Friday, April 27, 2012

When I Met Levon

It was late summer in 2002 when I found myself spending much time with my friend Steve Baird, who occasionally worked with me on my public access TV show Film Forum and who had, the previous spring, employed his ubiquitous video camera in capturing the events surrounding a film festival I programmed in the North Georgia town of Dahlonega. In return, I had been working with him as writer, photographer, actor, and editor on his comedy noir film called The New Yorker. As a result, I'd taken up residence in his Sandy Springs, GA home, where a really unusual crew of roommates and visiting characters were busy trying to make this film happen. One night, I was hard at work at Steve's basement editing bay, cutting together some of The New Yorker's newly-shot B&W footage, when Steve approached me with some promising news.

He had just been contacted by an old bandmate of his--Steve had been a drummer in a locally successful Georgia jam band called The Grapes. This guitarist, named Brian Parillo, had moved up to New York where he landed a gig playing with Levon Helm's outfit. Levon had recently beat down the threat of throat cancer and had been working diligently to get his voice back, and the effort had paid off as Levon was planning a determined return to the stage. Tours were being mapped and he was getting ready to launch his series of Midnight Rambles, his name for the concerts held weekly at his home/recording studio in Woodstock, NY to which thousands of musicians and fans would eventually flock starting in 2004. Apparently, with his constant camerawork, Steve made a deep impression on Brian; when Levon expressed an interest in documenting his return to form on video, Brian suggested they call Steve. And for good reason: Steve had quite a way with a camera. With it, he was stealthy and attentive, and he had that secretive movement that instantly made you forget a lens was examining the footage he came up with inevitably spoke much truth while remaining pretty to look at. Steve was not a shaky-cam kind of guy; he had a Stedicam born into his frame, and his footage--whatever it contained--benefited greatly from this skill.

Anyway, once he asked me to do this, I was hooked. My heart began racing. Levon was the former drummer/singer/mandolin player for The Band, a seminal contributor to the American musical soundscape. Songs like "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," "It Makes No Difference," "Don't Do It," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" had been part of my childhood musical lexicon way before I finally saw, at 14 or so, Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary The Last Waltz. I first witnessed that film on the big screen at the Rhodes Theater in Atlanta during that exquisite period in my life in which I was discovering Scorsese's filmmaking prowess with works like Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Taxi Driver. Watching The Last Waltz was a life-changing experience, because not only did it re-introduce me to The Band (its most important contribution), it defined exactly how musical performances should be filmed. Scorsese's attention to detail showed through mightily; he had actually storyboarded the film--a seemingly impossible goal for a documentary filmmaker--and its wonderful visage on screen confirmed the value of such preparation. With Michael Chapman's superb cinematography and Boris Leven's equally impressive art direction, The Last Waltz would stand for me as the single best concert movie ever made (at least, until I saw Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense a few years later).

My excitement was two-fold.  I was a movie fan before being a (gigantic) music fan, and Levon had made his mark in motion pictures as well. In The Last Waltz, it's Levon's moments that really resonate with passion and authenticity. When he talks about exactly what a "Midnight Ramble" is, or the mixture or R&B and country that made up rock n' roll, or the allure of New York City (my favorite moment in the film), the viewer is overcome with Levon's genuinely loving, folksy appeal.   So it was inevitable that he'd be tapped for the movies. In 1980, he was cast as Loretta Lynn's protective, coal-mining father in Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, and he should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, as it's his spirit that haunts the entire movie.  hen, in 1983, he was cast as the narrator, Jack Ridley, in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, in which he played the second to the story's hero, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard). Still, the lines that I remember from The Right Stuff  are Helms' "Fair enough" (said after Shepard's line "Gimme a stick of Beeman's and I'll pay ya back later"), "Just whang it down like that" (as Helm is explaining how to use a broom handle to close the door to a newly-developed jet) and this twangy bit of narration (written by Kaufman and adapted from Tom Wolfe's book):

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.  

