Monday, January 05, 2009
This Wheel's On Fire
Over the holidays I read through Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, which details The Band's long career from the very beginning, when the drummer hooked up with rockabilly barnstormer Ronnie Hawkins, far passed the bitter end of The Last Waltz.
The memoir opens with the heartbreak of finding Richard Manuel dead, the wildness that always shown in his eyes as much as in his unconventional talent having taken control in the singer's final end, suicide by hanging, drunk as always, in a Florida hotel room. He showed no outward clues - other than the entirety of Manuel's always-on-edge life - of his intentions right before his final moments, having relaxed talking with Helm after a show.
In my classic rock soaked teens, The Band had an anonymity (perhaps derived just from their name, perhaps in the more subtle excellence of their songs, which hardly translated well to classic rock radio) that made it far too easy to pass them by. So I didn't dig into anything by The Band until after probably 50 other bands, and even then, it was only the Bob Dylan "Royal Albert Hall" bootleg series album that pushed me in the direction of Big Pink.
It didn't take long before I loved The Band as much as any band - the songs were that good - but it was the Last Waltz film, back in theaters (for about a week) in 2002, that really sealed the deal. I've watched the DVD countless times since, and it's not hard to pick out how much of a whitewash the film is, despite its greatness.
Helm's book really breaks down into two parts: a thrilling recount of the fast life of a traveling band from the late 1950s for nearly two decades, and then that same band tearing itself apart from the inside. That second part culminates with Helm's version of The Last Waltz, and the criticisms are heavy indeed.
For one thing, it was never Robbie Robertson and The Band, it was always The Band. As the creative team behind the film, Robertson and Martin Scorcese seemed to miss that most vital reality. As such, the other four members are relegated to the background, no one moreso than Manuel.
Where I sit on the whole matter comes from a careful effort to separate the greatness of the concert and the film from its fundamental unfairness to some of its subject matter. I don't think Helm's account of the dissolution of The Band and how their final concert was preserved for the ages distracts from my love of the movie at all. Frankly, hearing this other side of the story only makes the whole thing much more interesting to me.
Aside from that obvious score to settle, which makes for a tough read no matter how righteous the teller is in the matter, Helm's book is amazingly entertaining. I'm just sorry to have picked up the first edition, published in 1993, and not have been able to read Helm's thoughts on the death of Rick Danko, who passed away in his sleep in 1999.
Reading of how The Band outgrew Ronnie Hawkins and quickly developed a reputation among musicians as the best live band around was a rush, and having been a Dylan fanatic for as long as I've been a music fan, the insights Helm offers into his career transformation are priceless.
Helm's idyllic presentation of the early days in Woodstock are another gem, as he somehow sets the place itself, in both time and geography, as the greatest muse of his life.
It's no wonder that Helm still lives in the area, still records (remarkably so, after a bout defeating throat cancer) and has established what is to me the most fascinating series of intermittent concerts going: The Midnight Rambles. Maybe that'll be my next trip to New York...
The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (live)
The Band - Stage Fright (live)
The Band - Georgia On My Mind (The Last Waltz, unreleased)