“If Your Memory Serves You Well: Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and the Story of The Band

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Robbie Robertson’s recently released biography, Testimony, has more at stake than most rock n’ roll memoirs.  That’s because Robertson was painted as the villain in his ‘Bandmate’ Levon Helm’s 1993 biography This Wheel’s on Fire.  In an afterword to the book added in 2000, Helm was particularly bitter when recalling bassist Rick Danko’s death the previous December which he attributed largely to overwork caused by the need for money in the wake of Robertson’s ripping other members of the Band off.  So how do the two bios compare and which is nearer to the truth (if such a concept can claim to even exist)?

Both memoirs cover much of the same ground:  early life and formative musical influences, life on the road with Ronnie Hawkins and the ever evolving Hawks, touring with Bob Dylan, life at Big Pink in Woodstock, record deals and the final concert in San Francisco entitled The Last Waltz.  They differ in significant ways too.  Helm does not end the story in 1976 as Robertson does, but goes on to include subsequent tours, albums, triumphs and tragedies into the 1990’s.  Here lies “The Great Divide” (lame pun recognized by The Band fans) between the two former best friends.  For Robertson, The Band really terminates at the musicians’ waves so long from the Winterland stage in San Francisco; for Helm, Robertson’s departure was just one of many personnel changes, though one fraught with particular betrayal.  It’s not just the years covered that differ; Helm includes lengthy quotes from a myriad of people closely connected to the group while Robertson seems to rely solely on his memory.  A formidable memory is something Robertson seems to have inherited from his birth father, David Klegerman, and Klegerman’s mother.   Testimony astounds with the sheer volume of anecdotes Robertson includes; many focus on his brushes with huge names in the music business and the wider artistic world over the sixteen years he was a touring musician.  And while both of the bios’ titles are taken from the names of songs, Helm chooses a tune written by Bob Dylan and bassist Danko, which became a concert favourite of The Band, while Robertson alludes to a song off his eponomous debut solo album from 1987.  Look further and there is a bit of sub-text too.  A prominent line in “This Wheel’s on Fire” is “If your memory serves you well” and perhaps Helm is suggesting his recounting of The Band’s history is a correction to the version that Robertson and director Martin Scorsese mythologized in The Last Waltz.  Apparently, Robertson also feels the need to promote the veracity of his work; ‘testimony’, after all, is something given under oath with significant consequences hinging on the words delivered.  Helm’s book provides an index, something that Testimony sorely lacks.  And while Helm authored with the assistance of writer Stephen Davis, Robertson presumably went it alone.  Again.

The tone of both works is fairly jovial when discussing the early years interning with the Hawks.  Robertson was only sixteen when he started, and his biggest concern was whether or not they would let an under aged kid like him into the bar to play.  He was also driven to improve as a guitarist and he absorbed as much as he could from everyone he met, somewhat like Bob Dylan in that regard.  Life on the road created a real bond between bandmates, and none seemed to share a deeper one than Robertson and Helm.  This is made particularly clear in Testimony.  Though only three years older than Robbie, Levon became a kind of second mentor to Robertson, and the two opened up to each other about their families and upbringing while sharing those long drives between Arkansas and Ontario.  Helm’s work deals with these years more economically, but occasionally the added depth of Testimony is helpful, as in the context Robertson provides when explaining why the Hawks ultimately left Hawkins.  The immediate cause appears to be Hawkins’ unreasonable punishment of Rick Danko for having his girlfriend show up at a gig after Rompin’ Ronnie had warned him that mixing with the crowd during breaks was part of a gig’s expectations.  Ronnie was upset that Danko was spending breaks with his girlfriend rather than mingling with the punters.  Hawkins’ heavy handed punishments and increasing absenteeism rankled the Hawks whose musical prowess had evolved to the point where they probably felt they could go it alone without the Hawk.  After all, he didn’t even play an instrument.  He was an electric showman, a tested rockabilly singer and had a great many club contacts in Ontario and the southern States, but by 1964, the Hawks were beginning to feel that they could do without his rules and what was beginning to feel like an exploitative financial arrangement.

