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Elusive Harmony

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Elusive Harmony

Levon Helm, The Band, and the birth of Americana Winter 2021
Arts and Culture

In May 1900, an advert appeared out of Florida for “60 coloured performers . . . male, female and juvenile of every description, Novelty Acts, Headliners, etc. We will travel in our own train of hotel cars and will exhibit under canvas.” It was placed by the African-American entrepreneur Pat Chappelle, whose hugely popular “authentic negro” Rabbit’s Foot Company showcased everything from minstrelsy skits to “daring aerialists.” Among the neophyte performers braving the vaudevillian spotlight were names such as Bessie Smith, Big Joe Williams, Louis Jordan, and Rufus Thomas. Chappelle’s going concern was subsequently purchased in 1912 by white farmer and carnival owner Fred Swift Wolcott, becoming, in the process, F. S. Wolcott’s Original Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels. The company gave its final performance in 1959.

Eleven years later, guitarist Robbie Robertson penned a song called “The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show” for The Band’s third album, Stage Fright. He based it on stories he’d been told by Arkansas-born bandmate Levon Helm, who witnessed such shows during his childhood, with his father, Jasper Diamond Helm. “Each fall,” writes Sandra B. Tooze on the opening page of her biography, Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond, “while Levon was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, tent shows would stop off in Marvell—a bustling little town near his home in Turkey Scratch.” His favorite of the itinerant troupes was the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels. When the more family-friendly acts packed away their props for the night, for an extra dollar or two the audience could sample a more risqué entertainment, popularly known as the “midnight ramble.” Helm believed that rock and roll truly began here: “Chuck Berry’s duckwalk, Elvis Presley’s rockabilly gyrations, Little Richard’s dancing on the piano, Jerry Lee Lewis’s antics . . . could have come right off F. S. Wolcott’s stage.”

Even before Stage Fright, Helm had begun to harbor mixed feelings about Robertson’s canny appropriation of his backwoods life. There were other simmering grievances, mostly to do with songwriting credits and how the money they earned was (or wasn’t) divided up. As Helm saw it, such monies seemed mostly to be gushing into the bank account of Robbie Robertson, to the exclusion of the four other Band members.

Helm’s tetchiness on this matter would deepen into outright antipathy and sour a once-thick friendship; eventually, he would turn down engagements and avoid prize-giving ceremonies, and even not enter a room if there was any chance that Robertson might be there. As we meet these swashbuckling characters, first at the end of the 1950s (“Levon and Robbie, whom Helm nicknamed Duke, became like brothers”), then triumphant in their early 1970s pomp, and then finally adrift and irreconcilable, their story is like a diet-pill hybrid of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. What turned these outlaws’ knockabout concord into a wilderness of spite? Why did their once-blessed garden wither and spoil?

The Band was one of those 1970s outfits that combined impeccable technique with a smelling-salt whiff of rock-and-roll brimstone, soaked in rhythm-and-blues know-how but equally able to riff and scowl. This was “Americana” before the consumer demographic existed: a thick gumbo of country, barroom blues, and educated chords. What set them apart from near-contemporaries like Little Feat and Steely Dan was the prevalent idea that The Band was somehow more than a band, something more symbolic: a proud embodiment of small c conservative values and core democratic principles—a collective enterprise putting aside personal ego to achieve an authentically American harmony, wider and deeper than the five individuals involved. This was all the more notable, given that four out of those five individuals were Canadian, with singer/drummer Helm the only one born in the USA.

Tooze’s book comes at the same time as a new Robertson-produced documentary, Once Were Brothers. (Its full title: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. That sound you hear is Helm complaining loudly from his grave.) Tooze is no hagiographer, but her heart obviously belongs to Helm, and she’s not out to shred the myth entirely. The idea of The Band as pure-hearted (and Puritan-hatted) savants perhaps always had more to do with the group photos on the first two album sleeves—“evoking,” as Tooze says, “the ethos of a century before”—and song titles like “Whispering Pines,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and “The Unfaithful Servant,” which suggest the spidery chiaroscuro of some allegorical nineteenth-century print.

