In the early fall of 2007, I traveled to Woodstock, N.Y., to interview Levon Helm, the legendary Band drummer and vocalist who passed away last Thursday at the age of 71, following a long fight with cancer.
Helm was first diagnosed with the disease in 1996, and for a period he lost the ability to sing. But by the time we sat down to chat at his home-cum-studio complex, Helm had recovered much of his voice and was preparing to put out an album, Dirt Farmer, his first proper solo release in 25 years.
Helm was painfully thin but welcoming, full of life, and, in truth, not slow to vent his anger about perceived past grievances. While petting his two beloved dogs Lucy and Muddy, the drummer talked about his new collection and his illness. He then proceeded to wander down memory lane. The encounter remains one of my favorite interviews.
It isn’t every day you talk with someone who got inspired to become a musician after seeing Elvis in concert, who got booed while playing with Bob Dylan, who was documented by Martin Scorsese and didn’t care for the result, and who got to battle the Grim Reaper and lived to tell the tale. Now that Helm has finally lost that fight, it seems appropriate to recount just why his passing is such a sad event for so many people.
Helm grew up on a cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Ark. From an early age he was taught the value of loyalty, of sticking by your friends. “If a guy’s barn burned, you had a barn-building,” he said. “If everybody pitched in, you could do it in a couple of days.”
“Levon would give you the shirt off his back,” Helm’s childhood friend Anna Lee Amsden would tell me. “When I got a bicycle, some kids threw rocks at it. Levon beat ‘em up for me.”
Helm tended to get misty-eyed while discussing Arkansas. Yet, when asked if he ever thought about following in his father’s agricultural footsteps, the drummer became convulsed with throaty laughter: ”Not a bit! I wanted to be D.J. Fontana.” Fontana was the drummer for Elvis Presley, whom Helm first saw at a 1955 show. “I got to see Elvis twice,” he told me. “The first time he played the Catholic Club, which was like a gymnasium at the local Catholic high school. Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black — a three piece. He was hot. He wasn’t famous yet but he was hot. I think he had put out, like, three records that I had heard. The girls were there, too. You couldn’t really hear because they were starting to act up.
“Second time I saw him,” he continued, “they had picked up D.J. Fontana. Man, it was rock & roll, then! The song which carried the night was ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and ‘Money Honey.’ Oh, boy, did they tear those two up. Sitting at the drums with a real good band — that looked like the best thing to do, the most fun.”
Fun aplenty there would be after Helm, then still in his senior year, started playing drums behind an army vet and rockabilly singer named Ronnie Hawkins. For his first gig, Helm got paid the not inconsiderable sum of $15. Hawkins told Helm that was just “hamburger money.” Soon, he said, they would be “fartin’ through silk.”
Helm rarely made enough cash playing with Hawkins to purchase fancy drawers. But he gained a wealth of experience, musical and otherwise, as Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks spent the next few years relentlessly touring. “That kid was gifted from day one,” recalled Hawkins. “I just put Levon in charge. He was the bandleader. And he’s got that unbelievable style. It’s just funky. He can do it on a guitar too. He could play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and it would be the funkiest ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ you ever heard.”
A commonly held perception of the Band is that they were serious, even naive, muso-types with little interest in rock & roll debauchery. This is a quarter truth at best. Certainly, in his Hawks days, Helm sowed his fair share of wild oats. “We were trying to get the free love movement started early, you know,” smiled the drummer. “We were always ready to make love and not war.” Ronnie Hawkins was rather less discreet on the subject: “Levon’s got an extra chromosome or something. Samson couldn’t have screwed that many girls in one day.”
One by one, Helm was joined in the Hawks by the four Canadian musicians who would eventually, with him, form The Band. The first to infiltrate the ranks was a guitar prodigy named Robbie Robertson. He was followed by organ wizard Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko and keyboard player Richard Manuel, a figure ultimately as tragic as the keening vocal performances he would deliver on such Band ballads as “Tears Of Rage” and “You Don’t Know Me.” The young musicians forged strong bonds of friendship. “Levon and Robbie became Siamese twins,” said Hawkins. “Levon could do all the s–t that Robbie couldn’t, and Robbie could come up with good ideas for songs. I thought they were gonna be another McCartney-Lennon.”
By the time EW visited Helm in Woodstock, he had long fallen out with Robertson and claimed he couldn’t remember when he had last spoken with his former musical compadre. Yet, when this writer contacted Robertson himself, he was more than happy to sing the praises of Helm. “I thought Levon was the most talented person that I’d ever met,” the guitarist told me. “I was maybe 14 or 15 years old when I met him and maybe he was 18 or 19, which is a big difference at that age. I looked up to him tremendously. Ronnie Hawkins was terrific and a great showman and a great character and all of that. But when you would see them play, even back then, Levon was the ace in the hole. Ronnie would hand it over to Levon to sing a song and to see him singing and playing back then, I’d never seen anything like that. I was just overwhelmed. And then, as I got to know him, I realized that he was just this walking, talking piece of music.”
“He had music running through his veins, you know,” Robertson said. “It was the real deal.”
Next: “Getting booed didn’t mix well.”