He was the sole American-born voice in a fellowship that set out to discover – to imagine redeeming – what was left of America’s promise, in a time when few knew whether discovery or redemption was any longer possible. Drummer and singer Levon Helm was perhaps the purest product of that fellowship, the Canadian-rooted rock & roll quintet the Band. The group came to fame after an eventful association with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s; by the time the decade was out, the Band were making music that subverted the revolutionary intentions of rock & roll with an unanticipated revolution all their own.
When the Band played live, Helm located his drums at center stage, between guitarist Robbie Robertson and bassist Rick Danko, just a little behind, at the same level, not on a riser. The idea was for them all – along with pianist and singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson – to press on into risky territory with shared grace and nerve. That drum stool, Helm noted in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, “was the best seat in the house. From there you can see both the audience and the show.” Helm aimed to keep faith with that dream of communion, right to the end of his days.
Born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas – a rural village in the Mississippi Delta – on May 26th, 1940, Helm grew up in a family that worked long days in dry and dusty heat. His parents were cotton farmers who encouraged their children to sing and play instruments. When Levon, at age six, saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, he grew determined to make himself a musician. He began playing guitar when he was eight, and soon took to the drums. He heard country music and R&B on radio stations that beamed out of Nashville, and was fascinated by the blues harmonica of Sonny Boy Williamson II, whose King Biscuit Time was broadcast in Helena, Arkansas. Most of all, Helm remembered a bawdy act with a hardback beat known as the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels, who held raunchy Midnight Ramble events on Saturday nights. “Today, when folks ask me where rock & roll came from,” Helm said, “I always think of our Southern medicine shows and that wild Midnight Ramble. Chuck Berry‘s duckwalk, Elvis Presley‘s rockabilly gyrations, Little Richard‘s dancing on the piano, Jerry Lee Lewis‘ antics and Ronnie Hawkins’ camel walk could have come right off F.S. Walcott’s stage.”
By the time he was 17, Helm was playing in rock & roll bands at clubs in Helena. He came to the attention of fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, who sought Helm out at his parents’ house. Helm was stunned by the rockabilly singer’s huge pompadour. “I like that hairdo,” Helm told Hawkins. “Why, thanks, son,” Hawkins replied. “I call it the Big Dick look.” Hawkins invited the young player to join him in Toronto to drum for his band, the Hawks. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Helm later wrote. One night, a 14-year-old boy named Robbie Robertson caught Hawkins and his band live; he was riveted by Helm. “You couldn’t believe this kid was the drummer, and yet he was terrific, terrific to look at and terrific to hear,” Robertson later said.
By moving to Canada, Helm had abdicated any real chance for American rock & roll success, but he liked where he was. “The Hawk had been to college and could quote Shakespeare when he was in the mood,” Helm later wrote. “He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I’ve ever met in my life. He’d say and do anything to shock you.” On one occasion, Hawkins asked the teenage Helm, “You ever fuck a goat?” Helm admitted that he had not. “Well,” Hawkins continued, “I have – good pussy too. Only problem is you have to stop and walk around to the front when you want to kiss them.”
Others came and went in the Hawks, but Helm stayed. In the early 1960s, other Ontarians joined: Robertson – the son of a Jewish gangster who had met with a violent death – Danko, Manuel and Hudson. As time went along, Helm would listen steadily to drummers such as Earl Palmer and the great Louis Hayes. Helm later told drummer Max Weinberg that by listening to such players, he learned “you’re supposed to dance the beat along.” It was an apt description of Helm’s unique style; he played in motile gestures, with graceful pulls of his arms and shoulders that could pivot in a moment, punctuating and commenting on what was transpiring while also pushing into the rhythm.
The early 1960s were exciting years for the young members of the Hawks, both musically – they were making sharp-edged rock & roll and R&B sounds, at the same time that artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were percolating – and in other ways. Hawkins talked about visits he and Helm made together during tours of the South, in West Helena, to a woman he called Odessa. “Levon was always the best fucker,” Hawkins said. “I remember with Odessa that Levon would go first, and when I went in she would say, ‘Mr. Ronnie, you can go ahead, but I think Mr. Levon has gone and taken it all.'”
Robertson was the first to begin to feel the limitations of Hawkins’ show style – the mohair stage suits they wore, the kick steps to the beat they sometimes had to perform. “That shit started to embarrass me,” he said. In 1963, Robertson asked Helm, “Do we really need Ronnie?” Later that year they struck out on their own. Since Helm had been in the group the longest, the band formed itself as Levon and the Hawks. They would stay on the bar circuit for months to come, in both Canada and the American South, and they shared some rare experiences – playing late into the night with Williamson, the blues singer and harmonica player, Helm’s idol, in West Helena, shortly before the bluesman died in 1965. But they also sometimes resorted to stealing food from markets to feed themselves.
The band was considering returning to its Canadian home when a friend who was working with New York manager Albert Grossman called Helm and asked if the Hawks would be willing to support Bob Dylan, who had recently gone electric on his hit single “Like a Rolling Stone” and at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. Helm wasn’t particularly surprised that Dylan had heard about them. “Truth was,” he said, “the Hawks were the band to know back then. It was an ‘underground’ thing We were like a state secret among hip musical people because nobody else was as tight as we were.” Before joining Dylan onstage at his August 28th, 1965, show at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, the singer told Helm, Robertson and his other accompanists, “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.” Fights were breaking out between fans and detractors in the audience, Helm recalled: “People were being thrown out. People were cursing, but not at Bob. They were mad at us, the band. People were throwing fruit at us.”
For Helm, life with Dylan became complicated and troubling: “I began to think it was a ridiculous way of making a living – flying to concerts in Bob’s 13-seat Lodestar, jumping in and out of limousines, and then getting booed It was getting really strange.” In late November, at the end of the tour’s first U.S. phase, Helm felt he had taken as much of the frantic pace and abuses as he could abide, and gave notice. “I want to draw a line for myself,” he told Robertson. “This stuff is too damn powerful for me.”
In the seasons that followed – while Dylan and the rest of the Hawks made their notorious 1966 tour of England – Helm spent time working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. “At nights we played cards and listened to the radio,” remembered Helm. ‘”Rainy Day Women 12 and 35’ was a big hit. It was real funny to hear it and wonder who was playing the drums and how everybody was getting along.”
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.”
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.