Then there was that name. Was it cocky muso boast, or a shield of taciturn anonymity? Turns out that it was neither and almost entirely happenstance. Preview copies of their debut album Music from Big Pink were ready to roll, and they were still without a name. It was some Capitol Records apparatchik who decided that they couldn’t go with bassist Rick Danko’s bright suggestion—the Crackers, which itself beat out the Honkies—and gave the world The Band.

As with Helm’s own memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire (1993), and Robbie Robertson’s Testimony (2016), the most vivid passages in Levon come early, mapping the formative years when white boys like Robertson and Helm regarded the blues as a living gospel, every little clapboard town a Damascus or Nazareth. Meetings with remarkable cats! Here are Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Count Basie; and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who “for an extra thousand bucks, played naked or wore only gold jockstraps.”

Levon and the Hawks came together through the auspices of rockabilly blowhard Ronnie Hawkins (a.k.a. The Hawk, a.k.a. Mr. Dynamo, a.k.a. Rompin’ Ronnie), who initially employed a 17-year-old Helm, and then tucked Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie “Jaime” Robertson one by one under his wing. Touring behind Hawkins, they gained a rep for ferocious flair and precocious flexibility. When Tooze notes of one riotously successful New Jersey residency when the Hawks “outdrew even Sammy Davis Jr., Teresa Brewer and Frankie Laine,” it comes as something of a shock to realize that we’re still only in 1959.

Hawkins, better known for his off-color anecdotes, supplies a cogent musicological analysis that no one else comes near: “We were trying to play black music . . . but it was coming out differently because we couldn’t do it right. . . . We were taking the old rhythm ‘n’ blues songs and playing them country style with a back beat.” This could also serve as a lightning sketch of the young Elvis Presley at Sun Studio; indeed, after Presley was body-snatched by the U.S. Army, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks were viewed by some in the record industry as plausible replacements for the absent King. (Hawkins, a longtime Canadian resident, was originally born, like Helm, in Arkansas, only two days after Elvis.)

On the road, they met a host of musical roughnecks, picked up stuff from “other bands . . . and incorporated it into what they were playing.” Touring musicians from this rowdy era are described as being “like prizefighters”—perhaps not surprisingly, given the amount of speed everyone was taking. Audiences in certain “brass-knuckle dives” were ornery: in West Helena, a “seemingly strait-laced youth was losing a brawl with some rednecks, so he came back to the bar with a chainsaw.”

From left to right: Rick Danko, Levon Helm (behind drums), and Robbie Robertson, performing in their final concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz (MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

There were pow-wows with more studious players (Jesse Ed Davis, JJ Cale, Roy Buchanan), and the self-taught Helm cottoned to all kinds of percussive influencers, including Dave Brubeck’s drummer, Joe Morello, and Louis Hayes from the Cannonball Adderley Band. There were worldly employers-cum-enablers like their mentor Hawkins and notorious impresario Morris Levy of Roulette Records (“the biggest Jewish gangster in New York . . . with ties to the Genovese crime family”), none of whom could, by any stretch of the imagination, be classified as protectors of innocence, or purity, or illusion. Then there was Bob Dylan.

The Hawks liaison with Dylan in 1965 is now viewed as momentously important: “the audition,” as Tooze puts it, “that led to an upheaval in popular music.” What’s often missing from awed accounts of this moment is any sense of the ridiculous fun that everyone was having, offstage and on. In a YouTube clip of a May 1966 date in Dublin, Dylan momentarily hushes the tumult from disgruntled folkies in the audience (“Traitor!”) by introducing the next number thus: “This is a folk song. . . . I wanna sing a folk song, now.” He and his hungry Hawks then proceed to parachute into the choppy slipstream of a brash new number, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”: a Chicago electric blues band sporting Greenwich Village threads; a threshing-machine riff leavened with spiky Lenny Bruce insouciance; black hipster cool with a tart infusion of European surrealism, cleansed of all doctrinaire earnestness.

For a while, Dylan’s live performances were split between one set of pious acoustic sermonizing and one of electrified apocalypse. But the Dylan tour seems also to have forced a split within the Hawks. Helm saw it as just another backup gig and didn’t see why it should come with so much grief attached, malevolence rising off disaffected Dylan fans like swamp gas; he soon vacated the drum seat and spent “nearly two years [leading] an aimless, itinerant existence without the Hawks.”