With his first two monumental narrative movies, Levon Helm had cemented himself as a genuine character actor, absolutely truth telling at every turn. He was subsequently underused, for sure. It would be years later that I would see him in movies like the underrated 1997 Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below (playing a rural preacher fighting against a coal company's destruction of his southern homeland), the brilliant 2005 Tommy Lee Jones film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (playing a blind desert denizen), and as Mr. Rate in 2007's otherwise forgettable Mark Wahlberg actioner Shooter. In 1981, he was even the very first musical guest on my favorite TV show, the comedic variety show SCTV (where he interacted with Eugene Levy's perpetually goofy newsman Earl Camembert). But with Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff on his ledger, Levon wasn't just a rock star. To me, he was a movie star, too.  

Steve let me know that he wanted me to come along with him on the trip up to Woodstock, mainly, I think, because he was a little intimidated by staying in New York City; since he knew I had lived there for four years prior, he felt he needed my expertise about the town.  I immediately agreed to accompany him, and we were off.

On the road, I repeatedly found myself recalling what Levon had said about New York in The Last Waltz. I had left NYC in 1991, and found myself pining for it for over a decade at this point. Missing New York City was painful for me, even though I had done much back home in Georgia that was worthwhile. But once I settled on New York as a destination for myself, no sort of achievement or attachment could extricate its hold on me. To this day, I still think this rocker from an Arkansas cotton farm has said the truest, simplest thing ever uttered about New York City:

It took a couple of trips to get into it. You just go in the first time and get your ass kicked, and you take off. Soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it.  

Upon my return to Atlanta after my first early-90s sojourn to New York, this statement rang in my head for years. I had always hoped to return to New York, but Atlanta had clawed me in its grips as hometowns often do. Yeah, my life was there, but my heart was way up north. And now, here I was, with Steve driving a car speeding its way to the home of the man who made this statement that had stuck with me so. On the way up, I bought a copy of Levon's memoir (co-written by Stephen Davis) called This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.  Steve and I stopped at two hotel rooms (one in North Carolina and one in New Jersey), and I read as much of the book as I could. I had never really known about the rancor within The Band, but Levon's book clued me in on why Robbie Robertson was the sole songwriter credited for all their songs: it was a lawyerin' thing.

Albert Grossman, the bulldog-like manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Todd Rundgren, seduced Robertson and convinced him to go behind his fellow bandmate's backs and claim ownership of these songs they wrote together; Grossman and Robertson would split the proceeds. Helm and the rest of The Band had to fight for the rest of their lives to get the benefits they were due. I was stunned at this revelation, but it made sense, especially considering Robertson sang not ONE of the songs the world loved so much. This especially made sense given that Robertson's post-Band output was resolutely not one that belonged to a truly great songwriter. And let's not forget: when The Band first got together, they were the backing outfit for Ronnie Hawkins, and when that gig ended, they were known as Levon and The Hawks (except for Levon, everyone in the band was Canadian, by the way). Even the faux-generic name The Band was Levon's idea, and on their self-titled second album, he wanted the members to only be listed by their first names (an idea that the Grossman nixed).

Not knowing whether we'd be interviewing Levon for the camera this time round, I decided to come prepared by penning a few pages of questions to ask him. Most of these queries were answered in the book, but I had a few special, personally concocted questions thrown in there. I spent my nights in those hotel rooms reading and amassing my plans for when we got to sit down with Levon. It was incredibly exciting...the closer and closer we got to Woodstock, the more my adrenals were pumping away. I had met many celebrities before, but I had never been to one's house to interview them, so I was pretty keyed up. I didn't know Levon at that point, so I didn't know that all I needed to be was myself. Steve, meanwhile, wearing his multi-colored beret and holding a half-smoked cigar in hand, was cool as could be. It was difficult for me to read his emotions, which I guess was a feature that made him more of a professional.

Steve and I left our hotel room in Passaic, New Jersey that morning with high hopes. I was particularly thrilled because, in all my time spent in New York, I had never been upstate, so I was anxious to behold its beauty. And so I learned that Manhattan was only a neighborhood in the state of New York; the region was positively majestic, with its September trees still green but about to turn with the coming autumn. Its allure was a revelation to me, and I instantly understood why so many gravitated to its comforts. Knowing that New York City, the center of the world, was was only an hour's drive away from this gorgeously remote haven made it seem as if to live in Woodstock would be tantamount to having the best of both the rural and the urban worlds.

