Shortly after the news broke last week that Levon Helm was dying, and just before his death was reported, this item appeared: Levon’s partner in The Band, Robbie Robertson, had visited Levon’s bedside, ending an estrangement of 35 years.
I was firmly struck by this, as over those long years Levon had publicly maintained a level of vitriol as remarkable as Robbie’s seemingly complete diffidence on the matter at issue, which boiled down to this: Who really deserved credit for The Band’s songs credited to Robbie—and the publishing money they generated? That question tore apart, and kept apart, one of the closest and most creative partnerships in the history of American music.
I can’t stop wondering what they might have said to one another, and whether they healed the rift. And for me it raised an old, nagging question I’d had as soon as I’d heard the music and learned a little about these men: How did a Toronto street kid who dropped out of school at 15 create some of the most enduring evocations of America in all of popular song? As you’ll hear, the songs tell that story, but let’s start with the men themselves.
If You Don’t Quit 'Til We Reach The Top…
You could say that The Band was a supremely lucky group of musicians, plucked from bar-band obscurity to worldwide fame in 1966 by Bob Dylan. Back then they were Levon and the Hawks, four Canadians and the son of a cotton farmer from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Then in their early 20s, they were already seasoned veterans of a roadhouse circuit stretching from the timberline in northern Ontario to the Deep South to the Jersey shore.
After breaking away from rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in 1963, Levon Helm led from behind the drums, but the Hawks didn't waste an ounce of their collective talent nurturing a cult of personality around any particular musician. Theirs was a partnership of equals, sharing the proceeds and the hardships alike. As Levon said in a 1998 interview, “We were a band of brothers… and none of us were afflicted with that frontman fever.”
One Voice For All…
With three fine lead singers in Levon, bassist Rick Danko and self-described “rhythm pianist” Richard Manuel, the Hawks would start a set with Buddy Holly, finish with Ray Charles—and connect every dot in between. Multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson filled out their honky-tonk R&B wail with an otherworldly, almost orchestral overlay. Robbie Robertson couldn’t sing to save his life, but he played like he’d been down to the crossroads. The prodigious if primitive guitarist had been hanging around with the Hawks in Toronto since he was 15, first as Hawkins’ personal A&R man, helping to select (and very occasionally writing) songs until he was finally allowed to take up the Telecaster from none other than Roy Buchanan.
When You Get To Toronto, I’ll Be Chasin’ After You…
Levon and the Hawks were basically a cover band, with no agenda beyond playing music they loved while keeping the drinkers drinking and dancers dancing. To further the group’s ambitions, it fell to Robbie Robertson to come up with original songs to record. This is one from 1965, an indie single which the Hawks inexplicably released under the name “The Canadian Squires:”
With “Uh, Uh, Uh,” Robbie’s trying hard to please both his band and the bar crowd. While it’s no great shakes, it rocks harder than you’d expect from The Band, and Levon and Richard Manuel’s twin lead vocal is unmistakable. But what really differentiates Robbie’s early efforts like “Uh, Uh, Uh” from The Band’s catalogue to come, are the lyrics.
You Put The Load Right On Me…
Just three years later, a lot had changed. The Band’s debut album "Music From Big Pink" cooled 1968’s fervid music fans like a trip to the mountains in the middle of a long hot summer. It’s hard to overestimate the effect it had on musicians as well. Suddenly, as Eric Clapton recalls in his memoir, “Here was a band that was really doing it right, incorporating influences from country music, blues, jazz and rock, and writing great songs.”
Those influences are easy to hear, from Hank Williams to Elvis to The Beatles to Curtis Mayfield, but the music has an organic, unplugged feel that was antithetical to the hard rock, Motown and teeny-bopper tunes then in fashion. No longer was this band playing for anyone in particular, other than themselves. Levon, Rick and Richard swapped vocals as easily as good old boys swap stories. And what stories they are! Something or someone had transformed Robbie Robertson from a rock ‘n’ roll naïf into one of the most lyrically evocative songwriters in American music.
How did it happen? Was it his proximity to Bob Dylan, another great absorber of American musical culture, who famously called Robbie “the only mathematical guitar genius who doesn't offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound?"
To be sure, when Dylan co-opted the Hawks for his '65-'66 world tour, Robbie glommed onto him like white on rice—there he is, Zelig-like, in so many Dylan photos from that year. The influence was mutual, with Robbie and the Hawks helping electrify Dylan — and his audience — whether they wanted it or not. And once they were all home safe in Woodstock after that tumultuous tour, Dylan immersed Robbie and the others in the deep river of American song, taking them from Rock Star 101 to Folk Music 101.
But even as they played together, Dylan and his former band were finding separate paths; Dylan’s leading to the stark "John Wesley Harding," and the rest wending their way to the party at "Big Pink." As Robertson himself put it, “There is the music from Bob’s house, and there is the music from our house.” A close listen to "The Basement Tapes," that sadly incomplete collection of their 1967 home recordings and demos, bears this out.
