LEVON HELM'S TRIUMPHANT THIRD ACT
Helm's inner circle on his final years and plans to honor his legacy.
By: Steve Karras
Mark Lavon Helm 1940 – 2012.
We [The Band] went through the best of times as well as times that were full of pain and disappointment,” Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire - Levon Helm and the Story of The Band.
“But those bad times are important. They give you a chance to practice, listen, take stock, have a life, get your feet back on the ground, and maybe you’ll live to tell the story.”
Indeed Helm, who died on April 19th, lived to tell a story, though it reads more like a parable: the cotton farmer’s son who lit out of Arkansas to play rock n’ roll, whose storied climb to fame-and fortune was followed by an equally dramatic descent into heartache and uncertainty after a series of bad choices and betrayal.
And had he died in 1998, when he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer (that eventually caught up with him later), his story would have ended there--unjust and utterly tragic.
Instead Helm experienced an astonishing career resurgence, winning three Grammy awards in the last five years of his life, largely due to a tight-knit inner circle, including his daughter Amy, his fiercely loyal manager Barbara O’Brien, and guitarist Larry Campbell, who all rallied around to help the legend when he was broke and in danger of losing everything.
"I’d stare at the drummer all night because with those horns and that full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house." — Levon Helm, from his autobiography, "This Wheel's On Fire."
Their help also made a dream come true for him, one that was decades in the making, when his three-story barn at the foot of the Catskills in Woodstock, NY became a 250-seat venue. It was a place to finally stay put after nearly fifty years on the road- a place to make music with the musicians he loved most and for his fans he held in high regard.
Ironically, Levon Helm’s redemptive third act began at a time when he was without a voice (from surgery to remove cancer from his throat), in bankruptcy, and deeply indebted to the bank which held the mortgage on his home.
But the million dollar question remains: how could a living legend, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee, world renowned drummer, whose soulful southern twang lent credibility to such standards like "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Up on Cripple Creek,” end up with nothing?
Levon Helm was born on the Mississippi Delta, in Arkansas’ cotton country. His parents, Nell and Diamond Helm brought up their four children on a tiny hamlet called Turkey Scratch, on the edge of a cotton farm, just outside Marvell, Arkansas.
Southeast Arkansas in the 1940s and 1950s was as rich in music as it was cotton and young Helm devoured every bit of it. His earliest memories were of the big, traveling tent shows that entertained all the farmers in Phillips County. A favorite of his, F.S. Walcott’s Rabbits Foot Minstrels, featured a thrilling after hours set that made an impression called The Midnight Ramble- an event he’d successfully replicate later on in his life.
“Posters and handbills would go up in town weeks in advance,” Helm wrote in his autobiography.
“They’d set up with the back of their big truck as their stage. They had a nine piece house band down in front of the stage, a fast-talking master of ceremonies, a good-looking mulatto chorus line, blackface comedians, and singers. This was like another world for us kids. I’d stare at the drummer all night because with those horns and that full rhythm section, the drums always looked like the best seat in the house.”
Some Saturdays he'd even hitch rides with nearby farmers to Helena, and run over to the KFFA radio station to watch Sonny Boy Williamson’s popular King Biscuit Hour broadcasts and return home with Sonny Boy’s beat-keeper Peck Curtis’ drum fills and rim-shots still ringing in his ears.
Rock n’ roll exploded in towns around the delta and seeing Elvis Presley was enough to convince the teenage Helm that picking cotton wasn’t in his future. While playing in high school groups he met a local performer named Harold Jenkins (known later as Conway Twitty) whose drummer Jack Nance not only taught him fancy drumstick hand twirls and flourishes but let him sit in with the band from time to time.
And then he met The Hawk.
Ronnie Hawkins, an ambitious rockabilly crooner recruited Helm to join his band The Hawks. They headed to Canada in the spring of 1958 in Hawkins’ ‘55 Chevy where they became immediate favorites in clubs all over Ontario.
Over time, The Hawks’ original members returned to Arkansas and were replaced, one by one, by equally competent Canadian talent that Hawkins poached from local groups. By 1963 the Hawks consisted of Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm, the core line-up of what later became The Band.
They broke away from Hawkins in 1964, eventually backing Bob Dylan on his 1965-66 world tours. They set up shop in Woodstock, NY soon after to record demos with Dylan. The town enchanted Helm at first glance; the Catskill Mountains reminded him of Arkansas' Ozark mountains and Woodstock remained his home until his dying day.
The Band recorded 10 studio albums between 1968 and1976, and were a major concert draw worldwide. They made money, bought cars (and crashed them) and enjoyed the excesses of the era. But by 1976 Robbie Robertson convinced his bandmates that it was time hang up The Band for a while, at least touring, but not without a farewell concert. That concert was documented in Martin Scorcese's film The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz has been universally regarded as one of the more magnificent visual documents of a rock and roll band, one who gracefully bowed out at the top of their game but Helm never liked the film. It didn’t matter to him if their last show was captured by the world’s greatest cameramen. Calling it quits when The Band was still a solid, top earning road band was untenable, even if Robertson (also the film’s producer) wanted out.