Finding Levon's house was difficult for us newbies. GPS was just a dream then, so it was up to Steve and I to navigate the backwoods that led to Levon's house. I remember ending up on a resolutely green and curvy country road where there was an unassuming "Enter Here" sign that led us into what looked like a dirty back road into nowhere. We had tried to call Levon, but there was no answer. Yet we figured it out and here is where we arrived:

We were a little early--it was about noon--and as Steve found a place to park the car, I tried to see if anyone was coming out of this tucked-away home. The midday light was painting the tree's leaves, and we wandered around the house's perimeter as Steve tried to call Levon. We didn't have to wait long. After a minute or so, Levon appeared, shirtless and stretching from a night's sleep, obscured by a screened-in porch.

"I heard you pulling up. It's nice to see you guys. Just come on in. Door's around the side." he said.

The door we took led us right in to the kitchen which, with all the colorful stuff on the immense central table, was obviously the home's non-musical meeting place. Even now, I look at photos of Levon and I can remember what it was like to sit at that table. Lord knows who else sat there before me:

We stepped in and looked at all the photos pinned up on the walls. Here was Levon with George Harrison. Here he was with Norah Jones (who, he let us know, was due to the house next week to record). And here was a photo of Billy Bob Thornton sitting at the table. I began to feel even more edgy. What was I doing here? Who the hell am I?

It was obvious that Levon was busy getting dressed as we waited for him. I wandered around the house as Steve messed with his camera. I saw a great big central room where Levon's drums had been set up, clearly the centerpiece for a constantly-changing band. In this wood-hewn room, I noticed a distinct difference in sound quality. It was as if every noise that was made floated into the atoms of the the timber itself. When I spoke, the words had a flattened yet resonant quality. It was a new sound for me. Standing in the middle of this regally gabled space, I felt as if I were in the center of hearing itself.  I looked up and saw a huge American flag hanging longways from its ceiling, as well as the brightly yellowed "Don't Tread On Me" flag, hung properly, its snake spiraling upwards. I loved that the words "Don't Tread on Me" nearly mirrored my name in welcome. My being there seemed like divine providence.

Levon came down and shook our hand vigorously, and put his hand on my shoulder, and he told us how glad he was to see us. He told us that Brian Parillo, his guitarist and Steve's friend, was on his way over, and he asked us if we needed anything. I said I needed a glass of water, beating myself up over my nervousness, and he directed me towards the glasses, and I gulped down the best-tasting aqua I'd had in ages. We sat down and he asked Steve whether the place was easy to find, and we said that it was a little difficult, but we were here now. He laughed, and then launched into what he wanted for this documentary he was planning. At this point, I deferred to Steve, and just reveled in this place where I was, trying to take it all in.

Brian arrived quite soon, and took us outside while Steve and I had a smoke (out of deference to Levon's health problems), and Joe reiterated to us the importance of this project. "I mean, when you talk to Levon," he said, "you have to realize that this guy has been there at every stage of rock n' roll history. He saw Elvis perform, and Roy Orbison, and John Lee Hooker. He was there with Ronnie Hawkins, Dylan, and there at Woodstock. And then the stuff with The Band. The Last Waltz. And here he still is, about to launch a comeback. I mean, this is a big deal."

I'm not sure we needed to hear this. It only made me more nervous. But I recognized that this was Brian, here, revealing to himself the incredible position he'd been invited into.  He only wanted to impart what an important project this was. As it was Steve's assignment, I felt I was somewhat out of the loop I was, and still am not, a filmmaker, and was primarily just a fan.I had to remind myself, in that moment, how lucky I was. My mind was being blown, in other words.

We went back in and I took a few moments to take a gander at Levon's shiny yet exactingly-worn drums. I was a drummer and singer, too, with my band UberEasy back in Atlanta. But I played just congas, bongos, and hand percussion.Wandering around Levon's high-ceilinged great room, I noticed sets of hand percussion that were labeled "Amy," whom I later discovered was Levon's only child.  I took a moment to play these instruments, but I was careful not to disturb them too much. I looked back up at this house's amazing structure, with the rich smell of its wood in my nose, and decided I needed to join my friends.

