20070411

This Wheel's On Fire

Levon Helm - This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Betyg: 4

I've been in love with The Band's music - or, to be more precise, their first few albums before the tension in the band sapped the magic - since I first heard it, which must have been at a very young age considering the state of my dad's copy of their second album. So reading Levon Helm's observations from what he calls "the best seat in the house" - the drummer's chair - is never less than fascinating. The Band grew out of the The Hawks, a hard-travelling rockabilly band backing singer Ronnie Hawkins (who hired 15-year-old Robbie Robertson with the phrase "I can't pay you much, but I'll promise you more pussy than you can eat") in the late 50s and limped across the finish line 40 years later minus a few members. They managed to turn from one of the toughest, meanest backing bands ever for both Hawkins and Bob Dylan into one of rock'n'roll's few true ensembles - listen to their first two albums as The Band (which, incidentally, is the coolest band name ever - and the record company made it up!), and you'll notice that there's no front figure. There's no soloist, just the occasional short solo spot for guitar, organ or sax as part of the tune. There's not even ONE lead singer - the piano player, the bass player and the drummer share vocal duties; the guitar player's mic was switched off. There's just five people playing a dozen instruments and MAKING music, harvesting everything in American music from field hollers to rock'n'roll, from dixieland to funk and consolidating it all into what Gram Parsons called "cosmic American music".

Levon Helm's autobiography is a lot of fun. The guy has an amazing memory - hell, if I'd lived through all of that, I'd be surprised to be alive, much less remember it - and as the Arkansas farmboy he is, a very workmanlike attitude towards the whole thing: the job of a musician is to play music. It even makes the occasionally somewhat pathetic post-The Last Waltz* formations come out logical; hell, why shouldn't he play in Ringo Starr's all-star band? He's a drummer, drummers play in bands!

* The Last Waltz: The Band's 1976 farewell performance, filmed by Martin Scorsese and featuring dozens of guest performers - all Robertson's idea; the others wanted to keep going.

At the same time, as much fun as it can be, there's a very bitter undertone that grows as it goes along; Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson were best friends for years, and I don't think Helm is ever going to forgive him for breaking up The Band and, in his opinion, screwing the other members out of a hell of a lot of money. Bassist Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999, and Helm's account of his funeral borders on character assassination - whether it's justified or not is up to Helm and Robertson to duke out:

My beef is that he didn't have to be there yet - not at only fifty-six years old. Rick worked (...) himself to death. And the reason Rick had to work all the time was because he'd been fucked out of his money. People ask me about The Last Waltz all the time. Rick Danko dying at fifty-six is what I think about The Last Waltz. (...) [At the funeral] Robertson (...) got up and spouted off a lot of self-serving tripe about how great Rick had sung the songs that he - Robertson - had written. It made me sick to hear. Then he worked the press a little, like a good Hollywood boy, and went back to Los Angeles. He knows he's got Rick Danko's money in his pocket. He knows that.


But all that aside, it's refreshing to read a biography - auto- or not - on a musician that for the most part actually focuses on the music, not the sex and drugs (though it's inevitably some of that too) but the actual music, how it came together, how it still does. The closing lines of the 1993 edition (the one I read has an extra chapter added in 2000) are:

Hell, all I know is that I haven't had to cultivate cotton since I was seventeen.

This Wheel's On Fire might be a little self-serving, occasionally in need of some editing, but for the most part it's brutally honest and funny at the same time. Now go listen to The Band, possibly the best album of 1969 (and that's saying something), and then try to tell me there are limits to what the human spirit can do.

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