The great divide

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

"We were trying to be as musical as we could be, and I didn't give a good goddamn what Greil Marcus or anybody thought of us, because I was doing the best I could," he says. "I knew that in my heart. It was the best I could do, and I didn't have any second thoughts about it. And I'll tell you what it won for me--no matter how honest my intentions might have been, Capitol Records done just what every fucking record company has ever done. Fuckin' thieves."

He talks about how record labels broke up the very best bands in the world: Roy Orbison's Teen Kings, Elvis Presley and his Sun Records band, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, and so forth. As far as he's concerned, it was the music business that destroyed The Band--someone anointed Robbie Robertson a god, and the rest of the men could be discarded as though they were annoyances. There are old stories that circulate about how Robertson actually bought the rights to The Band's songs from his mates when they began pissing away their royalties on drugs, booze, and women. Helm has heard the stories and insists they aren't true--OK, they're "bullshit."

The way Helm tells it, The Band exists in 1999 just to prove it can't be destroyed--that, or as a cautionary tale. He talks about how he'd like "women and children" to read this article, how young bands need to be warned against signing to major labels that will divide and conquer them, how there's so much evil still conspiring against him. That may not be much of an inspiration, but at least it's something.

"We won't retire, and we won't die, and they won't come on and try to kill us," Helm says of labels. "We're just stuck at a Mexican standoff. If anybody wants to do something positive, fuck throwing bouquets at us--let's throw some cow piles at them motherfuckers. Let's give some shit to somebody that deserves it. I don't need to be patted on the fucking back. I don't give a shit. But I tell you what I'd do. I'd stay up all night and drink goddamned dirty water just to get to kick them son-of-a-bitches in the nuts one time. Me out there with the big stick. I'd love to hold the stick around them bastards, yeah, boy. There's where the hurting is.

"They're the son-of-a-bitches that don't pay nobody, and it don't make no difference how much time or effort or heart we give a record, they don't goddamned appreciate it. They're going to sell it, and they're going to cheat you out of it, and they're going to break you up as soon as it's to their advantage. They have to turn one player. Everyone should know that before they start building their band. Youngsters should know that they'll try and turn one of them. With us, it was Robertson. They turned one guy, and then the rest of them they sent home. Except we wouldn't go. We still keep hanging around.

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