Steve, Joe, and Levon talked while I was away, and by the time I rejoined them, they were all good buddies. I got myself another glass of that water, sat down at the kitchen table, and examined the photos on the wall.I didn't see Bob Dylan repped there, but I did see endless photos of musicians I knew and didn't know, playing right here and elsewhere. I began to truly take into my heart that Levon, our endlessly kind host, was the personified zenith of rock n' roll history and, furthermore, was someone who'd not lost his connection to what was going on even today.

An hour or more into our visit, Levon finally sat down at the kitchen table. This was obviously a meeting place for all who visited his home, as there were few other obvious locales to sit down and chat. Levon, Brian and Steve joined me at the table, and Levon reached into a bowl and pulled out a stinky bud of weed and began breaking it down and rolling it up. Clearly, I thought, this was a habit that had not died with his cancer battle. I thought "This probably helped him through those 29 chemo therapies he'd gone through." So I felt it was an honor to smoke the ganja with Levon. But the weed was so extraordinary in quality, it began affecting my mood, and I began to regret smoking it after a while.

Sitting at the table, I started to realize who I was with, and even though Levon was unfailingly friendly, I began losing it a little, and Levon saw this, and came to help.

"I have all these questions I want to ask you," I said, "But I think you've answered them a thousand times before."

"That's okay," he said. "Ask away."

I first asked him about Woodstock, and he told us about what it was like being in a helicopter, flying high above all those concertgoers. He wove a good tale, being careful to include stories about The Who and Pete Townsend's bashing of Abbie Hoffmann off the stage. He said that things were good in The Band at that stage, and he went into talking about their life at the house called Big Pink, where so many great songs were written and recorded by them as a team (there was a typewriter set up there on the table, and they'd all take turns writing lyrics on it). But he then let us know that it was Albert Grossman, and by extension, Robbie Robertson, who were the villains of his life.  He launched into a gentle tirade against Robertson--this was something that clear still stung--especially after I mentioned The Last Waltz.  He didn't immediately demean the experience of filming the movie, but he did pipe up in other ways.

"You've seen the movie, right?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

"Well, you see Robbie singin' away at the microphone? What you don't know is that Robbie can't sing a lick, so we had the mike turned off during that performance. He didn't get one note in."  Levon cackled hard at this memory.

This astonished me. If you look at Scorsese's The Last Waltz, not only is Robertson portrayed as The Band's leader, he's seen as their most valuable mouthpiece as well, both in interviews and on stage. I mean, he looks like he's belting it away during that film. But, sitting here with Levon, I learned that this was the basis for the schism in the band.  Levon had enough good will to provide some memorable moments for Scorsese, but he told us he hated doing the movie, because he felt it supported the notion that the duplicitous Robertson was the center of The Band. "If anyone was the center, it was Garth Hudson.  He was our music teacher, and he was the one that took us on up."

The weed, and even the truth, began getting to me, and I apologized. "Levon," I said, "I feel really privileged to be here. I'm sorry if I seem a little nervous. I hope you understand that I see you as a friend of Martin Scorsese's, and I'm a film lover, so I..."

He got up and put his hand on my shoulder and, smiling, got into my face. "Look, brother, I'm not Scorsese's friend. Never have been, never will be. That's just something I did. He's not a friend to me."

"Well, I can understand that," I said. "I think the interview segments are the weakest part of the movie."

"That's right," he answered. "The only thing that makes that movie good is the performance. The interviews are pure fake."

"But, then, there are your scenes.  Can I tell you something?"

"What's that?"

"That thing you said about New York in that movie has really stayed with me." I told him about my relationship, as a fellow Southerner, with the city, and told him I had had my ass kicked, and that I hoped to return there one day, and that his words about the city still inspired me. "Well," he said, "it's a helluva town, and you need to make your way back up here, if you feel that way."

"Okay. I'll take that advice. I'll be coming back," I promised.

