The mythology of rock bands is full of contradictions, which have become fixed as the core audience for rock music has aged from adolescence to adulthood and now into old age. Many of the great bands balance two archetypes—for instance, the cerebral Pete Townshend and the working-class tough guy Roger Daltrey in the Who, or sunny blond flower child Robert Plant and dark-haired occultist Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin. This allows self-serious fans to reject one while expressing devotion to the other. It is not uncommon to hear baby-boomers of a certain disposition say they can’t stand Mick Jagger, but they love the Rolling Stones because of Keith Richards. Fill in Bono and the Edge, or Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Lennon complained, post-Beatles, that McCartney stepped into the role of schoolmaster after the group’s manager Brian Epstein died in 1967. Paul would summon the other three Beatles to the studio, announcing it was time to get back to work. Ringo Starr has joked that he and Lennon would be enjoying themselves at home when the phone would ring; they would look at each other and know it was Paul, calling to end their fun.
Lennon also complained that McCartney would have a bunch of new songs written, forcing him to scramble to write some tunes of his own. This helped fix the perception that John was the rebel and Paul the clock-puncher. It’s more likely that Paul simply wrote songs all the time and John needed deadline pressure to pick up his guitar.
Thank God for McCartney
If we accept Lennon’s premise that McCartney forced, cajoled, or nagged the Beatles back into the studio in their final years, thank God for Paul McCartney. Between early 1967 and September of 1969 the Beatles, under Paul’s rigorous schedule, recorded Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Let It Be, and Abbey Road.
The same sort of credit must go to Mick Jagger, whose business acumen made all the members of the Rolling Stones wealthy, gave them ownership of their post-60s master tapes, and who has maintained his position as rock’s greatest front man well into his 70s—allowing the Stones to fill stadiums and mint new fortunes while many of their 1960s peers worked the oldies circuit. Keith Richards’s musical talent is equal to Jagger’s, but it is reasonable to suppose that if Jagger had not taken over the band’s business affairs in the early 70s, Richards would be swaggering in greatly reduced circumstances today. You don’t have to love Mick Jagger to love the Rolling Stones—although millions do—but you do owe him some gratitude.
If Jagger hadn’t taken over the Stones’ business affairs, Richards might be swaggering in greatly reduced circumstances today.
Which leads us to Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson of the Band, the group that came into the spotlight backing up Bob Dylan in the mid-60s, moved up to Woodstock, New York, and soon released two albums—Music from Big Pink, in 1968, and The Band, in 1969—whose influence is hard to exaggerate. Combining elements of country-music rusticism, gospel harmonies, rock ’n’ roll guitar and keyboard solos, and a funky rhythm section, the Band pretty much abolished the psychedelic-rock movement. Eric Clapton and George Harrison traveled to Woodstock to pay homage to them. Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison arrived to share the waters from the well of their inspiration. Once the Band arrived, ruffled shirts and multi-colored bell-bottoms were out—hats and beards were in. From My Morning Jacket to Wilco to Mumford & Sons, their influence lives on.
The Band were four Canadians and one Arkansan who had come up the hard way, playing years of gigs in tough bars from the Deep South to Toronto. To all appearances they were a band of brothers. Levon Helm sang, played drums, and sometimes switched to mandolin or guitar. Richard Manuel sang and played piano, and sometimes switched to drums. Rick Danko sang and played bass and occasionally fiddle. Garth Hudson played organ, piano, accordion, and sometimes saxophone. Robbie Robertson played guitar and wrote most of the songs.
Pause on the last part. Robbie Robertson wrote most of the songs. The Band were a musical group of five equals, and as long as they were playing covers in bars or backing up Dylan or Ronnie Hawkins, the brotherhood was unbreakable. But once they began recording under their own name, Robertson’s authority grew. So did his bank account. The composer’s money is usually the biggest chunk of income for a recording act.
Acclaim and Influence
And what songs Robertson wrote—“The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag, Mama Rag,” “It Makes No Difference,” and so many others, raising the Band to a level of acclaim and influence few rock artists ever achieved. He did a great job, and for some time everyone was happy with the arrangement.
But by 1976, the Band was staggering. Success had led to an excess of drinking, drugging, and smashing up cars. Manuel’s depression and alcoholism made him almost non-functioning. Helm battled heroin. Tours became infrequent and shows were often canceled. Robertson once told me that Band recording sessions would be scheduled and he would be the only one to show up.
The Band was in danger of fizzling out, so Robertson—always the member with the best instinct for public relations—sold his partners on a big idea. They would go out with a big concert to be called “The Last Waltz.” It would feature guests like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. It would be recorded for a triple album and filmed by Martin Scorsese. The Band had never enjoyed record sales commensurate with their influence. The Last Waltz would create a permanent monument to them and secure their place among rock’s greatest artists for all time.
Robertson’s idea worked. The Last Waltz is one of the greatest concert movies and maybe the best rock documentary ever made. No one remembers that the Band were playing midsize theaters on their final tour. They have gone down as one of the most important groups in rock history, as they deserve.