It was the end of Helm’s and Robertson’s once-solid personal and professional relationship.
Helm’s life after The Band split was checkered; there were periods of activity when he landed movie roles, playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter and test pilot Jack Riddley in The Right Stuff.
Helm married Sandy Dodd in 1981 and continued to make great music, with Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars and his old friends The Cate Brothers. But a series of bad business decisions, a fire in Helm’s barn, and some personal setbacks followed.
“The guys had been in bands since they were teenagers and they didn’t have certain life skills that would allow them to be entrepreneurs,” said Happy Traum, a friend of Helm’s and Woodstock neighbor since the late ‘60s.
“I think Robbie was the only one who seems to have become a professional force on his own outside the performing business. With regard to Levon, he was a fantastic musician and a very smart, deep guy, but I don’t think he was particularly adept at taking care of his own financial affairs.”
The Band eventually reunited, toured, and recorded, sans Robertson, but their lack of financial success and being relegated to playing much smaller venues took its emotional toll on the group. Keyboardist and vocalist Richard Manuel, who had been battling personal demons, hanged himself in his hotel room after a show in Winter Park, Florida- it haunted Helm for the rest of his life. When bassist and vocalist Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999, The Band ceased to exist.
“I’m sure there were periods of darkness but I saw a positive guy all the time,” recalled Traum.
“He was just always striving to see the positive side of things. When his barn burned down he said, ‘Well, we’ll just build a better one’; When he got sick he said, ’Whatever life I got left I’ll just build a better Levon’; That attitude was pretty amazing to me.”
"He was always striving to see the positive side of things. When his barn burned down he said, ‘Well, we’ll just build a better one’; When he got sick he said, 'Whatever life I got left I’ll just build a better Levon.' That attitude was pretty amazing to me." —Happy Traum
Another positive to come out of this period was the strengthening of his relationship with his daughter Amy, who he enlisted as a singer in his new band, Levon Helm and The Barn Burners, as soon as he was well enough to hit the road. Up to that point she had only performed with her father a handful of times.
“The first time I performed with my dad on a professional level, I was 18," Amy Helm told us recently.
"I drove from where I was attending school in Madison to Chicago where the band was performing. I was so petrified that I made them put an amp next to his drum stool and they carried a microphone to me on a long cord so I could sit right next to him.
"Then in ‘98 he put a blues band together and packed his drums up, put me riding shotgun with him. That’s when I got my sea legs.”
Helm managed to stay afloat but there were some very serious financial issues that weren’t going to go away, and by the end of 2003 he was out of options. Then with his home in foreclosure, he made a phone call that would not only change his life, but also the life of the person he decided to call.
Barbara O'Brien, the administrative assistant for the Ulster County Sheriff, was well aware of Levon Helm’s bankruptcy and foreclosure troubles (it was in all of the papers) but she wasn’t yet clear about what he wanted from her the day she spoke to Helm on the phone. Yet she gladly accepted his invitation to visit him.
O’Brien, 58, relocated with her parents to Woodstock from Brooklyn, NY in the mid-60s. As a waitress in local restaurants over the years, she got to know Levon and the rest of the guys in The Band but he was just a casual acquaintance.
She got to know him better when she became active in local politics when holding various fundraisers benefiting military families. Helm was always the first one to volunteer and provide music for events.
“He had it in his mind that I was going to work there before I agreed to come over,” laughed O’Brien who recalled the first time she went to Helm’s studio.
“He literally walked me around in his unfinished basement with a flashlight saying, ‘We’ll put your desk there, put a phone here, a computer.’ I had absolutely no idea about what he wanted me to do. I already had a full-time job. On the other hand, I couldn’t bear the thought of him getting kicked out because he couldn’t pay his bills. I just figured if he was ready to turn things around then I was ready to help.”
One of the first things she did was help Helm organize the first rent parties in 2004, live shows in his three-story barn’s studio so he could begin paying off his debts. She also helped him consolidate all of his bills, and stave off the vultures from the bank.
Remembering the early rent parties, Amy Helm told us, "My dad had always envisioned these concerts and always wanted his home--which he built to exist as a venue--as a place to perform music and for people to come and watch shows. He was an incredible visionary in that way,”
They began calling the rent party performances, “The Midnight Ramble” after the tent shows he enjoyed as a kid.
The Rambles saved the day and with O’Brien’s help he could finally organize his life in a way to bring in money and build a business around the events.
“He loved that we were building a website, that he had company checkbooks, attorneys, and an accountant. He came to meetings fully involved and was a joy to be around," O’Brien said.
The next step was building a band, a task which fell into the hands of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.
“When I first met Levon in the early ‘80s he was a complete mess,” Campbell told us.
“This guy who I admired so much wasn’t living up to who he could be at the time. But to be around this guy you just felt good because his soul, regardless of what he was doing to himself at the time, always shone through.
“As soon as I left Bob Dylan’s band in 2004, Levon called me and said, “Come up and let’s make some music.'
“All he wanted to do was make good music and have a good time doin’ it, with no other agenda involved. If we made some money, great--and certainly starting these Rambles was an attempt to get himself out of debt--but the means to that end was only about playing music you enjoyed playing and for the love of it and that attitude was so infectious that it grew and grew. And somewhere halfway through that it occurred to me that we were doing something really important in spite of ourselves."
