A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer just happy to play drums in a blues band

Levon Helm at the drums

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 17, 2002) – Few people have been playing rock ‘n’ roll music for as long as Levon Helm – who got his start as a teenager backing up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the late-1950s. And few can claim to have had as significant and lasting a legacy as the drummer and former singer with The Band, whose work on their own and with Bob Dylan has garnered them widespread acknowledgement as one of the greatest rock groups of all time.

Yet even fewer people with resumes like Helm’s are as willing as the 62-year-old survivor of throat cancer to shrug it all off with a big “so what” and plunge back into the juke joints out of the limelight just to play the blues.

“We play delta blues for the most part,” said Helm, speaking about his current band -- which comes to Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 9 -- in a phone interview from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., earlier this week.

“There’s some other rock and roll flavors in there I’m sure, but for the most part that’s what we like -- Muddy Waters and Little Walter and Ray Charles. I love Ray Charles -- he’s like Robert Johnson or Bill Monroe. Ray Charles is the king.”

A lot of people would group Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Helm in with those legendary figures. And almost no one would turn his back on The Band’s catalog of unforgettable songs like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

But don’t come to Club Helsinki on Saturday night expecting to hear Helm sing those or any songs from The Band’s catalog.

“We don’t do any of those songs,” he said. “We’ve been playing now for the last four or five years. We’ve never done any Band stuff. I appreciate that some of the people remember it. But that was then, and this is now. It’s time to get down here. Let’s not try to rest on our laurels here.”

Presumably part of Helm’s reluctance to play songs by The Band has to do with his long-simmering feud with the group’s guitarist and chief songwriter, Robbie Robertson. In his 1993 autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Helm criticizes Robertson for unfairly taking full writing credit for most of The Band’s songs, and disparages his work with Martin Scorsese on the critically-acclaimed documentary film, “The Last Waltz.”

“I think it’s a flat-out disgrace,” said Helm about the movie, which documented the group’s all-star-studded farewell performance in 1976, and which was re-released theatrically and on home DVD this past year. “It’s pretty much the celebration of the dissolving of The Band, and it’s pretty much what Robertson and Scorsese makes out of it for themselves.

“It had nothing to do with what The Band used to do. It’s the Robbie Robertson show, with him being the star of the show. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -- it would be OK if there were a few more shots of Robbie. He’s just burdened by greatness, and it’s a hell of a role to play.

“I think it’s awful, and he’s a blowhard on top of it. So you can tell them all that.”

It’s somewhat ironic, however, that Helm refuses to sing the songs that made him famous – songs that he claims Robertson didn’t write in the first place – and that the film Helm loves to hate launched him on his second career as a film actor, with critically acclaimed roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Right Stuff.”

Helm admits to fondness for film work – “it’s nice work when you can get it, I loved doing it, I had a good time every time, I want to do that some more,” he said – yet arguably had the cursed “Last Waltz” never happened, Hollywood would never have come calling.

But there’s also a kind of logical symmetry in Helm coming full circle and winding up his career playing roadhouse blues music as the drummer in a relatively anonymous, regional bar band.

“I grew up down in Philips County, Arkansas, on a cotton farm, and had the advantage of hearing the King Biscuit radio show every day at 12:30,” said Helm, whose bandmates in the Barn Burners include singer/mouth harpist Chris O’Leary, guitarist Pat O’Shea and bassist Jeff Sarli.

“Sonny Boy Williamson got me hooked early on the sound of harmonica,” said Helm. “I never missed a radio show. They were on every day on KFFA out of Helena. And every Saturday they would go around the county and stop by the railroad station and set up on the loading dock at the depot and play a little music set, and boy they were good.”

After 28 radiation treatments at Sloan Kettering in New York, Helm doesn’t sing any more. But even that doesn’t bother him. “I’ve never enjoyed playing drums any more than I do now,” he said. “I’ve sort of come full circle in that regard, too. I started out years ago wanting to be a drummer, and along the way I got into taking my turn on vocals. When Richard [Manuel] would get tired, I would sing one, or when Ronnie Hawkins would need a breather.

“Over the years I ended up singing a few songs, but I’m happier just being the drummer. That’s my first choice.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 20, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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