"That's good, buddy. You need to be here, if you feel it that strong." He looked hard into my eyes, and there was one of those quiets that fall when you know you're hearing something important.  This took a load off. None of my everyday Atlanta friends had ever provided so much support, and I resolved to return to New York.  At that second, Levon made his way resolutely into my heart.

I harbored a wish to play music along with Levon, but that didn't happen, although he heard my drumming on Amy's congas and had kind things to say about it. He sat behind his kit for a moment and gave us a short lesson in backbeats. Steve sat at the drums a bit and played, but he never brought out his camera, and those questions I worked so hard on went unused. Levon talked for a while about how proud he was of his daughter, Amy, and how much fun they had playing music together. She was clearly his shining pride.

By this time, Steve and I had been at Levon's place for about three hours, and it became apparent that Levon was excited to have us involved in the documentary he was planning. I knew that my contribution to this project would be minimal--this was Steve's baby all the way--but I was nonetheless ecstatic over the possibilities. When it came time for us to leave, Levon disappeared for a minute, then came back into the great room and thanked us for visiting him. He shook my hand, and as he did so, he slipped a big fat joint into the breast pocket of my shirt. "I wanna tell you what a pleasure it was to meet you, Dean. Here's a little somethin' for the road."

I could feel myself blushing as I looked into those eyes of his. They really did literally twinkle with joy. This man was in a good place, I thought. "Thank you, Levon. It's been a tremendous honor to meet you. Overwhelming, really." I held my hand to my heart.

He chuckled and thanked me, patting my shoulder again, and he then turned to shake Steve's hand, and likewise slipped another joint to him. My mind was reeling as we stepped back outside into the clearing, and got into Steve's car. Levon and Brian waved to us as we drove away. The ride back to New York, where Steve was set to meet a girlfriend of his, was filled with promising talk. But, for me, the experience was over.

In New York City, Steve and I had a horrendous and embarrassing fight that ended our relationship--something I still feel bad about a decade later. I didn't get to talk to Steve very much from that moment on, and ended up staying in New York for a few days with his girlfriend (who also had shared in this fight). During this trip, a girl with a guitar smiled at me at a Lower East Side coffee shop. I talked with her for a little while and learned her name was Madeline Peyroux, and that she was a singer/songwriter who had a Georgia connection (she had been brought up in Athens). We hit it off well, and she invited me to come and see her at a small gig she had that night in the Village. The enigmatic Peyroux is now an internationally renowned artist, but at the time, she was just a nice girl--with a remarkable voice and manner--that I happened to meet.

I caught a bus back home to Atlanta and resumed my life there. I had heard in the intervening years that Steve was busy making numerous trips back up to Woodstock to film Levon in action, but I never sussed anything out about the project outside of what was mumbled about in close-knit Atlanta circles. Around 2006, I learned that Steve had had a falling-out with Levon, and that the project was on permanent hold. Typically with Steve, who'd shot much unedited tape of everything he encountered over the past decade, the footage he took of Levon would remain on the shelf, tucked away on itty-bitty cassettes in clear plastic cases. A friend said to me that it probably wouldn't see the light of day until Levon passed away, which I hoped would be never.

In 2010, I found myself again living in New York (this time, in Brooklyn), just like I had promised Levon I would. One day, via the internet, where I had friended Levon on Facebook, I discovered that a documentary about his comeback was definitely afoot. In the interim, Levon had released one record called Dirt Farmer, and another, Electric Dirt, which would win the first ever Grammy for Best Americana Album. He'd win another one for his live 2011 release Ramble at the Ryman. The new documentary was humorously called Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm--a title that had Levon's fingerprints all over it.  But Steve's name was not connected to it, and I still wonder how that makes him feel.