Campbell soon put together a killer band: vocalist(s) Amy Helm and Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams, horns, including Earl McIntyre, Erik Lawrence, Steve Bernstein, Howard Johnson Clark Gayton, and Jay Collins (Amy Helm’s husband); Jimmy Vivino on guitar, Byron Isaacs on bass; Justin Guip on drums; Jim Weider on guitar; and Brian Mitchell on keyboards.
A list of people that Helm really admired in the industry wound up playing the Rambles: Bobby Osborne, Allen Toussaint, Kris Kristofferson, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Louvin, John Hiatt, Robbie Dupree, Ralph Stanley, Mavis Staples, Hazel Dickens, Rhonda Vincent, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and many more.
Money from the Rambles allowed Helm to go into a bank and show them that he had an income. This was an important milestone. In the past, no bank would extend him credit or give him a new mortgage. Finally, the Ulster Savings Bank in Woodstock was willing to take a chance on Helm and gave him a new mortgage.
“We paid everybody back that he owed money,” O’Brien said.
“He remembered that he racked up a huge bill when The Band was living in Malibu in the early 70’s and he paid it all these years later.”
Cleve Hattersley, who managed New York’s infamous Lone Star Cafe in the 80s and whose own band Greezy Wheels played two Rambles in recent years, saw a remarkable difference in his old friend.
“Levon was far more protected,” Hattersley said.
“Barbara and the whole gang, the family sort of insulated him. Before he was just out there in the 80s. That insulation allowed him to enjoy his family of people. They had it so nicely marshaled.”
He recorded “Dirt Farmer” in 2007, followed by "Electric Dirt" in 2009, and then "Ramble at the Ryman” in 2012. All three recordings won Grammys.
On Saturday, March 31st, Levon Helm meandered, in his own perfect rhythm, onto a stage for the very last time to play a Ramble. He complained earlier that night of a serious headache and backache but didn’t want to disappoint his old friends in Los Lobos who were co-headlining that night.
Tony LoBue, Helm’s Ramble manager and web developer, shared his recollections about the last show.
“So, he played and when we got in the house afterward he said to me, ‘Tony, I wasn’t on my game tonight. I just couldn’t do it...it hurt.’ He went to bed and later on I checked on him and he said that he was okay but you could see the pain on his face.”
Helm checked into the hospital soon after.
“We all felt this was just a little bump and he’s gonna fight this, and come out of this, “O’Brien said.
“And when reality set in, that he wasn’t going to come out of this, we were numb. I couldn’t believe that if there was a God he’d allow Levon this roller coaster life and finally get him to the point where he was on top, and worked his way to the top, and that he’d pull the rug out from under him again.”
Before he died on April 19th 2012 Helm gave specific instructions from his hospital bed to Amy, Campbell, and O’Brien to carry on the traditions of the Rambles. His exact words were, “Keep it goin.”
“He’s gone, we miss him, and we wish he was back,” said Campbell .
“But we all built this thing on his initiation and although he was the centerpiece of this, everybody that has contributed to it, and grown into, has acquired the ability to keep it going with that attitude. We all realized how wonderful this thing was and what a shame it would be to let it dissipate and it’s certainly what we got from his spirit. But we own it now. We’re as qualified to do this as we ever were because we’ve absorbed the magic that Levon gave us.”
“It really was a remarkable thing that happened with Levon in the last eight years, a total resurrection of his music, spirit, attitude, everything. He was just the happiest guy the last years of his life because he was getting accolades from fans, respect from his fellow musicians and very fulfilling musical output,” Traum said.
“Also, his very positive association with his daughter Amy who is a talent to be reckoned with in her own right--that was such a strong and palpably fulfilling thing for him. To see him onstage with her singing you could just see the pride in his eyes. She’s a fantastically talented, caring and feeling person and she really brought joy to him in his later years...I’m sure always but it really came to fruition in those Rambles and in the concerts they did outside Woodstock.”
And though Amy and the others feel strongly about carrying on the tradition of putting on the Rambles (there have been at least eight since her father died) they are as motivated by the same urgency that led to the early rent parties in 2004.
Even though Helm was able to get a new mortgage there were $400,000 in penalties tacked onto the existing one and the previous bank wouldn’t negotiate it away. In total, $900,000 is still left on the mortgage.
Their eventual goal is to secure the property and develop it into music center, a place where children could receive musical instruction, where musicians could interact with other musicians, and attend workshops and master classes.
“I think there’s an incredible joy in trying to live up to my father’s musical legacy, for me and a lot of other musicians,” said Amy who is now on tour to promote her debut her solo album.
“He set a high mark of having a relentless joy and passion and just pure groove and spirit in his musicianship and I think that’s what people responded to in him, and living up to that, and carrying out his legacy and I try to emulate and aim for that in my own music. What a great thing to try and cultivate. I think a lot of musicians feel very close to him and close to that as well and I share that with them. But I don’t think of it as an entirely singular journey. It’s something I’m sharing with my peers and all of us who were influenced by him.”