The books start to diverge in the post-Hawkins era.  Robertson exhaustively documents the musicians, artists and famous people that he had a chance to hang out with in the drug-fuelled mid-sixties. He also takes pains to demonstrate his loyalty to Helm in his refusal to initially tour with Dylan unless Bob included Levon in the backing band.  Soon  after, the other members of the Band joined Dylan on an extended American tour with plans to go to Europe.  Helm left in late 1965, to head back to Arkansas and then work for a time on an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana.  The booing from fans who wanted ‘folk Bob’ was getting to him, but so was something else.  In an instructive passage from This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm recalls a conversation before he left the tour where he said to Robbie:  “’You know, I’ve always had the same ambition:  to be our own band.  You had that same ambition too; that was the plan’” to which Helm remembers Robbie replying:  “’I know that, but Bobby’s opening a lot of doors for us, man.  We’re meeting important people, learning how to travel, making contacts that we’d never make otherwise.  We’re playing three nights a week against six…’”  Maybe that sums up why things were destined to go south eventually.  Robbie was ambitious and didn’t mind playing second fiddle again if it opened up doors for later whereas Levon wanted to be making the music that the Band loved and didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire of spurned folk music lovers.

The sections of the books that chronicle living in Saugerties, New York and the late night sessions that would eventually comprise The Basement Tapes and Music from Big Pink are fascinating.  Helm’s well publicized resentment of Robertson is that he unfairly profited off the Band’s catalogue of original songs.  In fairness to Robertson, he wrote the lion’s share of the tunes and was rewarded accordingly.  Legally, he is on solid ground.  But I think Helm’s objection is more in the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.  To him, the Band was one unit and there is no doubt that they worked together to improve the original songs that Robertson or Danko or Richard Manuel penned.  In fact, this sense of solidarity was something that set the Band apart in their music too.  Often in their songs, the main vocalist would shift from verse to verse.  They avoided publicity (itself a kind of strategy of manager Albert Grossman), steered clear of trends, refused to be pigeon holed into a band with a front man and rejected dense electric rock and record company entreaties in an effort to stay true to their eclectic interest in traditional genres.  So for Helm, it didn’t matter so much that Robbie wrote a lot of the songs, because their eventual existence as musical pieces was due to the basement give and take, musical versatility, and ingenuity of the classically trained Garth Hudson, the introvert of the group.  From Robbie’s point of view, as time went on, and some members of the Band came to experiment with hard drugs like heroin, their behavior became more reckless and they were less reliable as professionals.  Undoubtedly, Robbie became tired of having to round them up when they didn’t show for a rehearsal or a recording session, or wait while they recovered from the latest car accident or a range of other self-inflicted injuries.  He was also deeply in love, having met his future wife Dominique, a Quebec journalist, in Paris in 1966.  They were married in March, 1968, but even before then Robbie had been living separately with Dominique, apart from the other members of The Band.  By contrast, Helm had earlier married his long time Canadian friend Connie to avoid having to fight in Vietnam, a marriage which presumably did not alter Helm’s living arrangements in the least.  As Robbie grew closer to manager Albert Grossman, record executives and producers, Levon grew warier of these very elements.  Some have tried to pass this off as drug induced paranoia, and there may be a measure of truth to that.

Both books pay particular attention to the process leading up to The Last Waltz, and the concert itself, but the accounts differ so widely, you could be forgiven for thinking the two musicians were at different shows.  Robertson emphasizes how the concert grew thanks to guest artists not only accepting invitations but actively seeking a spot on the roster.  Testimony marvels at the scale of the evening, a product of Bill Graham’s determination to make the night unique with a massive traditional Thanksgiving dinner and pre-concert waltzing and Martin Scorsese’s ambitious plans to make the film of the concert the most technologically advanced concert film ever.  Helm goes into detail on the problems that almost sunk the concert before it happened:  not only were Graham and Scorsese at each other’s throats, but there was insufficient rehearsal time, Robertson enraged Helm by inviting Neil Diamond who had nothing whatsoever to do with The Band aside from the fact that Robertson had recently produced a record of his, Robertson tried unsuccessfully to get Helm to bump Muddy Waters from the show at the last minute, some of the best moments went unfilmed and the final film virtually ignored Richard Manuel and fixated on Robertson as if he was a solo act.  One can forgive Robbie for being tired of touring after sixteen years and being a little frightened that continued touring could lead to serious injury or worse.  But Helm documents a conversation around the time of The Last Waltz where after Robertson suggests that future touring as The Band without Robertson might contravene certain contracts, Helm furiously replied:  “I know big business is running this thing now, but if you think you have control over my life and you want to prove it, I’ll meet you in the morning with my lawyer…You may think you’re running the damn show, but I’ll prove to you at ten o’clock in the morning that you ain’t.  I’ll show you, you son of a bitch!”  Now whether or not this conversation actually happened as Helm has written it (Robertson makes no mention of it in his book), is probably less important than what it reveals about how Helm felt about Robertson’s decision to not only leave The Band, but to try and make it die with his departure.  Robertson decides to emphasize his disappointment at all four members of The Band being no shows a couple days after The Last Waltz concert when they had agreed to record “The Last Waltz Theme” among other songs.  What Robertson took for a lack of interest in The Band might have been more accurately a general disdain for “Robertson’s movie”.

