and hundreds of flowers, Robertson speaks movingly of Danko. But even on this grim occasion, he cannot altogether avoid the hot-button topic of who deserves credit for the Band's songs. "I wrote the words you sang," Robbie says, addressing Danko's spirit. An audible murmur goes through the crowd – the politics of this occasion are no secret to the citizens of Woodstock.

That night, wearing a black shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, Levon presides over a nearly two-hour set. His energy is astonishing. It seems as if he is perfectly able to go on and on until sunrise. With his daughter sharing vocals with harp player Chris O'Leary, and with Pat O'Shea on guitar and Frank Ingrao on the stand-up bass, the Barn Burners kick the set off with "Sweet Home Chicago." The groove is pure Levon – deep but never ponderous, powerful yet always subtle.

The club is filled with people, many of whom have come to town to help bury Rick Danko, and in a way tonight's gig feels like an after-memorial memorial. But not a public word about Rick is spoken tonight. Levon is here to play the blues. Amy comes up onstage, nursing a cold but determined to give it her all on a rousing version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You." Levon keeps his eyes on his daughter, all the while keeping the beat rock-steady. And then his eyes half-close, and his smile becomes inward, private. Being a member, or even a former member, of the Band is a grim, dangerous business, full of broken promises and fallen friends, and Levon is here tonight drumming his way into a new life.

Related
Levon Helm, Drummer and Singer of The Band, Dies at 71
The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Levon Helm
Photos: Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble with My Morning Jacket
Levon Helm Gets Back to House Party Roots with 'Midnight Ramble' Barn Parties

 

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