By James Calemine
“It’s a wicked life
But what the hell,
Everybody’s got to eat.”
–“Goin’ To Acapulco”
Bob Dylan & The Band
Levon Helm’s 1993 book This Wheel’s On Fire–ranks as one of the finest rock & roll books ever written. Helm co-wrote the book with Stephen Davis. The story begins with Helm’s cotton-field childhood in Arkansas and leads up to The Band playing with Ronnie Hawkins onto meeting Bob Dylan, glory days and the eventual sad ending of one of rock & roll’s seminal groups with The Last Waltz.
Helm writes with bitterness concerning The Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson breaking up the group as well as venom concerning Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. The Band backed Bob Dylan in 1965 on Dylan’s legendary electric tour. Helm did not like getting booed, so he quit. The Band called him back when it was time to record in 1967. These sessions were known as The Basement Tapes.
Helm gives a first-hand account of recording all The Band albums with special detail to Music From Big Pink and the self-titled second album as well as behind-the-scene stories that reveal the price they had to pay to achieve success. Helm tells great stories about Ronnie Hawkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, his band mates, Albert Grossman, Bill Graham and Bob Dylan. Even Dylan wrote this about This Wheel’s On Fire:
“If D. W. Griffith’s movie was called Birth of a Nation, this could be called Death of a Nation. Torrid and timeless, explodes in the pure dixie delta dialect of rockabilly, the back beat of America, the entire landscape–wisdom and humor roaring off of every page, expertly written with Heart and Soul by one of the true heroes of my generation. You’ve got to read this!“
Fair enough. Helm describes collaborations with Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Eric Clapton as well as a long list of other luminaries. Helm also tells the tale of what happened after The Band broke up including other side projects, his acting career and the tragic suicide of Richard Manuel. The latest edition of the book contains a new Afterword by the authors. Helm shall have the final word about this book. His introduction indicates what kind of story the book tells:
“My story is recalled and written from my perspective on the drum stool, which I’ve always felt was the best seat in the house. From there you can see both the audience and the show. Along the way we’ll check in with friends and family, and I thank them for their memories and the ability to share them. In the end, though, the story must be my own, with apologies in advance to those I neglect to mention or damn with faint praise.
“Memory Lane can be a pretty painful address at times, but in any inventory of five decades of American musical experience you’ve got to take the good with the bad. So draw up a chair to my Catskill bluestone fireplace while I roll one, and we’ll crack open a couple of beers. The game’s on the cable with the sound off, and I’m gonna take you back in time, specifically to cotton country: the Mississippi Delta just after World War II. We’re gonna get this damn show on the road…”