I’m no rock music critic or expert
I knew Levon Helm only to the extent that one can know someone by virtue of spending a celebratory Fourth of July years ago with a gathering of 20 or so that included him.
I remember that Shalah shot a bottle rocket that nearly hit him in the behind. He darted clear with a high-stepping quickness and agility perhaps suggestive of his drumming skills.
I remember his leaned-back rapture that afternoon over the song being sung by a bird above.
I do know well people who knew him intimately.
So that is how it comes to be that a political columnist is doing a blog post on how Levon and Robbie Robertson did not, as a few published reports have suggested, reconcile their differences at the end of Levon’s life.
This is more properly a subject for a takeout by Rolling Stone, but, in the meantime, we can try to address these few mild flaws in the public record.
First, the necessary background: Levon, the purist of Americana music who came from Phillips County, was the drummer and dominantly distinctive vocalist for the seminal and influential late-60s, early-70s group calling itself simply The Band. The five talented members wanted to be all about the music, a rockish blend of country and gospel and bluegrass and blues and anything else they wanted to put in the stew, and about the collaboration that can produce genius.
Robertson was the band’s lead guitarist and most conscious and able in public relations (which is to say self-promotion) and business matters. He also was the most talented originator of songs. He would come up with tunes, generally, and Levon and the others — the late Richard Manuel, the late Rick Danko and the “music teacher” guru, Garth Hudson — would work them over and change them and touch them up, both in regard to melody and lyrics.
I’ve been told, for example, that Robertson concocted “Up on Cripple Creek,” but that it wasn’t working, and was about to be abandoned, until Hudson came up with some revitalizing touches. I don’t know that. I wasn’t there. My sources are Levon intimates. But I suspect that’s how the process worked generally. It is usually how the creative process works.
Long story short: Robbie ran off with sole songwriting credits, then parlayed his friendship with Martin Scorsese to get more camera time and content control than the other band members from that acclaimed documentary, “The Last Waltz.” He also got all or nearly all the money, through an exclusive producing credit.
You can read Levon’s candid and scathing account of his resentment toward Robertson in his book, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
This wasn’t merely a rift. This was deep. Levon refused to attend The Band’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’m told he would put his autograph on just about anything except any paraphernalia related to “The Last Waltz,” to which he would firmly say no.
So, anyway, word leaked out a couple of weekends ago that Levon was at death’s door with madly spreading cancer. And Robertson got in touch with a couple of family members to ask if he could come see Levon. After a period of considerable thought, family members permitted it on the thinking that there was a chance that Robertson might be seeking sincerely to put his own mind at ease over these differences with Levon, and that they would regret denying him that opportunity.
Robertson came by. But — how do I put this? — Levon was in a kind of hospice state, not conscious, not cognitive, not communicating.
Robertson went on to say publicly that he had “visited” with Levon and to express his undying admiration for, and alliance with, his beloved bandmate.
He didn’t actually say they’d reconciled, but a few press accounts have over-read Robertson’s public comments and asserted that.
But they didn’t reconcile. They couldn’t have — a reconciliation requires two active participants.
I’m not trying to feed any pointless feuds and bitterness. I’m just trying to say what happened, as it has been related to me.
The fact of the matter is that I kind of side with Robertson’s on songwriting — kind of, not entirely, because he could have revered the collaboration and shared — but not at all on the stunts he pulled with the documentary.