The Cotton King Came In Chokin’…
So who or what really got through to Robbie Robertson? The answer is Levon Helm. Though he skipped most of the Dylan tour and arrived in Woodstock well after all the others, the presiding spirit inside “Big Pink” (the house) was always Levon’s, and not just because he’d been in the band the longest and “had to do most of the driving,” as he put it. It’s because, according to Barney Hoskins’ exhaustive biography of The Band, "Across The Great Divide," through the early 60s the Hawks spent half of each year in the South. Levon (like Ronnie Hawkins had) played genial host, tour guide and cultural ambassador to his Canadian comrades, introducing them to his family, Delta music legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, southern cuisine, and regional eccentricities like the “Arkansas credit card” (a gasoline siphon) and — to his chagrin — down-home racism.
This Isn’t My Turf, This Ain’t My Season…
Robbie Robertson didn’t wait that long. He pawned a ’57 Strat to make his first trip south in December 1959.
“I wanted to see all those places with all those fantastic names: Chattanooga, Tennessee, Shreveport, Lu-zee-ana. Wow!” Robertson said. Stepping off the bus in Arkansas, way overdressed for a southern winter, the 16-year-old was as agog and out of place as Levon might have been arriving in Toronto. Robbie soaked up the sights and sounds of the South, “with his mouth open,” as Levon remembers in his memoir, "This Wheel’s On Fire."
Biographer Hoskins notes that in addition to his musical precocity Robbie was an autodidact, tackling Shakespeare and Milton between gigs. There’s little doubt from his songs that he’d read the Bible, although his tastes and influences were considerably broad. Talking about “The Weight,” Robbie claimed to have been inspired by Luis Bunuel. The problem with that particular analysis is that many of the characters in the song, like “Luke” and “Anna Lee,” bore the names of real people — people Levon actually knew — and not exactly the kind that turn up in a Spanish surrealist’s films. Maybe Robbie read Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote as well, but if you weren’t from the South, how on earth could you come up with this?
You Take What You Need And You Leave The Rest…
Virgil Cain in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one more unforgettable character enlivened and likely inspired by Levon, as is Bessie’s beau in "Up On Cripple Creek,” Willie’s pal in “Rockin’ Chair,” the whole river gang in “Get Up Jake,” to name just a few. Although he only sings the chorus, Levon completely inhabits “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”
If You’re Looking For The Real Thing…
In "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorcese’s film of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, Robbie gets most of the screen time on- and off-stage, but it’s Levon who explicitly describes where The Band’s music is coming from:
Near Memphis… that’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, back there, so bluegrass or country music… if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music, country, bluegrass, blues music, show music.” Scorsese: “And what’s it called, then?” Helm: “Rock ‘n’ roll.
...He Can Show You Where It Went.
Later in the film, Levon digs into his own experiences to elaborate:
Most of the old traveling shows, tent shows, like “Wolcott’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels..." after the finale, after the kids go home, they’d have the Midnight Ramble… and the songs would get a little juicier and the jokes would get a little funnier, and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll “duck walks” and steps and moves came from a lot of that.
After one listen, the provenance of “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” should be painfully obvious. But, like almost all of The Band’s songs, it’s credited to Robbie Robertson — alone.
Don’t You Talk About This Here Friend Of Mine…
After "The Last Waltz," Robbie left the rest of The Band without a record deal, songwriter or guitarist to soldier on in the face of disco, punk rock and declining audiences. From that point on, Levon held a grudge. He put the dirty laundry out for us all to see in 1998:
And all of a sudden here's Robertson… And shit, he ain't singing or writing, but I'll tell you one thing: he is doing all the publishing… and the rest of us get all the leftovers, and he was supposed to be one of us, and was.
In "The Last Waltz," a rather maudlin Robbie Robertson intones, “The road has taken some of the great ones… it’s a goddamn impossible way of life.”
Robertson was lucky: he quit then and there after eight years on the ground with the Hawks and eight years airborne with The Band. Robertson’s name on most of the songs that made them all famous insured him a lifelong income, and he settled into the L.A. showbiz scene as if he were born to it. His subsequent musical output sounds mostly like whomever he happens to be playing with: U2, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young. In place of his former keen small portraiture, broad landscapes and authentic, if offbeat, characters, his later lyrics abound with empty caricature, overblown mythologizing and grandiose apocalyptic imagery.
As for Levon, getting an original song out of him was like getting blood from a turnip. Yet throughout his career, his voice and musicianship made even the most mediocre songs he touched sound sublime.
We Can Talk About It Now…
The Band is the greatest single exponent of what today is a whole musical genre called “Americana.” The unforgettable songs Robertson put together with Helm told stories that, while familiar enough to them, to the rest of us seemed to come from another time. Nothing else in our culture so powerfully evokes what writer Greil Marcus calls “The Old Weird America.”
When Robbie came to Levon’s bedside, he presumably did so to honor the man who gave him the authenticity he needed to fulfill The Band's mutual musical destiny. I hope that in doing so, he took a load off Levon.
POSTSCRIPT: Just four years ago, on our honeymoon, my bride and I were privileged to attend one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, concerts he put on like private parties in his barn in Woodstock on Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road. His voice, though altered by the cancer and its treatment, was true; his drumming, masterly. Susan says she never saw so much joy radiating from one person. It was one of the greatest musical experiences I have ever had. That’s how Levon operated right up to the end.
This program aired on April 23, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.