The great divide

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

Robertson, in two separate interviews with the Dallas Observer over the years, has always shied away from talking about his intention when writing such songs as "The Weight," "To Kingdom Come," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "Rag Mama Rag," and the like. So too does Helm insist now there wasn't nuthin' to it--just some guys trying to make good music and have a hit record, if luck bit 'em on the ass.

But, Marcus says, with their first two records, there's no question the members of The Band were "demanding a new set of values...I am utterly convinced that from Richard to Robbie to Garth to Levon to Rick, they not only knew what they were doing but passionately believed it. They felt what passed for real music was bullshit. And I also think that the experience they had with Dylan in '65 and '66, along with their own sort of country-punk attitude toward the world they got as The Hawks, set them up with great good humor to be utter pugnacious and recalcitrant about setting themselves up against the Doors and the Strawberry Alarm Clock and every band like that.

"But for Levon, I don't think he has a clue as to how permanent his contribution to our culture is and how deep it is and how recognized it is."

The Band would release five more studio albums from 1970 to 1977, each with their handful of special moments, though none as revelatory as those on the first two albums. The end would come on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. They had decided to film a final concert with special guests joining them for the long goodbye: Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Muddy Waters, even Neil Diamond. It was decided that Martin Scorsese, quickly becoming Robertson's new best friend, would direct--and according to Helm, Robertson inexplicably became the star of the movie. Scorsese featured him in long, loving close-ups and made him the focus of the interview footage interspersed with the concert shots. Tensions mounted when Robertson insisted on the inclusion of Diamond--Robbie had just produced The Jazz Singer's 1976 schlock-rock masterpiece, Beautiful Noise--and suggested Levon cut Muddy Waters in order to shorten the running time. Or so the story goes.

When Helm talks about The Last Waltz now, he does so with disgust, accusing Robertson of lip-synching his way through the concert--in fact, he was openly just mouthing the words, and the record was overdubbed--and of collaborating with "Score-eatzi" to steal the movie from the other four members of The Band.

"I don't want Muddy Waters' family to think that I'm getting a fucking nickel out of The Last Waltz," Helm says. "Because I know they've been fucked from the very beginning, and I want them to know that I have too. It was Robertson and Score-eatzi and that fucking crowd of thieves that got paid for The Last Waltz, and they still get paid, I guess. I've never gotten a check for it in my life.

"And you'd be surprised how many people see The Last Waltz and they look up there and they see Robertson up there pantomiming, acting his ass off, and they actually think he's making music. They think he's singing, he's making all that music--a little bit of smoke and mirrors, and they think, 'Goddamn, I'm seeing the real fucking thing, right there in front of my eyes.' And it's the biggest bunch of bullshit in the world."

When The Band said farewell, it appeared to be for good: Robertson went to work assembling soundtracks for Scorsese films; Hudson and Danko made their own music. And Helm cut some solo records, played with the RCO All-Stars, wrote a nasty, now-out-of-print autobiography, and appeared in such films as Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff.

But in 1982, Danko and Helm met in Woodstock and recorded together; eventually, Hudson and Manuel were brought back in. Robertson either wasn't asked or he wasn't interested--most likely, both. Four years later, during a tour in the middle of Florida, Manuel went to his motel room and strung himself up from the ceiling. He killed himself rather than suffer through one more show as an emasculated version of a legend. Better to end it than live on the road as a lower-case band paying homage to The Band. But Helm, Hudson, and Danko kept on, eventually recording Jericho in 1993 and High on the Hog in 1996. Today, they sell at discounted prices even in the shrink-wrap.

But Helm keeps on: Just a few weeks ago, he opened a club in New Orleans, and he records with local bands around Woodstock, including an outfit called Crowmatix. Jubilation may well transcend the pain and suffering of the past 20 years--the disintegration of friendships, the death of comrades, the whole bloody mess of it. But Helm can't bring himself to talk about his love for music; he says it's there, all right, but hidden behind the regrets and the empty bank accounts and his hatred for the record labels that robbed him and, yes, broke up The Band.

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