April 10, 2020

FTV: Mark L. Helm – Part 2

     It is late 1967.  Bob Dylan is holed up in Woodstock, NY recovering from a serious motorcycle accident that had prematurely ended the tour he had been on using Levon and The Hawks as his backing band.  Actually, the second half of the tour had been just with The Hawks as Levon Helm had gotten tired of people booing his band for daring to support the new electric version of Bob Dylan’s music.  With his touring band on retainer during Dylan’s recovery, their manager brokered The Hawks a ten album record deal with Capitol Records. When Rick Danko called Helm with the news, he convinced Levon to join them in upstate New York to claim his share of the new contract.  We resume the story where Part 1 left off: The band is in the process of rewiring themselves from the great club circuit touring act they had been with Ronnie Hawkins (before Dylan took them on the road) into something different. They didn’t really have a plan other than play music everyday.  By the musical standards of the day, what they were creating really didn’t fit what was coming out of the radio. They weren’t even sure if people would accept what they were trying to do.

     As soon as Dylan was up to it, he began working on music with The Hawks.  He was writing an incredible ten songs per week and after spending the morning at Bob’s house, they would retreat back to the basement of Big Pink to work on their new songs.  The Hawks treated the whole process like a regular job and their new ‘band of brothers’ method created some of their most timeless music. Levon was impressed by the demos they played for him.  Having been away from the band so long, it took a little time for Helm to feel comfortable working on music with them again. It was also at this stage that they began experimenting with what Levon called ‘stacking vocals’:  “We’d always loved the way soul music groups like The Staple Singers and the Impressions would stack those individual voices on top of one another, each voice coming in at a different time until you got this blend that was just magic.  So when we cut a song called Ain’t No More Cane in our basement, we tried to do it like that, with different voices.  With those multiple voices and jumbled instruments we discoverd our sound.”

     In Jaunary of 1968, they were set to play behind Dylan at a Woody Guthrie memorial concert to be held at Carnegie Hall.  When they got there, the backstage guard asked who they were and Helm told him “The Crackers”. When they signed their new contract, they were referred to in the paper work as “Group performing as The Crackers.”  They knew to make a proper record, they needed a true recording studio guy to help them craft an album. They brought in John Simon. Simon had jazz leanings but his career took an upswing when he produced a pop single with a band called The Cyrkle.  They were one of a long line of ‘could be the American Beatles’ bands, and the single, Red Rubber Ball, went to No. 2 on the charts.  When he grew tired of working with good looking, marketable pop bands with what he referred to as, “not a lot of talent,” Simon followed Al Kooper’s suggestion to become a free-lance producer.  Simon later produced a Janis Joplin album and that is how he met her agent, Albert Grossman, who also worked with The Hawks. Once he was introduced to Dylan’s band, Simon was all in: “I loved them from the word go.  Musically I was locked into their thing the second I heard it.” It was a start of a long, productive association for all parties involved.

     Life in the quiet, upstate New York hamlet was very small town.  People there grew so acoustom to seeing the musicians about town, they simply referred to them as ‘the band.”  When this first album was completed, the liner notes were written by Robbie Robertson’s wife, Dominique: “BIG PINK – A pink house seated in the sun of Overlook Mountain in West Saugerties, New York.  Big Pink bore this music and these songs along its way. It’s the first witness of this album that’s been thought and composted right here inside its walls.”  It was full of surprising music but when it was released on July 1, 1968, it even surprised the band.  The album wasn’t credited to “The Crackers”, it was attributed to . . .”The Band.” The Band’s legendary status extended beyond the new music they were creating.  The Band’s members were also known locally for the large number of automobile accidents they had been involved in. Luckily, most of the damage done was to vehicles and not to themselves or other innocent bystanders!

     Music From Big Pink was an album I remember seeing in the record stores, but at that point of my musical education, it did not resonate with me.  Reading Helm’s book, however, I found out that I had been exposed to their music in my bands The Twig and Sledgehammer. Bass player Mike had brought in The Band’s rendition of a Big Bill Broonzy’s Key to the Highway to The Twig and guitarist Barry worked up Dylan’s Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood) for Sledgehammer.  We learned both without me having had the benefit of hearing the originals, but it now makes me feel more connected to what Dylan and The Band were doing during their Woodstock period.  Levon Helm looks back fondly at this period of The Band’s history, but laments that he did not realize at the time that Robbie Robertson’s growing friendship with Albert Grossman was going to one day cost him a lot of money and the loss of his band.

     As 1968 drew to a close, the band was being offered big money to tour.  Levon was fine with not touring while they concentrated on their next album for Capitol (which already had a tentative working title of Harvest).  As happens from time to time, real life changed the plan when Rick Danko broke his neck in a car accident.  Even during his weeks in traction, Albert Grossman kept reminding the band that he was fielding offers for seven and eight thousand dollars a night if The Band would go out and play.  Danko told Grossman, “Tell them to go on the road. I’m not the leader of the band,” but the band wouldn’t go out without him. The winter of 1968-69 passed quietly and when Danko could play again, they began working on the new album that would come out with a new title:  The Band.

