The life of music legend Levon Helm -- We look the rock icon's professional success and personal lows, from backing Bob Dylan to his fight against cancer

By Clark Collis
Updated November 09, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
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On this fine September evening there’s one hell of a party raging inside a barn hidden away amidst the woods surrounding Woodstock, N.Y. Some 250 people are going nuts watching a band. The performers are tight; tonight they’ve even got a guest star from the world of television, Jimmy Vivino, guitarist with Conan O’Brien’s house combo. But most of the audience is watching the drummer, who happens to be our host at this so-called ”Midnight Ramble.” Though extremely thin and clearly on the wrong side of 60, the man is funkily pounding his kit while singing his guts out on an array of blues-rock numbers. He is also grinning like someone who has just been given as great a second chance as a person can receive. Which, as far as Levon Helm is concerned, he has.

There was a time when Helm was a big star. In 1965, he backed Bob Dylan on his first electric tour. As a member of The Band he helped to create such seminal rock tunes as ”The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and ”The Weight.” He was featured prominently in 1978’s The Last Waltz, which many regard as the best concert movie ever made (though not Helm, as we will soon discover).

Since The Band’s dissolution 30 years ago, however, Helm has endured a string of calamities, including the failure of his solo career and the death of two bandmates. Then, a few years ago, the drummer was diagnosed with throat cancer. He survived, but the illness left him unable to sing or pay his bills. In short, the 67-year-old is lucky to be drumming at all tonight at his studio-home complex, let alone to a sold-out crowd of fans paying $150 a head. The fact that he is also singing — quite wonderfully — is nothing short of a miracle.

It was Helm’s financial problems that caused him to put on his very first Midnight Ramble in 2003, following the realization that he was in danger of being driven from the beautiful property that has been home to him and his wife, Sandy, since the late ’70s.

”I was in the middle of one of my bankruptcies,” Helm tells EW a week after the Ramble. ”My idea was to have a good time before we moved out and invite as many of my friends as I could. We did that and thought, What the hell, we might as well see if we can’t make a mortgage payment out of it. So we started selling tickets.”

Helm is standing by a lake on his land. Below us, his two beloved dogs, Muddy and Lucy, frolic in the water. The drummer couldn’t look more contented. In fact, despite all the terrible things that have happened to him Helm seems like one happy son of a gun.

”You need to learn to see the cheerful side of things,” he says with a smile. ”If you don’t have a positive attitude and a little bit of music to rub on the hurt you’ll give yourself an ulcer or a heart attack. Or,” he adds, and now he can barely get the words out before exploding with laughter, ”finally go completely crazy and kill two or three people and yourself in the process!”

On Oct. 30, Levon Helm released his first solo studio album in 25 years, a rootsy collection of covers entitled Dirt Farmer. Helm grew up on a cotton farm near Turkey Scratch, Ark. ”If a guy’s barn burned, you had a barn-building,” he says. ”If everybody pitched in, you could do it in a couple of days.” Yet, the farming life never appealed to Helm. ”Not a bit!” he laughs. ”I wanted to be D.J. Fontana.” Fontana was the drummer for Elvis Presley, whom Helm first saw at a 1955 show. ”Man, it was rock & roll!” he remembers. ”Sitting at the drums with a real good band — that looked to be the best thing to do, the most fun.”

Soon Helm, a high school senior, was playing drums behind rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. For his first gig, Helm got paid the not-inconsiderable sum of $15. Hawkins told him that was just ”hamburger money”; before long, he said, they would be ”fartin’ through silk.” While his time with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks didn’t exactly score Helm the cash for fancy drawers, over the next few years, he gained a wealth of experience —musical and otherwise — touring the U.S. and Canada.

”That kid was gifted from day one,” recalls Hawkins, 72. ”I just put Levon in charge. He was the bandleader. He’s got that unbelievable style. It’s just funky.”

The commonly held perception of The Band is that they were muso types uninterested in rock & roll debauchery. This is a quarter-truth, at best. Says Ronnie Hawkins: ”Levon’s got an extra chromosome or something. Samson couldn’t have screwed that many girls in one day.” Helm slyly grins: ”We were always ready to make love and not war.”