There are glimpses here of the less sunny side of Helm’s vaunted sociability: a man who could be an aggravating houseguest, expecting women in particular to provide a cushy hollow of domestic stability almost as his due. Meanwhile, Robertson was shadowing Dylan so much that the other Hawks nicknamed him “Barnacle Man.” Inspired by Dylan’s example, Robertson began to think outside the Hawk box, learning how to process raw experience into the word-gold of songwriting. Helm was happy just hanging out, glad-handing, shooting the breeze; Robertson was speed-reading European poets, and name-dropping Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel. You can just make out the bumpy trail ahead: the crossroads choice, the dark woods beckoning.

For a while, though, those woods were illumined with a playful, dancing light. After the world-circling, pressure-cooker tour; after Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident; and after Helm was summoned back from the beyond, everyone repaired to a room with so-so acoustics in a pink house in Woodstock and corralled a herd of feral songs that came to be known as The Basement Tapes: songs that were skittish put-ons and pugnacious skits; songs full of guns and flutes, fiery wheels and easy chairs; songs like balancing acts, card tricks, and tap dances; songs sung from behind carnival masks and layers of greasepaint. Dylan and the Hawks had been let out to play, as though they were the house band in one of those old-time tent shows, making mischief with their own brand of carny-voiced, cloudy-eyed vaudeville.

It was The Band’s overhaul of a Dylan song from the Basement trove that became their calling card; they’d punched out all kinds of cover versions as the Hawks, but this was something more transformative. Written by Dylan in 1967 and picked to open The Band’s 1968 debut Music from Big Pink, “Tears of Rage” announced their long-overdue moment of autonomy not with fireworks and streamers but banners of plaint and woe. If any song might be said to possess a doleful countenance, it’s “Tears of Rage.” Filled with a parent’s tender yearning, it feels both claustrophobic and open to the horizon. Leading with something so sepulchral was risky, but the arrangement makes it stand up. Critics have offered numerous allegorical readings of the song (America as a sundered homestead, the divisive era of Vietnam and Nixon, the missteps of a fragmenting counterculture), but its celebrated opening line—“We carried you, in our arms / on Independence Day”—is also just a great line for a band moving from backup to spotlight, holding something mewling and fragile in its embrace.

A band whose previous métier was hurricane stomp now essayed a new sonic palette: with its stoic piano, ruffles of churchy organ, and praise-the-lord tambourine, “Tears of Rage” sounds like a Salvation Army band led by Gil Evans. Richard Manuel’s voice is also key here. The standard comparisons were always with commanding R & B stylists like Bobby Bland and Ray Charles, but these never felt quite right. If not “feminine,” exactly, Manuel’s singing is free of machismo—its wound seems more elemental.

Later, on hurting songs like “Whispering Pines,” Manuel’s voice is almost reminiscent of Billie Holiday. The lyric of “Whispering Pines” has it that, between gloom and dream, “there is no in-between” in the singer’s lonely room; but this “in-between” is precisely what is achieved here: a tone at once lush and desolate, rapt and ruined, its tolling piano figure like grains falling through an hourglass. This is rock music arranged as carefully as songbook jazz, reveling in space and texture, its male voices curling around one another like clouds, or ghosts. Had this been done before?

Critics writing about The Band can perhaps overemphasize the lyrical mythos and neglect the immersive sound that made the group so distinctive. White musicians had hijacked formal elements from R & B, as well as mimicking its swagger and prowl, but The Band convincingly inhabits the one form of black music that most rock bands wouldn’t (or couldn’t) go near: gospel. (Side note: The Band’s sound owed much to the “quiet one in the band,” multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Still reticent after all these years, Hudson has ended up the most unreadable of the group.)

“Tears of Rage,” a song about the fracturing of intimate bonds, tugs at the heart with its cursive harmony; the tragedy of The Band is that they found it impossible to sustain such harmony among themselves. In retrospect, many of Robertson’s songs are full of worrying portent. As early as “The Unfaithful Servant,” he could offer “The good old days / they’re all gone,” as if a writer’s prophetic power enabled him to see the wasteland days to come. The fragile duetting of Danko and Manuel on “Whispering Pines” makes for a beautiful sound, but certain lines—“Driftin’ in a daze . . . an empty house in the cold sun”—can conjure the imminent spectacle of the same two men lost in a deep fog of heroin. Such indulgences would stunt their creativity and fatally atrophy the working cohesion of The Band.

