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Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond

by Sandra B. Tooze

When it comes to questions of provenance, who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and who wrote the Band’s songs are a couple of oldies but goodies. Famed literary critic Harold Bloom spent his life highly invested in the former but was pretty cavalier about the latter. “It is inconsequential to me who wrote the songs,” Bloom said in a 2002 Film Comment article. “[Levon] Helm disputes [Robbie] Robertson’s assertions as to sole credit, and [Richard] Manuel evidently made considerable contributions. What matters is the songs at their best always seem to have been there, until refined by the Band.” In Levon, her new biography of the Band’s legendary drummer and vocalist, writer Sandra B. Tooze keeps the debate open. Her fresh investigation couldn’t come at a better time, seeing how Robertson’s version of events – set out in a recent autobiography, documentary, and what feels like daily media interviews – is currently the uncontested narrative.

At issue are the Band’s first two albums (which include classics such as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “Chest Fever”), on which the songs are almost exclusively credited to J.R. Robertson. Tooze provides the legal parameters for of who gets songwriting credit (those who create the melody and lyrics) and who doesn’t (those who work out the arrangement). She sets up Helm’s position that “the music was a group effort, an amalgamation of all their creativity,” not just Robertson’s. She then proceeds to compile opinions from numerous people who witnessed the Band at work. No irrefutable evidence is uncovered, but Canadian musician David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears seems most spot on: “Everyone contributed and Helm absolutely wrote some of those songs [but] … Robbie was smart and [the others] were busy partying and drugging.”

In the grand scheme of things, songwriting accounts for one small part of Helm’s remarkable story, and Tooze is just as concerned with his childhood, drumming technique, and post-Band life.

Her biography begins in the cotton fields of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where Helm was raised. Instead of drawing significantly from the musician’s own 1993 autobiography, Tooze calls on two of his family’s close friends, Mary Cavette and Anna Lee Amsden, for remembrances. According to their affectionate stories, the young, mischievous Helm had a passion for music and movies, exuded charm and kindness, was genuinely interested in people, and remained a loyal, lifelong friend.

In 1958, Canadians were introduced to the wild but good-natured Helm when, as a teenager, he went on the road with rockabilly group Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, playing a bar circuit that often took them to southern Ontario. To set the scene, Tooze gives Hawkins ample space to trot out the tall tales and raunchy one-liners – often about Helm’s sexual prowess – he’s been dining out on for decades.

At this point in the history, Tooze – whose last book was a biography of Helm’s musical idol, Muddy Waters – really shows her chops. She succinctly zeroes in on how an untrained Helm developed as a drummer, from his influences to the way “he laid down his groove at the far end of the beat” because that’s how you made the music more danceable. Every aspect of his kit set-up and technique is examined, often playfully, as when Clayton-Thomas recalls the time a truck ran over Helm’s cymbal and he continued to use it – prompting other drummers to drive over their own cymbals to get that “Levon sound.”

While there’s plenty in the book for drum enthusiasts, Tooze doesn’t skimp on the main draw: the years between 1964 and 1977, when Helm and Canadians Robertson, Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson set out on their own. They lit up Toronto’s Yonge Street bars, backed Bob Dylan on his first electric tour, and eventually settled together in one house in Woodstock, New York, where they developed the Band’s brotherly persona and unique sound, which arguably made them the most important group in American music at the time.

Painful chapters about the break-up of the Band and its farewell concert, the Last Waltz, are powerful and intimate: Helm was devastated by the act of retiring a band he believed still had life in it and chillingly bitter at Robertson for orchestrating it all. In the aftermath, he watched Manuel and Danko struggle with booze, drugs, and money, and believed Robertson could have saved their lives if only he had sent some publishing royalties their way. “For all his Southern charm,” says record producer John Simon, “Levon could really hold a grudge.”

While there’s no way Helm’s second act could be as enthralling as what came before, Tooze teases out the tension in his compulsive need to perform, a throat-cancer diagnosis, the award-winning solo albums made after his recovery, and the famed Midnight Ramble musical celebrations Helm held in his barn in Woodstock in the ’00s  toward the end of his life.

Levon achieves a clear picture of Helm’s magnetic personality with very little editorializing and no sycophancy. And despite more than a few unsavoury stories of Helm’s drug use and treatment of women, he remains the definition of generosity and warmth. At his funeral, one musician stood up and introduced himself: “Good morning, I was Levon Helm’s best friend.” Then after a pause, he continued, “Well, all of us in this room can say, ‘I was Levon Helm’s best friend.’”