Helm was soon joined in the Hawks by four Canadian musicians with whom he would eventually form The Band. First to arrive was a half-Jewish, half — Native American guitar prodigy named Robbie Robertson. He was followed by organ wizard Garth Hudson, bassist Rick Danko, and hard-living singer/keyboard player Richard Manuel — the latter a figure ultimately as tragic as the keening ballads that were his vocal specialty.

”Levon took me under his Southern wing,” says Robertson. ”He was this walking, talking piece of music. We became partners in crime.”

”Levon and Robbie were Siamese twins,” Hawkins remembers. ”I thought they were gonna be another McCartney-Lennon.”

In 1964, the band split from Hawkins and started performing as Levon and the Hawks. The following year, Helm and Robertson backed Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl after being recommended by a musician friend of the singer-songwriter. Dylan had just been booed by folk fans for ”going electric” at the Newport Festival, and he was heckled again at the Bowl. Yet Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, asked Helm if he and Robertson would soldier on with his artist. Helm’s reply? ”Take us all, or don’t take nobody.” Dylan took them all.

A 1970 TIME magazine cover story on The Band would describe the melding of Dylan’s songs and The Band’s honed musicianship as ”in some ways, the most decisive moment in rock history.” But back in 1965, audiences were unimpressed. ”Getting booed didn’t mix very well,” says Helm, who quit the Dylan tour to become…a barge deckhand in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two years later, his ex-bandmates signed with Capitol and persuaded Helm to join them in picturesque Woodstock. It was there, at the group’s house, nicknamed ”Big Pink,” that the quintet set about working on the music that would become The Band’s first two albums, 1968’s Music From Big Pink and 1969’s The Band. Both sets boasted tight song structures and an almost old-timey vibe that owed much to Helm’s Southern roots. ”We took a left turn away from the psychedelia movement,” Helm says.

The albums were received ecstatically by critics. Eric Clapton and George Harrison visited The Band in Woodstock, and their music proved ”hugely influential” on a then-unknown singer named Emmylou Harris. ”They are maybe the most original band to come out of North America,” says the country legend, who has repeatedly collaborated with Helm. ”Levon’s an American original. It’s funny, my favorite drummer is also one of my favorite singers.”

The Band shifted a million copies, thanks in part to the Helm-sung hit ”Up On Cripple Creek,” bringing unexpected wealth to this quintet. And as with so many stories of classic rock & roll, that’s where the problems kicked in.

With the money came tension, some critical failures — The Band’s subsequent albums never matched the five-star quality of their first two releases — and an ever-increasing, drug-fueled bacchanalia. ”It went from fun and very simple experimenting to hardcore stuff,” says Robertson. ”It was, like, somebody’s gonna f—in’ die here any moment. We were deathly concerned with Richard Manuel. But we were all involved to [some] degree.” Robertson says The Band decided that they needed to save themselves by getting off the road, and on Nov. 25, 1976, they ”retired,” with one last, star-studded show known as The Last Waltz.

Three decades on, what really sticks in Helm’s craw about The Band’s grand bow-out is the Robertson-produced, Martin Scorsese-directed film of the event. The movie, Helm believes, is a showcase for the guitarist, not The Band. ”It’s not what The Band is or was,” Helm spits. ”We had a lead singer named Richard Manuel. And, if you believe The Last Waltz, he’s the drunk that shows up about halfway through for about two minutes.” If Helm exaggerates, it is true that Manuel spends little time on screen. ”Richard was in bad shape,” Robertson sighs. ”We did the best we could.”

Following the release of The Last Waltz, the classic Band lineup would never again release another album. Levon and Robbie, once as close as Siamese twins, were now separated, and the break would ultimately prove permanent. ”I can’t remember,” Helm says, when asked about the last time he spoke with Robertson. ”Can’t remember.”

”I get it,” says Robertson of Helm’s anger. ”When s— happens to you, you try to think of someone to blame for it. I don’t have any issues [with Levon]. I just feel completely honored to have played music with him all those years.”