The day Levon passed away--April 19, 2012--I cried all night long. I watched The Last Waltz twice and, while doing so, remembered what Levon had to say about the experience. Not having seen it since before our meeting with Levon, the film had a newly-soured meaning for me. I could see through Scorsese's rock-starry-eyed machinations, and Robertson's put-on, coked-up behavior (Levon told us that the Band as a whole thought he was acting like an ass all throughout the filming, and I could now see them not joining in with him, really, on film).  When I saw Robbie singing his guts out, I remembered that his mike was defunct. Levon's laughter sounded out again in my ears. That night, I finally finished with the film thinking that it was, partially, pure artifice. The only moments that felt bona fide belonged to Levon and the rest of The Band, whom I now saw as victims of Robertson's egoism. I still admire greatly the concert portions of the movie, which, to Scorsese's credit, never shy away from giving center stage to Helm, the late Rick Danko, or the brilliant Garth Hudson, whose mournful sax solo during "It Makes No Difference" made me cry even more that night. The Last Waltz remains a great movie. The interview portions largely were now painful to witness, yet the magnificent music remained, and I could remember Levon talking so endearingly about those Midnight Rambles...

Life itself is a ramble. Levon spent his time on earth steadily providing a vital beat for, and the party continues even after he's sadly departed. His story was a masterpiece, painted with glory and musical grandeur. In the brief moments we spent together, I discovered he was a great friend not only to me, but to most everyone he met. And so, with love and admiration, I say: Farewell and thank you, Brother Levon.


boe said...

what an amazing story; thanks so much for sharing

RichVoyages said...

Dean, A very lovely heart felt and moving piece.You brought me to tears.Not an easy thing to do.It was a little like the pieces I used to read in Esquire years ago.Well done.

Lisa said...

A wonderful piece; so great that you were able to spend some time with this artist and learn some secret truths.

Stacia said...

Beautiful story, Dean, wonderfully told. Thank you.

Nap said...

This is a pretty sad piece of work.
Levon Helm was a great drummer and vocalist, but I always found it kind of sad how he would talk %$$#@ about Robbie Robertson. I wonder if he went to the great beyond holding onto that animosity. I respect that Robbie never took part in it. The Interviewer obviously decided, out of hand, to believe whatever Levon said concerning the issue. I even read one interview where he essentially blamed Danko's death on Robertson. But Robertson did write most of the songs,, he did sing on a few, like, 'Out of the blue' and he did sing on his solo albums, which had some great songs.
His presence in the Waltz, wasn't so much that he was portraying himself as leader, but that no one else was obviously comfortable talking.

Yakum Pakenappeh said...

Having Scorsese film the last live concert of the Band, was Robbie Robertson's idea, and the other band members may or may not have been into it at the time, but other than that, this article is full of inaccurate stoner logic.
1: Robertson was portrayed as the most valuable mouthpiece and his mic was turned off.
Straight up B.S. Robertson sang backup at the show. Helm and Dank primarily did the lead vocals. Helm's Mic was set the loudest, and danko, and Robbie's was turned down for backup, but you can hear his voice, and hear him talking through the mic between songs. When he sang, he often sang to the side of the mic. Since Robertson wrote most of the songs, he would be intelligent enough to notice his mic off.
2: The interviews were 'pure fake'. And Robertson did it for his ego.
The only way the interviews would have been pure fake is if the whole Band were in on it.
That what they said was made up script, including Helm's new york story. Yes, martin set it up, so they could tell stories about the Band's history, and Robbie may have been more into it than the others. But this is not solid evidence he did it for ego. The way he downplays his guitar on the band's records, indicates he is not egocentric.

Yakum Pakenappeh said...

