By Clark Collis
April 23, 2012 at 10:13 PM EDT
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

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.”

In 1964, Hawkins’ backing musicians split from the vocalist and began performing as Levon and the Hawks. The following year, Helm and Robertson played with Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl after being recommended by a musician friend of the bard. 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.

Eventually, Helm had enough of being berated by Dylan’s fans and he quit the tour to become a barge deckhand in the Gulf of Mexico. “That didn’t mix very well,” Helm said about the negative reaction many of Dylan’s followers gave their musical hero’s new electric iteration. “That was one of the main reasons why I had to leave early. Along with that I really wanted to play what I wanted to play, too. Playing with Bob was okay, but I wanted to play what we wanted.”

Two years later, his ex-bandmates signed with Capitol and persuaded Helm to join them in upstate New York. It was there, at the group’s West Saugerties 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 the southern roots of Helm, who would take lead vocals on such classic tracks as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Robbie Robertson, The Band’s chief songwriter, agreed that Helm’s southern background played an inspirational role in the group’s musical output. “When I first joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Levon took me under his southern wing,” Robbie Robertson told me. “I didn’t realize until years later how influential [that was]. Levon was so gracious in introducing me to things. The story of the South came alive for me. The mythology just crawled up from under the ground. All of this stuff I kind of stored up in the attic of my memory, and when it was time for us to make a record, these were the things that all started pouring out of me.”

”We took a left turn away from the psychedelia movement,” Helm himself said, explaining the Band’s unique sound. “Those long jams — we didn’t really like that. [We liked] short, kind of precise songs with a little bit of story to it. And we always tried to put a good chorus  in that could be sung along with.” The albums were received ecstatically by critics and The Band shifted a million copies, thanks in part to the Helm-fronted hit ”Up on Cripple Creek.”

In 1970, the Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine.The accompanying piece hailed them as “the one group whose sheer fascination and musical skill may match the excellence of the Beatles.” But various members of the group began to succumb to drug and alcohol abuse. As Rick Danko would later recall, “Suddenly we had all the money we needed and people were falling over themselves to make us happy. Which meant giving us all the dope we could stand.”

The feeling of brotherly love was further dissipated by Helm’s growing belief that Robertson was claiming more songwriting credits than were rightfully his. “The Band was doomed from the start,” he told me. “We actually taught ourselves how to grab songs out of the air and get them recorded and figure out how to sing them and play them. And by the time we learned how to do that, it was over. By the time we’d done that and learned how, then we found out the songs didn’t belong to us anyway.”

Helm also believed that, thanks to Robertson receiving the bulk of the authorship credits, the rest of The Band simply gave up writing material, which contributed to the inferior quality of later albums such as 1971’s Cahoots and 1973’s covers-filled Moondog Matinee. Unsurprisingly, Robertson remembered matters differently. “That’s not true,” the guitarist said, when it was suggested that Helm had not been fully credited for his songwriting contributions. “When s— happens to you, you always try to think of somebody to blame for it. It’s hard to take responsibility for your own stuff sometimes. I get it. I don’t have any problems. As a matter of fact, I just feel completely honored to have played music with Levon all those years.”

In 1976, the Band decided to retire from the road. 30 years later, Robbie Robertson would recall their retirement as, in large part, an attempt to save the life of the hard-partying Richard Manuel. “We were deathly concerned with Richard,” the guitarist said. “It became like, ‘Jesus, this is becoming so day-to-day scary. What do you do in a case like this?’ So, it was kind of a survival scrambling process.”

On November 25, 1976, the Band officially retired from touring with a final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom they dubbed “The Last Waltz.” The Martin Scorsese-directed documentary of the same name has become widely regarded as one of the all-time-great concert films. But it also became another bone of contention between Robertson and Helm, who believed the guitarist turned the movie into a showcase for his own talents.

The drummer was also angry about the depiction in the film of the troubled Manuel. “Me and the Last Waltz don’t get along,” Helm spat. “It’s a little bit too dishonest. A little bit too much smoke, and too many mirrors. That’s not what the Band was, or is. The truth is the truth. The Last Waltz is a rip-off, you know. It was never meant to be anything else.”

Robertson contended that Manuel was “in bad shape” during the Last Waltz recording and insisted “we did the best we could. This was scary stuff.  It was no more ‘Fun and rock & roll and wild times!’ It was, like, ‘Somebody’s gonna f—in’ die here any moment. We didn’t have the knowledge and the wisdom to really know how to fix anything.”

Robertson’s plan was for The Band to continue as a studio act. But following the release of The Last Waltz the classic line-up would never release another album.

Next: “It’s one of the magical gems of American musical history.”

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 signal that his solo career would never attain Band-like heights.

A couple of years later, he took a notable detour into acting, starting with an 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 who also happened to be a friend of The Band’s: Tommy Lee Jones. ”It was easy to say, ‘Levon, your voice is already a great instrument,”’ recalls Jones, who helped mentor the first-time actor. ”’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, 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. ”I like to say that he caught Sam! 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 once been hugely important rock architects, 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 hanged 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 told me, in a whisper. ”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.”

In 1996, Helm noticed that his voice was becoming scratchy; soon after, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Surgery and a course of radiation treatments — 28 in all — saved his life, but left him bankrupt. In 2003, certain that he was about to lose his Woodstock abode, the drummer decided to hold a half party, half jam session “ramble” at his house. “My idea was to have a good time before we moved out and invite as many as of my friends as I could,” he told me. “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.”

Over the years, Helm’s Midnight Ramble events would attract a starry list of guest performers, including Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and Mumford & Sons ,who just last month performed at the drummer’s house alongside Helms’ fellow Catskills resident Simone Felice. “It’s one of the magical gems of American musical history,” Felice said of the Ramble, just a couple of weeks back. “It’s a special living monument.”

The success of the Rambles was just one aspect of a remarkable comeback for Helm. Dirt Farmer not only put the drummer back in the public eye but also earned him a Grammy — as would his next two releases, 2009’s Electric Dirt and last year’s Ramble at the Ryman. The drummer even returned to the big screen, appearing in the Mark Wahlberg thriller Shooter and memorably playing a blind oracle in the Tommy Lee Jones-directed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Helm’s autumnal career renaissance makes his passing a doubly sad and surprising event. Although the drummer often cut a fragile figure in his latter years, his apparent victory over cancer had gifted him with an air of indestructibility. In a statement issued just before Helm’s death, Robbie Robertson revealed that he had been “shocked” to discover that the drummer was once again unwell. The guitarist also wrote that he had visited Helm in hospital and — as he had done while talking to me five years previously — described his former band mate as “one of the most extraordinarily talented people I’ve ever known.” 

Robertson was far from being the only rock luminary to pay tribute to Helm last week. Following the announcement of the drummer’s death, Bob Dylan posted a message on his website in which he described Helm as “my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.” Elton John — whose son’s middle name is Levon — described him as the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magical.”

To those of us who had the pleasure of seeing him singing and drumming — and smiling from ear to ear — at one of his Rambles, the idea that we will never have the opportunity to do so again seems utterly heartbreaking. But there is some comfort to be had in the thought that Helm was able to beat the odds by spending his last years doing what he loved doing most: laying down the beat and entertaining the hell out of people.

“I’ve always wanted to be the drummer,” Helm told me, after being asked if he had ever worried that his cancer might mean he would never sing again. “To be the singer never was my aim. I love to do it. But as long as I could just keep playing music, I was real happy.”

Read more:

Rock legend Levon Helm dies at age 71

Robbie Robertson pays tribute to ailing Levon Helm: ‘I will miss him and love forever’

Remembering Levon Helm: A playlist