One advantage of Helm’s book is that he quotes other people who were closely associated with The Band.  It is Bill Avis, The Band’s long time road manager who confirms it was Helm who insisted that if they were going to continue to tour with Bob Dylan, that Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson would have to be involved:  “’Back in New Jersey, we all had a meeting about what was going to happen.  Robbie was quiet.  Levon was inisisting that no one was going to get left behind on this one.  There was a pact among these men, who had already been through so much together…And Levon told Albert and this is a quote:  “’Take us all, or don’t take anybody.’”’”  Helm’s suspicions of Robertson’s financial arrangements are largely corroborated by longtime Band collaborator and music producer John Simon.  Robertson asked Simon to be the musical director for The Last Waltz.  Simon was excited about it, but justifiably asked Robertson about the fact that he was never paid any royalties for producing the first two Band albums.  “A couple of weeks later, a check arrives for sixty-two thousand dollars. Then Robbie called with some cockamamie story asking if, just for bookkeeping purposes, we could make this the last check for the two albums.  Besides, he assured me, The Last Waltz album would be so huge, there wouldn’t be any more financial problems after its release.  Being the credulous type, I signed away all future royalties from the first two Band albums—and of course never saw a penny from The Last Waltz.  I don’t think many people have, because Warners eventually charged the cost of the film against the album.  A lot of people got conned and you let yourself be conned because they were so attractive.’”

So is Testimony an attractive con?  Is Robertson, a self-proclaimed storyteller, really spinning yarns and ignoring the less attractive aspects of his past?  Well, one could certainly ask why he waited until Manuel, Danko and Helm passed away before writing his memoirs. Yes, Garth Hudson is still alive, but there is probably as much likelihood of the introverted and private Hudson releasing a memoir as there is of Robertson hitting the road to tour again.  Another question to ask is why Robertson chose to end his book in the year 1976, omitting the last forty years of his very active involvement in the world of film and music.  Is it perhaps that he doesn’t have an answer to Helm’s accusations that he was a no show at Richard Manuel’s funeral, that he cared more about self-enrichment than the well being of his long time friends in The Band, and that he turned his back on the post ’76 Band lineups?  Or is it perhaps that all bands eventually break apart and there will invariably be different takes on why and how.  Perhaps if this group had not produced such wonderful art and inspired such awe in a devoted legion of fans who continue to lovingly listen to the music, perhaps if the group had not lived within such close proximity of each other and demonstrated such respect for each other’s musical talent, then the question of whether Robertson betrayed the others would have faded away long ago.

When we look for the truth, maybe the best we can hope for is to continually inch a little closer to it, a higher degree of verisimilitude if you will.  Testimony adds to our understanding of The Band’s history, as much by what it doesn’t discuss as what it does.

2 thoughts on ““If Your Memory Serves You Well: Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and the Story of The Band

  1. A well written article, that offers a fairly balanced and sober assessment of both books.

    I just finished Robertson’s memoir, and plan to revisit Helm’s soon, I haven’t read it in ten years… I would say that the reason Robertson’s book stops at “The Last Waltz” is that it took Robertson 500 pages to get there, if it had been any longer it probably would’ve been harder to find a publisher. Robertson has hinted in interviews that he’s working on a follow-up that will cover the remainder of his life.

    Upon my initial reading of “This Wheel’s On Fire”, I did get the impression that Robertson came across as something of a cartoon villain, and I wondered why, if there was any substance to these allegations, Helm didn’t just do the obvious thing and sue Robertson. Still, I remember it having some fascinating, entertainingly quirky moments of its own, aside from all the digs at Robertson.

    But I don’t think the whole truth is to be found in either book. The reality is likely something much more complex than the extremes presented in either “This Wheel’s On Fire” or “Testimony”

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  2. I’m still perplexed as to why Dylan gave up on Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield for Robbie and the Band. Didn’t he already have a good thing going? Is that mentioned in the book?

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