Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond'

Levon Helm biography resting on keyboard.
Sandra B. Tooze's 'Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

None of the members of the Band picked that to be the name of their group. They couldn't be the Hawks without the Hawk who formerly fronted them; self-deprecating alternate suggestions including the Honkies (Levon Helm's suggestion) were a little, um, loaded. Their record label, Capitol, wasn't ready to issue Music from Big Pink by the Crackers, so the album packaging defaulted to "the Band."

If that sounded a little self-important ("a little on the pretentious, even blowhard side," thought Helm), in the end no one had a better suggestion. The name's anonymity also suited the group's musical ethos: in a group of virtuosos, no one was the star. The closer Robbie Robertson came to being canonized as the Band's leader, the closer the Band came to breaking up. The Last Waltz was only their swan song because Robertson declared it so, and though his Band-mates didn't want the music to end, nor did they want to submit to a status quo where Robertson preened for Martin Scorsese while Helm stormed Bill Graham's office to insist that the cocaine money was not going to come out of Muddy Waters's paycheck.

There are other ways of telling that story, of course: Robertson has his own book and documentary, and Helm's biographer Sandra B. Tooze acknowledges the way the guitarist saw it: Robertson put in the work, both leading the Band's songwriting and dealing with the paperwork. If there's one thing I've learned in reviewing dozens of music biographies and memoirs, it's that missing band meetings will come back to bite you in the butt.

One reason Helm developed such bitter animosity towards Robertson is that when Robertson claimed credit (and, not incidentally, money) that Helm saw as rightfully meant to be shared, it felt like a betrayal by a brother. The two men — the head and the heart of the Band — met in 1959, when Ronnie "the Hawk" Hawkins and his crack band were a star attraction in Canada. A 15-year-old Robertson offered his services as songwriter and all-purpose sidekick, absorbed as he was in the group's high level of rambunctious musicianship.

As Tooze explains in her authoritative new biography Levon (buy now), Hawkins saw Canada as an irresistible opportunity. The flamboyant Arkansas rocker recruited Helm, a drummer desperately looking to get off the farm in his impossibly aptly-named town of Turkey Scratch, out of a high school band. Hawkins was a solid performer who had the good, or bad, fortune to be working in a regional market that also included the whole stable of Sun Studio stars. With domestic prospects that often required having to play behind chicken wire and then fight your way out to your car with the money you'd made, Hawkins found that Canadian music fans were more than ready to reward authentic rock and rollers from the American south who didn't mind touring through a country with incredibly strict drug laws.

Like a rolling stone, Hawkins quickly accumulated some of the most gifted young Canadian musicians of their generation. By virtue of the fact that they were signing on to play with an undisputed cock of the walk, none of the Hawks were going to be too heavily burdened by ego. First Robertson hopped in, then bassist Rick Danko (whose loose style perfectly suited Helm); pianist and achingly brilliant vocalist Richard Manuel; and finally polymath Garth Hudson.

Eventually they accrued such a reputation as a musical unit that Bob Dylan tapped Helm and Robertson, unheard, to join his electric band. When it became clear that Dylan was going to stay electric, Helm put his foot down: the Band were a unit, and if Dylan wanted two of them, he'd have to hire all of them. Once Dylan heard the group onstage together, he didn't need any convincing.

Helm, though, didn't stick around for much of that wild ride. "I began to think it was a ridiculous way to make a living," he said about backing Dylan on tour in 1965, "flying to concerts in Bob's thirteen-seat Lodestar, jumping in and out of limousines, and then getting booed." Helm checked out, spending two years gigging around the South, his itinerant adventures ranging from New Orleans busking to working as a deckhand on a pipeline barge.

What wooed him back to the Band was the promise of a more positive, laid-back collaboration in a pink house in Woodstock, New York, where Dylan himself had been laying low since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Those sessions yielded The Basement Tapes ("the greatest album in the history of American popular music," gushed the New York Times upon its 1975 release) and then Music from Big Pink (1968), with Helm delivering what Rolling Stone would call "one of the greatest recorded pop vocal performances of all time" on "The Weight."

The performance was completely Helm's, with brilliant singing and drumming (he had the rare gift of being able to do both simultaneously at a very high level), and the lyrics even referenced Helm's Arkansas childhood, complete with a lyrical reference to his lifelong close friend Anna Lee (a major source for Tooze) — but Robertson ended up with sole songwriting credit. Tooze is sympathetic to the claims of Helm and others that the Band's songwriting was collaborative, but ultimately she acknowledges that Robertson did write the lion's share of the Band's melodies and lyrics, with contributions from the others on arrangements and various details.

The Band had one more transcendent in them, their 1969 self-titled album largely recorded at a Los Angeles house rented from Sammy Davis Jr. That album would feature another performance for the ages from Helm, singing and drumming on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." If there's any subject Tooze might have delved more deeply into, it's Helm's politics; a white southern man with a profound affinity for African American music (his grounding was fundamentally in rhythm and blues), Helm wasn't wooed by the Southern Strategy that stoked racial resentment, but he never summoned much enthusiasm for the Democratic Party, either, even when he accepted an invitation to play one of Bill Clinton's inaugural events.

The triumphant release of The Band, which solidified the group's leading role in a popular music realignment that today is seen as the genesis of the Americana genre, was followed by what you might call the Band's Behind the Music years: drugs, dissolution, and eventually a slipping of their famed musical standards. Robertson ultimately called it, dissolving the group on his own terms with The Last Waltz; Helm insisted that if the event was going to happen, it simply had to include their musical hero (and past collaborator) Muddy Waters as well as the man who brought them together, Ronnie Hawkins. Neil Diamond, by contrast, was Robertson's idea.

Helm would live for another three and a half decades, burnishing his reputation as a musician of consummate integrity and heart. He convened a short-lived supergroup called the RCO All-Stars with the likes of Dr. John and Booker T. and the MG's. He participated in various Band reunions, none featuring Robertson but all showcasing the surviving members' ample skills. He did some movie acting, starting when Tommy Lee Jones recommended him for the role of Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter and he delivered a performance so powerful that Lynn herself said she had a hard time being near him on set, he so evoked her late dad. Near the end of his life, he hosted a series of Midnight Rambles in his adopted hometown of Woodstock.

Throat cancer would take Helm's life in 2012, at the age of 71. Garth Hudson said he was "too sad for words"; Rick Danko had died in 1999, and Richard Manuel of suicide in 1986, with Helm personally on hand to take his friend's body down from where Manuel had hanged himself and bring the troubled artist back home to Canada.

Helm likely didn't much care what Robertson would have had to say; relations between the two had only gone downhill since The Last Waltz. The drummer was a no-show at The Band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1994, essentially because he knew Robertson would be rejoining the group for the night. "If you know anything about Levon and his feeling about loyalty," said the Band's road manager Butch Dener, "once you betray that redneck son of a gun, you're done."

If Levon feels incomplete, it's because the Band were such a collaborative unit, it feels simply impossible to fully tell any one member's story without telling the others; that may be particularly true of Helm, who put such faith in his fellow musicians. That said, Tooze has written a sympathetic, highly informative, and always readable biography that's particularly notable for its close attention to Helm's distinctive style. She knows drumming, and without alienating a general audience, isn't afraid to get technical when it comes to explaining what gave Helm such a distinctive sound.

She gives the book's final words to Bob Dylan, who calls Levon Helm "one of the last great true spirits of my or any other generation." Thanks to Tooze, the rest of us now know what Dylan was talking about when he reflected on the boy from Turkey Scratch who gave his life over to American music and left a hole that no one else could even try to fill.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

April 1: Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 by Richard Thompson (buy now)

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