     The Band was recorded in Los Angeles.  They rented Sammy Davis Jr’s house and Capitol records was supposed to set up a recording studio in one room of the pool house.  They had two months scheduled but that was reduced to one month when the recording gear arrived late. It was Richard Manuel who suggested ‘diet pills’ (amphetamines) to help them get through the new album.  They began assembling an album from the songs they had been working on in New York that would include signature songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek.  They hadn’t planned on touring but Bill Graham insisted that Albert Grossman book some shows with him which were then scheduled for San Francisco’s Winterland and New York’s Fillmore East in April.  Robertson got seriously ill on the eve of the first San Francisco show but Grossman would not let them cancel. They eventually propped Robertson up near the piano and they put in a less than terrific seven song, thirty five minute set,  It ended when Robbie could not continue and left the stage leaving both the band and audience feeling short changed. The next two nights were better with Robertson’s health much improved, and as Levon recalled, “It was the first time in four years we hadn’t been booed when we played.”  The New York dates also went well aside from the blinding shock Levon recieved from an improperly grounded mic on the second night. As The Band sessions wrapped up, Levon met Libby Titus, his first long time love with whom he would have a daughter and son.

     The Band agreed to play the Woodstock Festival in the summer of ‘69 because Dylan had agreed to play.  Dylan backed out and Woodstock booted the festival down the road to Sullivan County where dairy farmer Max Yasgur allowed the festival to use his land near the town of Bethel.  The Band had agreed to play so they helicoptered into the site among rumors of a ‘half a million mud caked hippies’ (as reported by Paul Butterfield), deaths (there were three), and births (two) that awaited them.  In the wake of the infamous rain storm that distrupted the festival, they went on between Ten Years After and Johnny Winter. When they were introduced by the ‘voice of Woodstock’, Chip Monck, “[There was an] inhuman roar from the dark hillside,  We looked at one another in disbelief. Garth was shaking his head. He started playing, and so did I. I played my cymbal and he hit the bend pedal on that Lowrey organ, and we had a little duet until he slid into “Chest Fever.” When their set was done, Levon continues,  “We got the hell out of there, believe me. We took off from backstage in a rented station wagon, pulled through the mud by a bulldozer with a short chain. It took off with us, got us through a field, over a couple of ditches, and finally onto some hard road. It took a couple of hours to get the fifty miles back to Woodstock.”

     If the period that culminated with Woodstock and the release of their strongest album, The Band, was their zenith, things were beginning to show Levon signs that the band’s road was about to take a downward arc.  There were more albums, collaborations with Dylan, and moves between New York and California that kept them in motion between tours.  Levon began to notice that the album credits for songs he thought had been created by the whole band were being atributed to Robbie Robertson.  Robertson was not only reaping what Helm viewed as a disproportionate cut of the band’s income via song writing royalties, he was also acting as the self-appointed voice of the band.  When Robertson decided that he didn’t want to be on the road any more, he was the only voice in the band that the press heard. When he orchestrated their swan song (that he decided would be called ‘The Last Waltz’), the rest of the band went along but not happily.  Ronnie Hawkins was on stage during The Last Waltz and attended a private screening of film.  Afterward, when he asked Levon quietly, “Was Richard still in the group when we did this?” he summed up the rest of the band’s feelings.  Robertson and director Martin Scorsese had edited the film down to what amounted to ‘The Robbie Robertson Show.” When the lights came up, The Hawk proclaimed  loud enough for everyone in the room to hear: “Hey, son, don’t look so glum. The {explitive deleted} movie’d be awright if it only had a few more shots of Robbie.  Haw haw haw!!!”

     From this point on, Levon Helm had less and less to do with Robertson and when The Band later reunited, it was without him.  He had asked Robertson personally about the royalties issue in the run up to The Last Waltz and Levon was given the run around.  He eventually did receive a check for $62,000 with more promised from the windfall that Robertson promised The Last Waltz album would be, but none of it came Levon’s way.  While The Band never regained their footing enough to make ground breaking music after Robertson’s orchestrated grand finale, they found audiences world wide that still wanted to hear the band.  Even after Manuel’s suicide at age 42, there was still a demand for a band that was down to Helm, Danko, and Garth Hudson. Helm still feels that Danko worked himself to death (passing on his 56th birthday in his own bed just after returning from a solo tour) in no small part due to the royalties he never received when The Band was under Robertson’s control.       Levon Helm had a wild thirty year ride and the music industry was ready to toss dirt on his grave when Danko passed on in 1999.  As successful as he had been and as strange as it sounds, Mark L. Helm said before his own death in 2012 that his last decade was one of the most enjoyable stretches of his formitable career.  There is more to his story. We haven’t even gotten around to his movie career (including shooting himself in the leg practicing his quick draw), his other touring bands, his successful battle with throat cancer, or The Midnight Rambles that are still taking place in his barn up in Woodstock.  That, as I often say, is a story for a future episode of From the Vaults.

Top Piece Video: Great song from The Band’s career, not a good advertisement for smoking – RIP Mark L. Helm!