3: That He couldn't sing a lick and he is portrayed as the band's leader.
Fallen Angel, Ghost dance and many others. And three songs with the band. Personally I feel Rick danko was the closest to an actual singer.
Levon, manuel, and Robertson were vocalists. Levon had a scratchy country voice, he was not a singer with range. Yet he had the bulk of the singing time in the movie. Ironic ego move for Robbie.
He is portrayed as the guy in the band that is fed up with the road, and wanted to document their last live concert. He wanted to continue recording albums, but according to him, the others were not as interested, after Islands.
But the impression has usually come from outside. In a rolling stone interview in 1968, it reads; [At 24, Robertson could be considered the leader of the Band, if the Band bothered itself with such considerations. They've been together too long not to know what each one has to do without needing someone to tell them.]
So Levon may have been getting uptight about Robbie being considered the leader, long before the last waltz.
4: That the Band was Levon's idea, and they actually shared song writing equally. And Robbie's solo writing was not on par.
In 1984, Levon said in, Modern Drummer, "I don't read well, I don't write well."
The Band evolved from Ronnie Hawkin's band. But "The Band" was not a name anyone in the band came up with.
In that same 1968 interview it reads; [says Robertson. "The only name that we do have is the name all our neighbours, friends, and people who know us call us. They just call us the Band. When we decided to put a record out, the company asked us what we were going to call ourselves, and we told them that our names are our Christian names, the names that our parents thought were groovy for us. We told them that our friends refer to us as the Band, but we don't refer to ourselves." As a result, the LP is simply called Music from Big Pink.]
The same thing he said in the Last waltz, 8 years later. If it wasn't true, why didn't Levon say anything then?
Jericho, In 1993, the album without Robbie, have only 2 songs written by Levon and Danko, and the rest, as wikipedia states; [Without Robbie Robertson as primary lyricist, the group relied on outside sources to supplement their four original tracks.]
And Robertson's solo albums, are well known to be written by him, and some songs covered by others. 'Somewhere down the crazy river' is about when he hung out with Levon in arkansas. Even 'the night they drove dixie down' Levon said; [ "Robbie and I worked on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect."] If I take someone to the library so they can work on a song, I wouldn't consider that I had co-written it. Robbie describes when he wrote the melody in his house, trying not to make noise to wake his kid.
Basically, you can't claim the majority of writing credits, unless you can prove it in court.
Whether or not band members should share equal writing royalties, is up to the bands to decide. Some do, some don't.

Stacia said...

It's in distinctly poor taste for Robertson fanboys to troll articles that are memorializing Levon Helm because he recently passed, yet I've seen it frequently, not just here. Unfortunate.

Dean Treadway said...

I really don't know if Levon was telling the truth or not about Robertson's mike, etc. I'm simply reporting on what was told to me. I do know that Helm never forgave Robertson for not giving songwriting credits to the Band as a whole. And if you look at the musical talent in The Band, you have to wonder WHY they never wrote any songs. It's pretty obvious it was a sneaky lawyerin' move. Doesn't take a genius, or a fan, to figure that out. Of course, Robbie doesn't take part---he won the songwriting rights, so why should he snipe?

Heki Kahni said...

I like all the band members, and they were all talented musicians. I am a musician and have known many other talented musicians that couldn't write a song to save their life.

Have you wrote any songs? You play drums apparently. If I was in a band that recorded. I would want credit for the songs I wrote. Some bands choose to share credit regardless of who actually wrote them. But some don't, and I don't think that is wrong, or sneaky lawyerin.
I know you can't get writing credits for songs in a court of law, unless you have evidence to show you wrote it.

In court you have to prove what you say, but in the world of media and blogging, you can make any speculative judgement on people based on no evidence.

Levon spent the whole rest of his life trying to demonize Robertson through the media,I got interviews back to 1980, and his book, and people love that kind of thing. They eat it up.
It is funny to them, and easy to swallow. Rather than doing the research for themselves, based on informed data.

None of the other band members said anything about it.

Heki Kahni said...

But it is cool you got to meet Levon Helm.

I would have liked to also. Though I probably wouldn't have been so easily influenced.

Stacia said...

I can't imagine a more tightly packed series of passive-aggressive insults than Heki's comments. Even got a little Internet Lawyer threat thrown in there.

Talking to a primary source directly is "doing research." The other band members did have things to say about Robertson taking credit (and royalties), a fact that gets mentioned in early 70s rock magazines which talk frequently about the tensions in the band.

As for Robbie's mic on The Last Waltz, try to isolate his voice in the songs while watching. I can't, I can rarely even hear him except when he's sharing a mic with Danko (like during the Neil Young performance). I noticed this well before I ever knew Helm claimed the mic was turned off, not that the so-angry-at-Levon brigade would believe me.

Heki Kahni said...

I am not interested in demeaning or twisting around what other blog members say, so I will just address the things related to the article.

If anyone wants to talk about the information and contentions of the article, and not make this personal, I am more than happy to.

