This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis
Man out of time
“My story is recalled and written from my perspective on the drum stool, which I’ve always felt was the best seat in the house. From there you can see both the audience and the show.”-Levon Helm
Levon Helm sounds like the Civil War. His voice is (or was—it’s hard to think of him in the past tense, even though it is so) evocative of a time and place not easily within reach; a South that just went through the horrors of bloodshed on its own soil, for the sin of condoning and participating in the worst crime in American history (slavery).
When Helm came to prominence as one of the “faceless” members of music collective The Band, it was in the 1960s, a time of decadence and excess in all matters of creative expression. Yet the music he and fellow bandmates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson made sounded like the 1860s. From the release of Music From Big Pink to The Last Waltz, The Band made music that recalled their apprenticeships in the bar rooms of America and their collaboration with Bob Dylan when he went “electric,” while also anticipating the music that would come after they left the stage for the last time. Their influence is apparent on everyone from Wilco to Ryan Adams.
Helm’s memoir, published in 1993, warrants a new look for fellow Band-lovers like myself not just because of the stories he tells of legendary touring days but also because it reveals a man both proud and wounded by the legacy he left, from his days as a dirt-poor kid in love with the blues and country music he heard in his native Arkansas to his status as an elder statesman in the artistic community of Woodstock, N.Y. Co-written with Stephen Davis (author of the Led Zeppelin epic Hammer of the Gods), This Wheel’s On Fire delivers Levon Helm unfiltered, at once feisty and welcoming to anyone who comes across his story.
It’s one hell of a story.
Levon Helm was born in 1940, and from early on music entranced him. He especially loved traveling carnivals that often featured wild performances not meant for young ears (or eyes—an element of burlesque often came with such offerings).
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Helm attracted the attention of Ronnie Hawkins, a prototypical rock-and-roller from his neck of the woods with aspirations to be as big as Elvis. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks (with Helm on the drum stool) traveled to Canada, where many of Helm’s bandmates promptly got homesick and left him and Hawkins alone in an untapped and profitable Toronto club scene, hungry for live music from America.
Canadians stepped forward to fill the gaps, and soon Helm played side-by-side with shy Robbie Robertson, soulful Richard Manuel, country boy Rick Danko and music teacher Garth Hudson. This new line-up of Hawkins and the Hawks ruled the embryonic Canadian rock scene.
Helm and his bandmates wanted more. They set out without Hawkins in the early ‘60s as Levon and the Hawks. Bob Dylan literally came calling around this time, having left behind his early folk music for his infamous (at the time) electric, rock ’n’ roll sound. As Levon says about Dylan calling the Hawks up, “Bob needed a band. We needed a break.” The Hawks had been talked up to Dylan by Mary Martin and John Hammond Jr., and they played as his backing group on a grueling tour in support of his new sound. At one point, Helm left the group, not because of any issues over leadership with Dylan but because the incessant booing of his fans at the electric shows demoralized the drummer.
He didn’t stay gone for long. Dylan’s condition after his notorious motorcycle accident forced the touring band to set up camp in Woodstock, and they needed Helm’s steady hand to guide them through this time of uncertainty. While rehearsing with Dylan on what would become The Basement Tapes (the most famous bootlegs in rock history, at least until their official release some years later), the Hawks began to find their own unique sound, a synthesis of their previous experience as a bar band backing Hawkins on R&B nuggets and of the coming movement away from the psychedelic excess of late-’60s rock music towards something more authentic, more “American” (We still may not know absolutely what the term meant, in the context of civil rights, the war in Vietnam and the growing disillusionment held by many young people of the world their elders had designed for them).
By this time, hawk had become a term associated by many with pro-Vietnam War fanatics, which the bandmates most certainly were not. Though fantastic or psychedelic-sounding names (Velvet Underground, the Mothers of Invention, Buffalo Springfield) ruled the day, Helm’s group simply became known as “the band” among Woodstock locals. When time came for Levon and crew to record their own album, no one could think of any name that better captured their ethos.
The Band it was.
Helm recreates the sense of community that The Band felt in Woodstock, an artistic settlement in upstate New York long before its association with the rock festival that bore its name. When The Band released Music from Big Pink in 1968, the album seemed a soothing, comforting tonic to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam—all harrowing events in the long hot summer of that notable year.
