Mark Lavon Helm (1940 – 2012) was an Arkansas country boy raised in the cotton picking culture that surrounded his boyhood home of Turkey Scratch. As soon as school let out for the summer, the back breaking work of cotton farming consumed his summers. When I learned that Helm started his farming career as a waterboy, I heard the late Donnie Hawkins of Ontonagon singing his signature tune Mule Skinner Blues in my head: “Waterboy! Hey, waterboy… bring the buck-buck- buck bucket over here.” The field hands working under the blazing Arkansas sun kept him in constant motion even at the young age of seven. By the time he was old enough to pick cotton himself, he had already absorbed enough music from radio to have ambitions of his own in that regard. He aspired to play in honky tonks as a way out of a hardscrabble life working in the cotton fields. Helm was dreaming but didn’t know those ambitions would take him all over the world. John Denver and Glen Cambell both sang about being a Country Boy, but Lavon was a country boy through and through. ‘Lavon’ is not misspelled heere – growing up he was known by his middle name. He was rechristened ‘Levon’ later by his bandmates because it was easier to say.
In his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire (co-written with Stephen Davis (1993) with an Afterword (2000) and Epilogue (2013) added to the updated version I read), Levon takes readers through his life in rural Arkansas up to his last musical adventures in Woodstock, New York. When I first spied the cover photo of Levon with The Band (and the subtitle Levon Helm and the Story of The Band), I assumed that it would be all about The Band. Levon’s account covers lesser known territory before and after The Band (as we remember them from their final act in the configuration immortalized in the film The Last Waltz (1977)).
The book begins with the death of The Band’s piano player-vocalist-drummer Richard Manuel. It isn’t a typical beginning for an autobiography, but it sets the tone. Levon is setting readers up for the tale to follow: there would be dark moments, not just fun and fame. While Manuel’s death on March 4, 1986 in Winter Park, Florida marked the end of that version of The Band, the group had already unraveled on several occasions before Manuel took his own life. The Band had taken to calling it ‘The Death Tour’ because of the pace they were keeping. They were playing gigs in small places hundreds of miles apart and well past their ‘glory years’. Levon summed up the irony of this unfortunate in-joke (naming it ‘The Death Tour’) in the book’s Prologue: “We tried to approach [this tour] with good humor, but I know Richard felt we weren’t getting the kind of respect we were used to. This was ten years after The Last Waltz, fifteen years after we were playing the biggest shows in American history, twenty years after Bob Dylan had “discovered” us, and twenty-five years after Ronnie Hawkins had molded us into the wildest, fiercest, speed-driven bar band in American. It had been almost thirty years since I’d left my daddy’s cotton farm in Phillips County, Arkansas, to seek my fortune on the rockabilly trail. For sweet, ultrasensitive Richard Manuel, the trail ended on a spring morning in Florida.” The ironic part? “Richard and I had been laughing for years at stuff that wasn’t even funny anymore, then he went and took his own life.” Manuel’s death did not kill The Band, just that particular chapter in their storied career. Right after the funeral, they went back on the road to finish the gigs they felt they owed the fans (a mistake Helm admitted, but it made sense at the time). We need to go back to the beginning before we can see where Manuel’s death steered Levon Helm’s life and career after The Band and before his own untimely death in 2012.
Lavon was not afraid of having a little fun when he was wending his way through public school. He was nine years old when he talked his daddy into buying him a Silvertone guitar, but being musically green around the gills, he would wait for the mailman (who happened to be a guitarist) to tune it up for him. Eventually, he and his sister Linda (on washtub bass) were winning junior high and country fair talent shows billed as ‘Lavon & Linda’. His penchant for winning tractor driving races at the county fairs would also come in handy when he hit the road with his first traveling band. Lavon’s musical education coincided nicely with the birth of rock and roll so he was able to see artists like Elvis and Harold Jenkins (better known to all as Conway Twitty) inventing his future life style. When his mother decided she no longer wanted her daughter appearing on stage, Lavon teamed up with a cotton farmer named Thurlow Brown. Thurlow was one of those rare musicians who could play anything he heard once. They became The Jungle Bush Beaters after enlisting a stand up bass player and drummer. Lavon was hooked on music and the sound of the lonesome train whistles in the night made him pine for the life of a traveling musician.
Another irony is Levon Helm ended up to be the only American in The Band. When he joined fellow Arkansawyer Ronnie Hawkins’ band, they headed north. It wasn’t quite that simple as Ronnie had to make many promises to Lavon’s parents (like letting him finish high school and watching over him like a big brother) before they gave him their blessings to hit the road. He was only seventeen and didn’t even own a drum set when he joined The Hawks. He had filled in a couple of times for bands whose drummers didn’t show up for a gig, but Hawkins needed a drummer and wasn’t about to take no for an answer. The Hawk assured Mr. and Mrs. Helm that, “Conway’s making good bread in Canada. Real good bread, and he says there ain’t no reason not to go. He says they’re starving for a good band up there.” It took some convincing, but Lavon started to play shows in the local area with Hawkins knowing that as soon as he graduated, they were heading to Canada. Lavon may not have known what he was doing yet (“I was just keeping time”), but the first time The Hawk handed him his wages (fifteen dollars!), “I was in heaven.” Ronnie didn’t play an instrument so he didn’t bother to join the musicians union with the rest of the band. Over the next six years, The Hawks’ gigs were booked under Lavon’s name. Once they hit the road to Canada, Helm was at the wheel and he quickly became Ronnie’s driver and right-hand man. Ronnie was the band leader, guru, sage, bouncer, and big brother to Lavon.
Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks worked as much as they wanted to in the clubs around Toronto and across the eastern provinces. They would then head south and tour the Arkansas – Mississippi – Texas circuit of taverns, dance halls, roadhouses, and frat parties. It was a tough way to make a living: “Some of those places we had to play our way in and fight our way out. There were a number of times things got out of hand. The Hawk had to tag a couple of people. Ronnie was fearless and didn’t mind tempting fate, and there were nights we were amazed to be alive,” was Lavon’s take on it. As the grind wore out various parts of the band, Ronnie, who was always scoping out talented musicians from other bands, would hire a fresher body to fill the spot. By the time The Hawks were ready to split from their energetic front man in late 1963, the members of Levon and The Hawks were all Canadian, save Levon. With Rick Danko on bass, Robbie Roberson on guitar, Richard Manuel on piano, and Garth Hudson on organ and assorted horns, the template for The Band was in place, but they were still Levon and The Hawks .
Levon and the Hawks added the New York-New Jersey metro area to their schedule and continued touring relentlessly throughout 1964. As 1965 rolled around, they had toyed with making a record with little success. They retreated to Arkansas to formulate a plan to get them out of the constant touring cycle. They met fabled harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson, jammed with him some and decided they had to find a way to get him to tour using The Hawks as his band. The plan never panned out; they returned to the NYC area only to hear that Williamson had died back in Arkansas. They declined a record contract offer from Roulette Records that had ‘swindle’ written all over it, headed back to Canada. They ended up getting busted by the Mounties just past the border. It had all the earmarks of being a setup orchestrated by Roulette, but the incident still put them on the court docket and in the papers. When they got back to the Jersey Shore, the tired band got a boost from an unexpected source. Backstage at a gig, someone handed Levon the phone: “This is Bob Dylan calling. Well, um…howja like to play the Hollywood Bowl?” Swallowing hard, Levon asked him, “Who else is on the bill?” “Just us,” Dylan said.
It turned out that Dylan just needed Levon and Robbie Robertson for a couple of gigs. After Dylan’s infamous Newport Jazz Festival set where he had first gone electric (and raised a major ruckus in the folk music world), he was anxious to take the new ‘electric Dylan’ even further. As he suspected, a warm up gig at Forest Lawn in New York and the Hollywood Bowl show produced mixed reactions. Levon let Dylan’s team know that he and Robertson would only repeat the experience if it included all of The Hawks. He knew what he was getting into, but the constant booing that greeted Dylan’s electric band began to wear on Helm. When he couldn’t stand it any more, he bolted home for Arkansas and the rest of The Hawks kept with Dylan’s tour (with a session drummer taking over Helm’s duties).
What does a road dawg drummer do when he finds himself off the road and without a band? Levon headed to Mexico and stayed there until his money was gone. He worked menial jobs until he and a buddy signed on to make some serious money working as deckhands on a pipeline laying barge in the Gulf of Mexico. After they dodged the Grim Reaper on a particularly stormy equipment retrieval mission to a drilling platform far out in the Gulf, Levon cashed his paycheck and headed back to Arkansas for what he called ‘the Cotton Carnival’ season. Dylan had left him messages (which Helm didn’t return). He laid low in Memphis watching TV and absorbing the Memphis sound for six months before he heard the Dylan and The Hawks tour had been derailed when Dylan crashed his motorcycle. While Dylan recovered, the band was put on retainer and their manager convinced them to move to upstate New York so they would be closer to Bob in case he wanted to do some recording. With time on their hands and the prospect of a new record deal with Capitol Records, the band bought a modest house that became their clubhouse-rehearsal space. The house was pink and would produce the music that would later be released as Music from Big Pink and The Basement Tapes.
Rick Danko called Levon and told him about the Capitol deal: “They wanna give us a couple of hundred thou, Lee. Better come and get your share!” When Danko told him the terms of the record deal (ten albums over so many years), Helm told him that he didn’t like it, but he still came to Woodstock and rejoined the band. Hanging around waiting for Dylan, The Hawks had some time to reflect on where they wanted to go as a band. Garth Hudson rigged up a simple recording studio in the basement of Big Pink and they began writing, tinkering, and recording. In Helm’s absence, Richard Manuel had begun taking up some of the drumming duties. As Helm worked his way back into the band, they developed a way of utilizing three main voices to give their music a unique sound. They became such a common part of the landscape the Woodstock locals simply called them ‘The Band.’ The truth is, by the end of 1967, they were no longer Levon and The Hawks, nor were they Dylan’s band. They really didn’t have a name, but we will cover the next phase of Mark L. Helm’s journey in Part 2.
Top Piece Video – A later version of Chest Fever from Music From Big Pink – could not seem to find a good version with Garth’s extended into – love that growling Lowery Organ sound – will keep looking!