Because it is not wrong to disagree with an article or blog.

Heki Kahni said...

I am just watching the 'Right stuff' for the first time, and Levon Helm is in it. He was a very natural actor.

Heki Kahni said...

As far as the singing. I wonder what Robertson would say. If he saw this, maybe he would be like, "yeah, back then I couldn't sing too well," Or "I was really insecure about my singing back then."

But I found a video of the band at woodstock in 1969, and it clearly shows Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson singing. You can see and hear when Robbie is singing. This being many years before the Last waltz.

Also there is "Out of the Blue"
Which was recorded with the Band, but not released on any of their albums back then, only later on a special edition. But he can sing good on this one.

Anonymous said...

This is a great piece Dean. The Band is probably my favorite rock band ever with The Velvet Underground and The Byrds. I have always found Richard Manuel to be the secret weapon of the outfit overall. His singing in Lonesome Suzie and Whispering Pines is brilliantly haunting....Maurizio Roca

Dean Treadway said...

Thank you, Maurizio. This means a lot, coming from such a film lover as yourself!

Stacia said...

Dean, I was thinking about this post all day today, after seeing a screener for "Ain't in it for My Health" this afternoon.

There is a clip of The Band at Woodstock and Robertson's mic is most definitely on -- and the poor guy is very much off key. A version of the performance was linked above already as proof his mic was on at The Last Waltz. I really don't think it was, because I have seen TLW several times and I simply cannot isolate that particular voice on any song except a little during a Neil Young song when Robertson was sharing Danko's mic.

When I hear Robertson at Woodstock I hear him straining for notes he can't reach, not singing some notes, and at one point about 1:29 into the video already linked, he just sings some random *something* that I don't even understand the purpose of. The harmony on "and" about 15 seconds later clearly has his voice quavering and off key.

So, I suppose Helm was lying, but I don't think so.

Dean Treadway said...

I expect AIN'T IN IT FOR MY HEALTH will be a fascinating movie. As for this ongoing debate per Robertson's singing abilities...well, I've rarely heard him sing on his own. I've got those first two solo albums, but he more talk-sings (like Rex Harrison or William Shatner) than he does actual singing. When you try and match his voice with those voices ringing out in TLW, it can't be done (and especially not considering his low register). I dunno. Maybe Levon was showing off. Maybe he was letting off steam to some eager fans. But, honestly, he had nothing to really gain by doing so. He didn't know me from Adam, and he could have just as easily kept things nice; he was a nice guy, actually. But I suspect he had some things to say, and some truth to tell, and given that I had heard Levon, and most of the rest of The Band, sing more than Robbie Robertson, I tend to believe Levon. One things for sure: Robbie ain't talkin' (or singin' either, for that matter).

Heki Kahni said...

What is known, is that while in the Band, Robertson wrote most of the songs. There is writing a song, then there is Band arrangement. If I write a song, and bring it into a band, and we do a recording of it, with them playing their respective instruments, that is what that is.
When Robertson seized ownership of his songs, Levon got really pissed, really arkansas, the south will rise pissed.
So then for the next several decades, until his death, he bitterly complained or criticized on Robertson, to any rock magazine or anyone else that brought up the subject.
I have yet to hear or read any other band member say a peep about it, other than Levon.
If someone believes they have been wronged by someone else, then just the act of talking smack about them, is what they have to gain.

What was stated by Levon was Robbie couldn't sing a lick.

Once again. "Out of the Blue"
Youtube it.

As for myself, I have not purchased any Robertson albums, except the first one years ago, never been to any concert, and only like a few of his songs. I only like a few of the Bands songs. I just heard Acadian Driftwood not too long ago, and liked that.

It just annoys me that people formulate viewpoints based on nothing but their allegiances.

Dean Treadway said...

For someone who acts like they don't have a dog in this hunt ("I'm not a Robertson fan or a Band fan" is what you seem to be saying), you sure have posted an awful lot of comments here, Heki. Again, I just reported the piece like Levon reported it to me. And I do tend to believe him. How come Robertson's output post-Band is so spotty? Was he all written out? Was it the cocaine and the movies that did him in? I just don't get it.