Further examples of Robertson’s x-ray songwriting include “Stage Fright” and “The Shape I’m In” (“Save your neck or save your brother / Looks like it’s / one or the other”), whose titles suggest that things were far from ideal backstage. It reaches a kind of bleak apogee in “It Makes No Difference,” with its heartbroken line: “And the dawn don’t rescue me / no more.” Though sung by Danko, the song appears, all too accurately, to prefigure Richard Manuel’s suicide, 11 years later, at 43.

There’s one reading of “The Weight”—with its slangy chatter about walking with the Devil and casually proffered invitation to “Come on, let’s go downtown”—that sees it as a narcotic, rather than theological, parable. On the front sleeve of the second album, The Band, the members of this bruise-eyed crew do look less like upright Puritans than a conventicle of drug dealers, deeply versed in the language of risky weights and taking a “load for free.” In the first flush of success, Danko, Helm, and Manuel all availed themselves of the decadent rock-star shtick: dope habits, Courvoisier for breakfast, a junkyard of wrecked cars. Robertson was no squeaky ascetic, but he also got up every day and did the work and generally took care of business. This is no cut-and-dried case of one Machiavellian schemer and four moon-eyed naïfs. There’s a telling quote midway through Levon, where Danko grouses about a song he claims to have cowritten with Robertson, while casually admitting he “just forgot” to seek credit.

A long list of his old friends reassure Tooze that Helm was someone so naturally personable that he could put anyone instantly at ease, whatever their background. But when it came to the music business, or his parallel career as a jobbing Hollywood actor, Helm seemed to delight in snubbing the “suits,” as he called them, even when doing so was contrary to his own professional interests. And when it came to certain people, and certain subjects, Helm’s avowed folksiness took on a more troubling tinge:

Comparing the Band to black blues artists who were cheated out of their royalties by unscrupulous record executives, Levon observed, “You thought us being white maybe we didn’t get fucked so bad? Hey, let me tell you something, son. A nigger’s a nigger to these motherfuckers. It’s got nothing to do with color.”

Helm’s cherished self-image was an “easygoing, laid-back kind of a character,” but a thorny paradox existed at its core. Bitter about money he thought connived out of his hands, he was insanely profligate with any profits he did receive. Tooze: “[D]espite feeling short-changed over songwriting income, he was never one to hold on to what money he did have.” Hawkins remembers Helm “wasting so much money when they didn’t work, when they were off. Two suites at a time. You know, just showing off, pickin’ up the tab for everybody.” Another witness says that Helm “liked to just order everything on the whole menu, and then when it got there, he might eat a bite off of each tray. Just order, like, five hundred dollars’ worth of food and maybe take six bites of it.” To sling your hard-earned money around in such an affectedly seigneurial way, and then cast someone else as the sole cause of your financial woes is a bit rich, to say the least.

Helm in 2010, performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (EBET ROBERTS/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES)

When Helm acted alongside Sissy Spacek in the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, he saw Loretta Lynn’s father as kin to his own: “He didn’t whine about his lot. You learned to play the hand you were dealt.” Helm’s animus toward Robertson, however, gnawed away at his good ol’ boy self-image until even close friends learned to avoid the topic. He continued to rage against Robertson for (as he saw it) taking money out of The Band’s pockets, even holding him responsible thereby for the early deaths of both Danko and Manuel. A moment’s research makes the problems with this indictment plain. The minute Robertson had any new post-Band work (the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull; his first solo albums for Geffen), he immediately called on Danko and Hudson, later adding Manuel for the soundtrack of The King of Comedy—all of which was presumably well-remunerated work that didn’t involve them dragging themselves through a cycle of lower-tier gigs and depressing motels, which was Helm’s preferred route.

It began with Independence Day and, in all but name, ended on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.

