Levon Helm Returns to Blues and Tries to Put the Past to Rest
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.”
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.)
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.
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