Sunday, February 05, 2017

The Book I Read: This Wheel's On Fire by Levon Helm and Stephen Davis

The guitar and drum sticks leaning in a 3 gallon crock is literally right to the left of where I am writing this. It seemed the perfect place to take a photo of my copy of  Levon Helm's book on The Band.

     You may recall the last book I read was Testimony by Robbie Robertson. I'd always wanted to read This Wheel's On Fire by Levon Helm, and it seemed like now was the perfect time to do so. Both Helm and Robertson were the outspoken members of The Band, and even though they would proudly say they were a band comprised of five equally key members, one could easily point a finger at either Robbie or Levon as the leader. As the old saying goes, history is written by the victors. Both books cover the rise and fall of The Band, but as you might expect the details differ depending upon who is telling the story. 

I think it's humanly impossible not to be won over by Levon Helm's smile and country gentleman ways. As rooted in Americana and Country music as the music of The Band was, Levon was the only member of The Band to come from the United States. Turkey Scratch Arkansas to be exact. The storytelling in this book is definitely folksy in it's appeal and the love Levon Helm had for his family and their farming connections to the land and traditions is unquestioned. Levon Helm told you what was on his mind, whether you wanted to hear it or not, and that is why I can't help but trust his accounts of the history of The Band more so than Robbie Robertson's take. Getting up on a stage and playing music - connecting with the other musicians and the audience alike - is what made Levon Helm happy. I was excited to read this book but now that I have finished it I wish I didn't know the sad truth of the end of The Band. In fact, the next time I watch The Last Waltz I won't be looking for those favorite performances of mine - The Weight with The Staples Singers and the awe inspiring performance of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Instead I'll be watching for the signs of anger and just not wanting to be there that everyone in The Band felt except for Robertson. For you see only Robbie Robertson wanted things to end for The Band. He devised the idea of The Last Waltz and started the ball rolling on it even before discussing it with his band mates. If Levon Helm had things his way The Band would have been making music in their own studio for the rest of their lives, playing and making music with friends and hitting the road to tour when the time seemed right. But Robbie Robertson had the ear of everyone managing The Band and therefore controlled what happened. 

The clip above is from The Last Waltz. The interviews you see in the film had to be shot after the concert itself because Scorsese realized that they needed more content to tell the story of The Band. Levon writes that he didn't want any part of this but after consulting with his own lawyer he was told the best thing he could do was to play along, get it over with, and move on to the next thing. He mentions the scene above as being so frustrating for him because he was having to explain something that was near and dear to him that was simply lost on Scorsese. He also states that the portrayal of the rest of The Band in the film was next to nothing, particularly with Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. One of the biggest sleights he mentions is the fact that a camera couldn't even find Manuel singing his signature song "I Shall Be Released" during the big group finale. He points out that the camera was continuously on Robbie Robertson, and the editing of the film makes it appear as if Robbie was leading or conducting every song. There is a lot of vitriol concerning the way The Last Waltz was handled, from who was involved for seemingly no reason (Neil Diamond) to who never saw a penny from all the work they did for it (the rest of The Band other than Robbie Robertson). Sometimes getting a peek at how things really are can ruin it for you, and I don't think I'll ever watch The Last Waltz in the same way again.

Unlike Robbie Robertson's book, if you read the updated version of Levon Helm's book it goes well past the end of The Band and ends with the Stephen Davis writing about the years leading up to his death. This includes the reunion of The Band minus Robertson, his suprising acting career, the birth of the Midnight Ramble at Levon's barn in Woodstock and his last three Grammy winning solo albums. Levon Helm surely had his challenges and this book does not shy away from sharing them. Twice his livelihood was threatened when his health failed. The first time was when he shot himself in the side with a gun while preparing for an acting role that required he know how to quick draw a pistol. Doctors told him he might not be able to drum with his kick bass leg again after they struggled to save the leg. But Levon fought back and did play again. The second time was his battle with throat cancer that stole his singing voice. Again he fought back and taught himself to sing again. Helm tells it all, the happy times and the sad. Perhaps that is the biggest distinction between these two books on The Band. Robertson seems to sugar coat the story with a lie he has told himself so often that he believes it to be the truth whereas Helm will always just lay it all out there on the line regardless of how he feels we might react to it. If you could only read one of these I suggest you get Levon's. Oh - a heads up here. You will find yourself in tears immediately as Levon shares the accounts behind Richard Emmanuel's death. It is just as Levon says it will be, it will break your heart.


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