Helm didn’t just fade away after the breakup of The Band. In 1977, he released Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars, an album featuring such luminaries as Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Booker T. Jones — and Danko and Robertson. But the album only reached No. 142 on the charts, an early and accurate signal that his solo career would never attain Band-like heights. A couple of years later, he took a pretty notable detour into acting, starting with his acclaimed performance as Loretta Lynn’s father in 1980’s biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. Helm was suggested for the role by one of its stars, and a friend of The Band’s, Tommy Lee Jones, who mentored the first-time actor. ”It was easy to say, ‘Levon, your voice is already a great instrument,”’ recalls Jones. ”’And you’ve got rhythm, bud, you’ve got rhythm! So, the only thing you really need to think about is where that camera’s at.’ He was a very quick learner. He was wonderful in the movie, wasn’t he?” Helm also had a role in 1983’s The Right Stuff as a friend of test pilot Chuck Yeager’s, the man who first broke the sound barrier — and who also, during production, caught Helm smoking a joint. ”Ah, General Yeager!” says Helm, chortling at the memory. ”Boy, what an honor it was to be around him and to listen to his stories.”

In 1983, The Band re-formed without Robbie Robertson. For Helm, it represented another chance to do the only thing he ever really wanted in life — ”sit at the drums with a real good band.” But for musicians who had been participants in ”the most decisive moment in rock history,” touring as just another oldies act could be demoralizing. After a show in Winter Park, Fla., on March 4, 1986, the 42-year-old Richard Manuel hung himself from his motel-room shower rod. The Band struggled on but finally disbanded in 1998. The following year, Rick Danko died from a heart attack; he was just 56. ”Richard and Rick were great guys,” Helm whispers. ”God bless ’em. That’s why me and the Last Waltz don’t get along. It doesn’t honor them in the right kind of way.”

By the time of Danko’s death, Helm had developed serious health issues of his own. In 1996, he noticed his voice was becoming scratchy. Shortly thereafter came the diagnosis that no one, let alone a singer, ever wants to hear: throat cancer. Surgery and a course of radiation treatments — 28 in all — saved his life. But for years he couldn’t sing. ”I was glad I wasn’t dying!” says Helm. ”And by 2001, 2002, every now and then I’d have a good day and I’d sing a little bit to myself, and I’d think it seemed all right.”

Besides staving off financial woes, the Midnight Rambles allowed Helm to test out his recovering vocals before a friendly audience, sometimes alongside famous guests such as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. ”It was a great experience,” says Emmylou Harris, who played a Ramble in December 2005. ”The intimacy of it and the setting. But the best thing was the fact that Levon was there, singing and drumming like a god. A lot of us thought we were going to lose him.”

Today, in conversation, Helm can sound worrisomely hoarse at times, but he says that his voice is now more than halfway back to what it was. And he sounds great on Dirt Farmer, which mixes up comparatively new songs, such as Steve Earle’s 1999 ”The Mountain,” with a clutch of tunes he was taught by his parents. Helm is also enjoying a Tinseltown renaissance. He made a cameo in this year’s Mark Wahlberg actioner Shooter, stealing the movie clean away from the onetime Funky Bunch overlord. Meanwhile, Helm’s old pal Tommy Lee Jones cast him in his 2005 big-screen directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the pair will also appear together in next spring’s thriller In the Electric Mist. ”He plays the ghost of General John Bell Hood, Texas cavalry,” says Jones. ”He brings an air of authenticity to whatever he does.”

Helm admits he is ”still not sitting on top of the world,” financially speaking. But it looks like he’ll be sticking around for a while yet in Woodstock, whose rural beauty and small-town values remind him of the Arkansas of his youth. ”Woodstock really hasn’t changed,” he says, staring out over the lake to the woods beyond. ”That’s one of the things I appreciate about it. It still looks and acts like itself. It doesn’t want to be anything else.”

And for a moment it’s hard to tell whether Helm is talking about the place he has made his home — or himself.

The Last Waltz

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