Saturday, December 6, 2014

This Wheel's On Fire: A Fascinating But Flawed Book

Not quite finished but far enough along to throw my two cents into the ring regarding Levon Helm's version of his life, The Band and the roots of Rock and Roll. Born Mark Lavon* Helm in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas in the heart of "Tornado Alley" seems as far removed from fame as you can get, so it just goes to show where dreams can take you when you apply yourself.

In addition to being a musician with The Band, the team of musicians Dylan selected to back him on his first tour when he went electric, Helm went on to have a career in Hollywood, playing Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter, and Chuck Yeager's pal in The Right Stuff among other things. What gives the book its chops is his eye-witness experiences during the emergence of rock and roll, and the manner in which black Mississippi Delta R&B crossed into the popular culture.

Helm's account of life as a boy in Turkey Scratch is as interesting as life in Woodstock making music with Dylan after his motorcycle crash. The houses on stilts, the floods, tornados and the amazing synthesis of black and white culture in shared rural poverty where music carried the human spirit aloft all proved formative for Helm. It was a period of history that will not be repeated as the times changed for rural farmers everywhere.

Like many musicians who got the bug to play, Levon Helm hung out in places he was too young to be and began performing as a guitar player at a very early age. When Ronnie Hawkins invited him to play with his band the Hawks, Helm headed north to Canada to where their rockabilly energy set them apart from everyone and everything.

The story is told sequentially about how this band was formed, one by one brought on for their talent as other dropped off -- primarily to settle down because these were some wild cats. Most of these fellows came from rough backgrounds, not quite the starched collar kids from prep school, and they weren't afraid to mix it up when necessary (drunk boyfriends of the girls who they seemed to attract like flies.) After six years of performing -- in Canada, the Deep South and the Jersey Shore -- Dylan contacted them to join him in a world tour. He was doing something new, a 2-part concert in which the first set would be acoustic and the second electric.

The Hawks had been Ronnie Hawkins' band, shaped after the back-flipping leader's vision of what a band should be, but eventually even Hawkins dropped out for a more domestic life. When the Hawks were recruited to surround Dylan with sound, their name became what we now know as The Band. Being associated with Dylan certainly helped strengthen their cred and a record contract led to songs most everyone is familiar with such as The Weight, Up on Cripple Creek, and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

You know from the outset it's going to be a sad book. Helm begins with the suicide of Richard Manuel, foreshadowing the stresses their success would bring them later in the story.

(L to R) Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel.
As with everything in life, nothing remained the same as circumstances evolved. Success did not make them happy as drugs and greed got in the way. This book is Helm's version of how the whole thing fell apart. Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz, produced by Robbie Robertson, proved to be the nail in the coffin for the group.

Here's an accurate review of the book at Amazon.com by someone named Marian:

"Technical writing flaws make This Wheel's On Fire hard to read in spots, but the description of a remarkable collaboration from the inside is brilliant. Any creative person will benefit from reading it. And, of course, mild through his description is of the legal/copyright betrayal of the other four by the guitar player, there's a hard lesson on view for creative people."

I picked up the book for a little more background for Dylan's latest Bootleg Series #11: The Basement Tapes. Helm was there and pulls no punches. It sounds authentic and fair. The book gets mostly four and five star reviews at Amazon, but some of the problems I had with the book were shared by others a few times. Here's my short list:

1. At times confusing
The book is co-written by Stephen Davis, who frequently incorporates narratives and stories from other people who were there at various points. The problem is, on numerous occasions I didn't catch who was talking and it became confusing the follow. I got tired of the extra work required to try to figure it out.

2. A little too boastful?
I lost track of how many times Levon Helm stated that The Hawks were the best band ever, or statements to that effect. On one occasion he states that he believed they were better than the Beatles and the Beach Boys. This would be overlooked had he not also included numerous references to how good looking he was. (I may have been over-sensitive to this.)

The real power in the book comes from his candid assessment of the events that unfolded as the Band disintegrated. You could feel his pain.

And for anyone serious about a recording career, you'll gain plenty of insight on the importance of reading your record contracts and knowing your rights. All too often we can't see the dark side of success because we're blinded by the lights.

4.5 stars out of 5.

*Though born Lavon, so many people mispronounced or spelled his name wrong that he just went ahead and changed it to Levon. 
EdNote: Like all the members of The Band, Helm was a multi-instrumentalist. I have pictured him singing while playing drums, but he began with a guitar and took up mandolin while in Woodstock, among other things.
Photo source: Wikipedia / Heinrich Klaffs via Flickr

4 comments:

Sammy Fingers said...

Good assessment but if the worst you can say is that he bragged too much about the Band's talent or his good looks, then it must be a pretty good book.

Stephen said...

Superficial observations

Anonymous said...

Actually since Levon had quit the group early on in the tour with Dylan, he was not present for the bulk of the Basement Tapes sessions. They called him back when they began sessions for the Music at Big Pink album.

john carlson said...

The only person alive that can shed any light on the Levon , Robbie Robertson feud is Garth Hudson and he has never said a word on the subject. GH comes across as an eccentric genial fellow in every comment regarding the band or music in general. His comments are few and far between regarding anything. I'm sure he has been approached on countless occasions to give an honest interview on the Band, but there is nothing out there. Why has he taken this tact ? I don't think we'll ever find out.