For Levon Helm, the project known as The Last Waltz amounted to nothing more than “picture-taking time . . . being portrayed as Robbie Robertson and his backup musicians.” He later referred to it as the “last rip-off.” Robertson himself finally despaired of what felt like a lose-lose situation. The others were so strung out and/or busy socializing with other A-list rock stars that he now had to do all the songwriting; but the more he covered for them, the more he was resented for this overseer’s attitude. It was a thankless task. Robertson conceived the “farewell concert appearance” of The Last Waltz as a way of exiting The Band with dignity intact and persuaded new pal Scorsese to shoot a record of the event. For one night only, The Band would memorialize their greatest music, live on stage, alongside a host of specially invited, vaguely relevant guests (Dylan and Hawkins being the most relevant—if not, as it turned out, the most special—on that night). The event would be, in John Steinbeck’s words: “grandeur against a background of commonness . . . aristocracy in the midst of democracy.”

The final reality was perhaps too much of the aristocratic ($200,000 on food and decorations, including chandeliers, red-velvet draperies, and a 38-piece orchestra playing Viennese waltzes) and too little common touch. Promoter Bill Graham “set up a cocaine room, painted white, with a white rug on the floor, a glass table and all the paraphernalia a serious partygoer would need.” Legend has it that Scorsese’s postproduction work on the film necessitated a special matte effect to disguise the huge rock of cocaine seen poking out of the nostril of one particular superstar.

Viewed at a distance, The Last Waltz struts a fine line between justified celebration and blanket self-congratulation. The film has lovely moments, but tellingly, they tend to be the ones shot later, on a carefully lit and calibrated soundstage. (The real keeper is a sunny, gospel-vamped version of “The Weight,” with The Band joined by The Staples Singers.) This carefully choreographed farewell would define the group’s history.

Perhaps the Helm/Robertson falling-out was always inevitable. Where Robertson’s interest was in the mythic side of things, Helm’s lifelong obeisance was to a notion of the “real”—venerated old blues mentors, multi-musician jambalayas, music-making as akin to honest blue-collar toil. “Miners get hooked on mining, particularly coal mining. They can’t do without it. That’s sort of the same with me and playing on the road. I guess that’s my reason for always going out again with those boys.”

This love of the “real” also served as a kind of personal ethic. It had its positive side—celebrating mutual reliance and exchange and the continuity of lived tradition. It could also mean lazy or over-finessed music that tested nobody, relied too much on retreads of “classic” songs, and was far more fun for the musicians involved than for any waiting audience. After Robertson’s exit, three more Band albums would be released, but none came anywhere near the achievements of the original lineup.

At a 1965 press conference in San Francisco, Robertson’s role model Dylan was asked about his relative valuation of words and music. They were both “just as important,” he replied airily, but “there’d be no music without the words.” Helm’s bitterness toward Robertson ultimately played out on the contested terrain of such words—not just the unreliability of certain partial recollections but whether words, as lyrics, have more artistic weight and financial value than music; whether they trump the collective composition of improvising musicians.

After The Band, Robertson never wrote anything comparable. His later recordings—a flavorless salad of crazy rivers, broken arrows, big skies—are a caricature of his infinitely richer novitiate work. Of late, he could present as little more than a smug connoisseur of his own perceptual nous, polishing the myth, and especially his part in it. (The Once Were Brothers documentary has a lot of great old footage but rests on an oddly stilted retelling of things by Robertson himself.)

Certain words tend to crop up whenever The Band is discussed: “brothers,” “backwoods,” “biblical.” For The Band, as for many of us baby boomers, America’s wildly diverse culture became a kind of symbolic homestead—but as with many real families, it stood atop deep layers of ambivalence. Interviewed in 1996 and asked to explain the group’s secret alchemy, Danko spoke of “comfortable homespun feelings” and how the five members “were basically like the people next door”; this was not entirely convincing. Danko died three years later, at 55, his system fatally weakened by decades of abuse. The positive side of The Band mythos involves things like old-school musicianship, communal values, and keeping tradition alive. Less positive, perhaps, is the whole gray area of clinging to a fond idea of paradise lost.

This story began with segregated audiences and minstrel acts and ends with an ailing Helm contemplating a reality TV show based on his own DIY “midnight rambles,” with tickets priced between $100 and $200. If this is a tale about innocence lost, it’s a very American one: a shiver of doom shadows every serendipity, and the game seems, if not entirely rigged, then looking for passing players to work out its cautionary moral.

Top Photo: The Band in their late 1960s heyday (SHED/BELL MEDIA STUDIOS/IMAGINE DOCUMENTARIES/POLYGRAM ENT/DAVID GAHR/ALBUM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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