The great divide

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

But Helm will not give up the good fight even in the face of dwindling album sales that often threaten to tarnish the legend. In fact, he partially admits that The Band exists in 1999 just to spite those who said it couldn't, shouldn't, be done--Capitol Records, The Band's home in the '60s and '70s; the critics whose adoration turned to vilification in the 1990s; and especially Robbie Robertson, who was blamed for the death of The Band and is now the head of A&R at DreamWorks Records. Helm doesn't even mention his old buddy by his first name, referring to him instead only as Robertson--as though he's a stranger, someone he never much cared for or, more accurately, someone he is convinced plunged a knife in his back and left it there. The wound has not yet healed--it likely never will. There's blood on the tracks and everywhere else.

And here is where it all falls apart, just a few minutes into the interview...and it was all going so well. As he's talking about Jubilation (and perhaps never was an album so ironically titled), Helm suddenly begins lapsing into expletives, never-ending rants. His voice rises. His words sound as though they're covered in grit and metal shards. He goes immediately from talking about how he hopes "lightning will strike the same place more than once" to how record labels ain't nuthin' but a bunch of "cheap sons of bitches" who'll goddamned ruin the hard-workin' man.

Just like that, the man whose absolutely beautiful voice carried "The Weight" all those years ago, who went "Up on Cripple Creek" and was there "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," turns into the last angry man in rock and roll. All joy leaves his voice, all sense of accomplishment and pride disappears. Suddenly, Levon Helm becomes so angry he stops talking about music and instead turns his attention to those who ruined music for him. Every sentence is laced with venom as he insists he's never been paid for The Last Waltz (the Martin Scorsese-directed film or the three-album soundtrack, released on Warner Bros. Records) or Across the Great Divide, the three-CD boxed set Band retrospective Capitol released in 1994.

"We don't get any royalties for The Last Waltz," Helm repeats so often during the interview. "That's the biggest rip-off that ever happened to The Band. Put that in your fucking write-up. I ain't kidding you. If you got a lawyer that can sue the motherfuckers--I ain't got that money myself--and knows how to sue them, you tell him I'll split it with him. They're fucking thieves."

And then Helm's story deteriorates into the sad, familiar tale of the rock and roll hero who finds himself standing alone, with empty pockets to show for all his hard work. It's a story recounted time and again by bluesmen and rock pioneers, black men and white women, and Helm tells it with so many years of accrued bitterness wearing on him. He's nearly buried beneath the weight of such absolute hatred.

He is told that it's absolutely inconceivable that The Band received no money for The Last Waltz. And he becomes livid, misunderstanding it to mean: You're lying.

"Shit, man, come on," he barks. "Do you think that Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Little Richard and all these guys that have been making records, ya think they're bullshittin' you? You think they lost the fucking money? Or you thought us being white, maybe we didn't get fucked as bad? Hey, let me tell you something, son--a nigger's a nigger to these motherfuckers. It's got nothing to do with color."

And it gets worse.

It shouldn't have ended this way--not in a heap of profanities, not in such acrimony. Robertson and Helm were once the best of friends, and it was Helm who introduced the Canadian-born Robbie to the exotic sounds of the Deep South when they were both very young men. Levon took Robbie to Arkansas in the early 1960s, introduced him to gospel music and field hollers, allowed him to feel music he had just once heard. And Levon let Robbie meet his old man, who told Robbie that the South would indeed rise again.

They hooked up almost 40 years ago, when Helm--who, at the age of 17, drummed behind Conway Twitty's kit--went north with Ronnie Hawkins and, one by one, recruited Robertson, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson, the final man to join at the end of 1961. Back then, the boys were known as The Hawks, learning their instruments as they played one-two-three-four barroom rockabilly behind their overbearing leader.

It wouldn't take long for The Hawks to outgrow Hawkins. On the three-CD bootleg Crossing the Great Divide: 1961-1991, Helm sings "She's Nineteen" (recorded on September 18, 1961) with The Hawks backing him, and the song's more powerful than anything Hawkins himself would release on the Roulette label from 1959 to '63. Levon was 21 then, finding his voice, confidently learning how to mix the sweet-soul vocals of his youth with that magnificent gruff gospel-growl that would appear on Music from Big Pink. But even then, you could hear his bandmates playing something more than just blues-rock--Robertson's guitar twists and turns in on itself, like Muddy Waters holding the instrument for the first time in his life. By 1964, The Hawks found they didn't need their namesake anymore and split (or were fired for not paying a $50 fine for bringing girlfriends to a club), and recorded here and there as Levon and The Hawks and the Canadian Squires. One surviving Squires single--"Leave Me Alone," recorded in 1964 and also available on the bootleg set--sounds like every other rock song from the period, a hand-jive raver with Helm sounding very much like a white boy singing black.

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