Levon Helm, RIP

I interviewed Levon back around 2000. Here’s the story.


Levon Helm   by Larry Getlen

The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s filmed documentation of the final performance by The Band, is often referred to as one of the greatest concert films ever made. Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and the voice on several of their biggest hits, thinks of it in a slightly different manner – as “the biggest rip-off of all time.”

The 60-year-old Helm, who sang on Band hits such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Ole’ Dixie Down,” sounds exactly like a good ole’ grizzled southern boy should. His voice is worn beyond a rasp – it’s more of a grind. His demeanor is genteel, even when he expresses bitterness, and his biggest laughs emerge when he discusses situations where he’s been wronged the hardest. The Last Waltz, according to Helm, unfairly became the Robbie Robertson show, and coming from Helm there could be no bigger insult, because when Helm discusses his former Bandmate, you can almost see the bile ooze from his mouth.

“I hate the motherfucker,” Helm candidly declares. “I’d kick his ass if I can get to him. He’s a thieving, lying son of a bitch.”

According to Helm, sometime before The Last Waltz, Robertson teamed up with The Band’s manager Albert Grossman , and together with their lawyers and accountants, they “ended up with all the loot.” Helm says that he and fellow Bandmates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson came out of The Band with almost nothing.

Much of this hinges from the fact that Robertson received songwriting credit on most of The Band’s output, which Helm calls “an outright goddamn lie.” When asked about Robertson’s songwriting ability, Helm fires off. “If he’s such a great songwriter, why ain’t he wrote something since we left?” Laughing, he continues. “He ain’t wrote nothing since Garth (Hudson) left him. That’s just bullshit. Garth wrote half the music The Band ever done. Anybody who knows music knows that.”

The reporter asks Helm about “The Weight,” one of The Band’s best known songs, and Helm describes how each member of The Band contributed to the whole. “’The Weight’ is just like ‘Life is a Carnival,’ or ‘The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show’ and ‘Ophelia’ and all the rest of ‘em. It is a collaborative effort. Now you could say that Robertson was 60 percent responsible for the lyric, that Richard was 20 percent and maybe Rick got another 20, and I got 5 or 10, then you talk about the music. You could give Garth chord credits and all that stuff, but the people who handle that stuff don’t work for Garth. Or Richard or me. They work for Robbie and Albert.”

Helm claims that Robertson’s deceit carried over to The Last Waltz, which Helms says clearly portrays Robertson as The Band’s leader. “Robbie’s up there doing all the singing and all the playing, and the camera’s on him all the time,” describes Helm. “He’s leading the band, he’s up their conducting. I mean, did you ever see a Band show?”

Helm’s memories of that time often come back to his feelings toward Robertson, although they are tinged with humor. In discussing The Last Waltz period, Helm talks of Robertson’s close relationship with Scorsese (described in more detail in the excellent book about that period in film history, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”). Helm expresses resentment for the two or three years they spent overdubbing and putting the final touches on The Last Waltz, and talks about how they became “blow buddies,” saying “their wives kicked them out and they moved in with each other, and they just…poor guys. You know, that looks OK in Hollywood, but it just looks weird everywhere else.”

The Band continued in many variations, sans Robertson, after The Last Waltz, even after the 1986 suicide of keyboardist/vocalist Richard Manuel, whom Helm says did “the real singing” in The Band. Their most recent album was Jubilation, released in 1998. But when Danko passed away last year, that was it. According to Helm, Danko was the glue that held The Band together, and his death meant that the group would meet the same fate.

“I miss him every day,” says Helm of Danko. “Rick’s death left a big hole in our lives. He was our neighbor and brother and partner and we miss him every day.” For all his animosity toward Robertson, Helm considers the other Band member as brothers, declaring “I’d stay in the foxhole with them.” Helm describes his other remaining Bandmate, Hudson, as a “true musical genius,” saying “he’s the only guy I know who can play percussion instruments, woodwind instruments and brass. Plus he can play accordions and other stuff.” An interesting statement, considering that Hudson was The Band’s keyboardist.

Unfortunately, it seems that many of Helm’s endearing memories of The Band have been tainted by the animosity toward Robertson. “The best memories was the musical memories,” says Helm. “All of a sudden we just, by trial and error, hit a groove, where just about everything we tried would work. We got a head of steam going around the end of Big Pink recording that carried us into the next record, The Band record, and half of Stage Fright. Of course about that time the truth became known, that Robbie and Albert were sure enough in bed with each other, and that’s when the collaboration stopped.”

For all their talent as musicians and songwriters, The Band probably gained their greatest renown for their role in one of rock and roll’s truly historic moments, serving as Bob Dylan’s back-up band on his 1965 tour, his first playing electric guitar. The tour was controversial, to say the least, as Dylan’s fan base was shocked by his switch to electric guitar. For Dylan purists, it was a betrayal of their folk ideals, and Helm and his bandmates felt the brunt of it so heavily that Helm, despite the enormity and historical significance of the opportunity, left the tour.

“They used to boo the hell out of us,” recalls Helm. “It’s funny, it doesn’t sound like much when you’re talking about it, but when you’re playing a song and you get through and everybody claps and says ‘yay,’ it’s fun. But when you play it and get through and everybody goes ‘booooo,’ you just can’t imagine. It sounds awful. It made me crazy after a little bit. I was laughing on the outside but crying on the inside.”

Helm returned home while the rest of The Band finished the Dylan tour. Dylan then went back to Woodstock to compile a film of the tour, putting the other Band members on retainer to help him out. Soon, they began writing many of the classic songs that would eventually form the “Music From Big Pink” album, and enticed Helm back into the fold.

Despite his reluctance, Helm still sees that experience as one of the biggest of their lives. “That time really opened the door for us into the recording and songwriting world,” says Helm. “That’s what the Basement Tapes was about – Bob’s songwriting lessons for us. We would get together, and Bob and Richard would swap lyrics on typewriter, and the rest of us would be huntin’ chords on little patterns and stuff. We got a lot of music out of that room.”

While music has been the anchor of Helm’s life, he also had quite a bit of success as an actor. Helm had a neighbor in Woodstock, New York named Brad Dourif. Dourif, a veteran actor who provides the voice for the murderous doll in the Chucky movies, worked on a movie in the late Seventies called The Eyes of Laura Mars, and introduced Helm to co-star Tommy Lee Jones. Later, when Jones was cast for Coal Miner’s Daughter, he suggested Helm for a role, and Helm got to make his acting debut in one of that year’s most widely acclaimed films. Helm has made ten more films since, including The Right Stuff, Smooth Talk, and Feeling Minnesota, and closely compares acting to his experience as a musician.

“The ensemble aspects make it a lot like playing music, and I try to look at it in a musical kind of way,” says Helm. “When I worked with Sissy Spacek or Tommy Lee Jones in a scene, I would go about it like they were singing lead and I’m singing the harmony part, and I’m trying to back them up and guard their gun sack, musically. I just try to look at it that way, and associate the director for the producer, and the prop manager for the road manager, and so forth.”

Helm says that acting in another film is always a possibility if something good comes his way. But right now his current band, the Barn Burners, is his main focus. The act, which features Helm’s daughter Amy on vocals and piano, currently plays Delta blues and standards, and is working on original material, hoping to record a CD after the current tour. But for Helm, it is clear that the good and bad times of the past, soured by disputes with Robertson and the deaths of Manuel and Danko, are now to be left in the past. For he makes it clear that while he loves playing live and will continue to do so, the Barn Burners will not play any songs by The Band.