Helm and his fellow musicians did not offer a retreat from the events of the day so much as a contextualization of what they meant in the grander scheme of American history. Robertson, the principal songwriter (though his claims to sole authorship on many Band songs would later become a bone of contention), brought influences from Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner as often as Bo Diddley or Elvis. In fact, the Band’s songs often seem like short stories set to music rooted in the Deep South that Robertson envisioned (and Helm called home). On their first two albums, Big Pink and The Band, the group sought to take all that they had learned not only from Dylan but from Hawkins and the many nights they spent playing dive bars for change. The cover of The Band has become iconic, and for good reason—it shows The Band huddled together, outlaws who might have been guerilla partisans during the Civil War, now struggling to get by in the aftermath.
As Helm relates, the ego clashes and drug problems that haunted other bands in that same era began to take their toll on The Band. Robertson became the focal point for songwriting credit and Richard Manuel, once gifted with a soulful voice that channeled Ray Charles, sank deeper into alcoholism. By the time of the much-vaunted Last Waltz (directed by Martin Scorsese in 1976 but not released until two years later), the group was no longer the same band of outlaws as it had been on the second album cover.
Helm recalls with bitterness how The Last Waltz went from being a small gathering of close friends to an epic concert event, full of musical acts with tenuous connections to The Band (or in the case of Neil Diamond, no connection save Robertson producing one of his records). After the official “end” of the recording, Helm and some of the other guests got together and played well into the next day. And despite the verdict of history that Scorsese’s film captured the “truly last” show by The Band, Helm would reconvene the group (minus Robertson) after only a few years. Richard Manuel would be a part of that regrouping until his suicide in 1986, while The Band was on tour in Florida.
Helm writes about the feeling of “now what?” after Robertson decided to call it a day— that moment when a musician who lives to play finds himself suddenly robbed of the outlet to do so. Helm branched out into acting. In the early ’80s, he played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Tommy Lee Jones gave him acting lessons as they drove wildly over the back roads of Kentucky, and Helm went on to other roles, including a prominent performance in The Right Stuff.
At the close of his memoir, Levon Helm and those members of The Band still working with him (Danko and Hudson) continued to tour, even recording new albums (further upsetting Robertson’s attempt to tie a nice bow on The Band’s legacy with The Last Waltz). By this time, Helm found himself battling the cancer that, some 20 years later, would finally claim him. In the interval, Danko passed away in 1999. Today, only Hudson and Robertson remain.
The Band came into my life via a used copy of their Greatest Hits, which I bought as a teenager just getting into music. It’s hard to describe the impact the group had on me. From the mystery of “The Weight” to the heartbreak of “It Makes No Difference,” each song left me feeling like I’d found something new even though the songs predated my own birth by at least 10 years.
But it was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Helm’s tearful vocals about a South mostly gone with the wind that stayed with me. Growing up in the South, we bear a complicated legacy. We still fight the Civil War in many ways down here. We understand that what The Band captures that so many contemporaries like Merle Haggard (“Okie from Muskogee”) and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama”) miss completely in their proud-Southern-man stance is the pain. That pain comes from standing up to the government, from grasping what it cost us all as a nation no matter how right it seemed at the time, from all it especially cost the South.
Here’s what we know here. Plantation owners wanted the war. The poor whites who didn’t own much of anything except the land they farmed did the fighting. Afterward, the leaders who started the war deflected the pain and anger of those they’d manipulated into the fight by demonizing the free former slaves. They saved their necks at the expense of another race’s dignity. We still feel the repercussions of the racism born in that era.
Levon Helm, I’m happy to say, rises above all that. (He writes, in effect, that “his daddy raised him better.”) “Old Dixie” doesn’t celebrate that troubled past—it acknowledges it, then tries to comprehend what it means today.
This Wheel’s On Fire (the title a Dylan song that The Band recorded) does something similar. It captures the past of Levon Helm; it acknowledges his troubles. And it sorts out the meaning of a decent man, an extraordinary musician, a gifted storyteller.
Helm’s voice might be stilled, but the song remains.
Trevor Seigler earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Clemson University in 2008, and has written for various humor and pop-culture websites for more than a decade. Feel free to send him a friend request on Facebook or follow his blog.