The great divide

Levon Helm, the heart and soul of The Band, looks back in anger

It is too hard to listen to the interview with one of the greatest singers of the 1960s--too hard, because the Southern-boy twang in Levon Helm's voice has turned to mush, as though it has been filtered through granite and broken glass. The voice that comes through the phone lines is unbearably harsh, like static turned up to 11. His words are often incomprehensible. They collide with each other, blurring into this protracted, hoarse rrroooooaaaarrrr that becomes particularly painful to withstand when he raises his voice, which he does often. There are times when all you can make out are the expletives, which roll from his mouth like boulders, one after the other till they threaten to crush anyone who stands in their way: "I don't need to be patted on the fucking back," Helm thunders...or hisses from his home studio in Woodstock, New York. "I don't give a shit."

The 58-year-old Helm has been ill of late, though no one will say exactly what was wrong (most likely throat cancer), so perhaps that explains the demise of that once-beautiful voice, heard loud and proud on such immortal songs as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" or when Helm's Jack Ridley served as Chuck Yeager's voice-over conscience in The Right Stuff. Or maybe his voice has been drowned in the bile that creeps up whenever he talks about The Band--not the version he's been hauling around since the mid-1980s, the emasculated post-Robbie Robertson Band whose members supposedly danced their last waltz in 1978, then decided it wasn't enough. His anger is for that original incarnation which, in the late 1960s, made two of the most indispensable albums in the history of recorded music. The man could spend the next lifetime just clearing his throat. All that bitterness makes it so hard to speak clearly.

The occasion for this conversation is the recent release of Jubilation, The Band's third post-Last Waltz album and the one that most easily recalls Music from Big Pink and The Band. Though it's only an echo of such landmark albums--albums that blended soul with country with R&B with blues with bluegrass with gospel till everything old did indeed become new and mysterious again--Jubilation has enough warm, wonderful moments to make it seem necessary. Especially since 30 years later, there still exists no band like The Band, not even young acolytes such as Jennyanykind, mimics without meaning. Jubilation is acoustic and rickety, the sound of old men having a ball acting their age. Where once Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson were children constructing sounds from time-worn instruments, young'uns dressing up like Appalachian crackers just back from serving with Robert E. Lee, now they're folk musicians upholding tradition--this time, their own.

And for a while, Helm speaks of this in equivocal, gentle terms. He talks about how, for the first time since reuniting with Hudson and Danko and a slew of younger men called in to take Robertson's and Richard Manuel's places, The Band returned to Helm's home studio in Woodstock to recapture that "clubhouse feel" that made Big Pink and The Band sound as though they were recorded on a back porch in 1859. He talks about the choice of instruments--the dobro used by new guitarist Jim Weider, the stand-up string bass played by Rick Danko, the trombone and other horn instruments used by Tom Malone of the Late Show with David Letterman band. And he talks about trying to write and perform songs that would be as "long-lasting" as those on The Band's first two records.

Such decisions were made based on the fact that Jubilation, released at the end of last year, would hit stores exactly 30 years after the release of Music from Big Pink, the album that proved it was possible for four Canadians and an Arkansas refugee to make old-time, acoustic American music in an electric age. Levon had history on his mind as he and his Band-mates assembled the song list (the tunes have names that sound like old folk tunes: "Book Faded Brown," "High Cotton," "Kentucky Downpour"), the guest list (including Eric Clapton, among those invited to cut in during The Last Waltz 23 years ago), the whole blessed shebang. There is even a song, "White Cadillac," dedicated to forgotten rockabilly legend-in-his-own-mind Ronnie Hawkins, the man who hired and inadvertently assembled The Band in the late 1950s.

"We were trying to come up with some songs that would last hopefully as long as some of the Big Pink songs did," Helm says. "You never know if you're going to win or lose that one, but that was the intent. We wanted to try and come up with something that people wouldn't just get tired of by week after next. Hopefully, the songs would be fun to play for a crowd of people at a dance or at a show or whatever. Hopefully, the damn songs would last a little bit."

And they just might. The songs on Jubilation, especially Garth Hudson's keyboards-and-angels instrumental finale "French Girls," sound very much like the musical equivalent of yellowing pictures uncovered in attic chests. They're newfound vestiges of a bygone age, and to hear them now is to marvel at the shine that lies beneath so much dust. But Jubilation received as much attention upon its release as a whisper in a nuclear blast. Despite guest spots from Clapton and John Hiatt, the record has come and gone straight to the bargain bins in your local record stores, next to Jericho and High on the Hog, the two other post-Robertson releases that seem somehow hollow without his and Manuel's presence.

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