Across the Great Divide
But you can’t live on being a legend. The members of the Band were still young men. The money lasted a while, but eventually they all had to go back to work, and although they made solo albums and played shows, 10 years after the breakup it was clear to everybody that there was a lot more money in going out as the Band than there was in going out as Levon Helm’s RCO All-Stars, or as Danko & Manuel. Inevitably, Robertson was asked about putting the Band back together. He pointed out that The Last Waltz had been a pretty definitive farewell. “What are we going to say?” he asked. “Just kidding?”
Levon figured that it was easy for Robbie to sit up in Malibu and say no—he had all that songwriting money. So the other four went back out on the road as the Band and even signed a new record deal—but without a songwriter as good as Robertson, interest in them faded. They were playing a lounge in Winter Park, Florida, in 1986 when Richard Manuel, his drinking and depression uncured, hanged himself at the motel after a show. He was 40. Levon cut down his friend’s body, and it seems to have been about then that he fixed on Robbie as the author of all the Band’s disappointment.
After Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999, Levon tore into Robbie in This Wheel’s on Fire, his autobiography: “We had a big funeral for Rick, a hell of a thing…. Robertson came from California; he didn’t want to be here, but he knew he had to be. He got up and spouted off a lot of self-serving tripe about how great Rick had sung the songs that he—Robertson—had written. It made me sick to hear.”
Robertson never responded in kind. When he finally wrote a memoir of his own, the excellent Testimony (2016), he described his early relationship with Levon as that of a Canadian Tom Sawyer learning the ropes from a Southern Huck Finn. Robertson’s book ended with The Last Waltz, the Band’s story finishing on a high note, just as Robertson had designed it.
The relationship between Helm and Robertson is another rock ’n’ roll archetype: one member personifies a romantic image, while another takes notes and turns them into music. Dennis Wilson was a handsome, athletic ladies’ man who surfed and drove hot rods. His older brother, Brian, was a pudgy introvert, afraid of the water. Brian listened to Dennis’s stories and wrote the Beach Boys’ songs that fixed them in American mythology. Robbie turned the stories Levon told him—of traveling medicine shows and Southern bitterness over the Civil War—into some of the most compelling music of the rock era. Years after the Band split up, Levon had decided he had been taken advantage of.
Robbie turned the stories Levon told him into some of the most compelling music of the rock era.
Helm died of cancer in 2012. His final years were a long, triumphant encore. He set up regular “Midnight Rambles” in his barn in Woodstock and charged between $100 and $200 a seat to 150 to 200 people per show to sit up close while he and his band played with guests like Donald Fagen, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, and many more of the famous musicians who loved Levon and were delighted to honor him. The Midnight Rambles were joyous and part of a late renaissance that saw Levon win Grammy Awards in 2008, 2010, and 2012.
In the battle for ownership of the Band’s legacy, Levon ended up the sentimental favorite—to Helm’s fans, Robertson was the clever operator who studied at Levon’s feet and then left him high and dry.
It’s a compelling story, but to accept it means believing Helm was a simple country bumpkin hoodwinked by the city slicker. And it suggests that the songs Robertson wrote for the Band were either of minor importance to their success—or that Robbie did not give his bandmates the credit they deserved as composers. Jonathan Taplin, who served as the Band’s road manager, has written that while he admired Levon, he cannot deny that Robbie wrote those songs:
“For fans of The Band, the imbalance in royalty distribution has become a point of contention, anger, and sadness. Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1999, and his ability to sing was profoundly compromised. He wrote a book about his life in which he expressed his anger at Robbie for not sharing his songwriting income. But I was in Woodstock every day in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Robbie Robertson got up every morning and went into his studio and wrote songs until lunchtime; sometimes he would go back after lunch as well. Levon and Richard slept in. For siding with Robbie, I also received Levon’s scorn.”
In a radio interview with Sirius XM in 2017, Robertson addressed Helm’s anger toward him: “Levon and I never had a bad word in all of the time we were together. Ten years after we were no longer together, maybe even more, is when he started saying some negative things about me.... He was going through some rough times financially and health-wise as well. It was starting to catch up with him. And he did have this thing where he could be bitter and he could be somebody who never accepted his own responsibility. He always blamed somebody. What happened was always somebody else’s fault. I knew that about him.… I talked to him on the phone and to me he never said a bad thing. It was just strange to me that he would say that I broke up the Band. I did everything I could, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry it anymore.”
Great Singer, Great Drummer, Great Spirit
Robertson has a new album called Sinematic that is filled with images of navigating the narrow road between sin and salvation. Most of the writing is dramatic storytelling about far-flung characters, from Chinese gangsters to the old radio avenger the Shadow. But he gets personal on the track “Once Were Brothers,” the title song from an upcoming documentary subtitled “Robbie Robertson and the Band”:
We already had it out
Between the north and south
When we heard all the lies
Coming out of your mouth
But we stood together
Like we were next of kin
And when the Band played Dixie
They came marching in
Once were brothers
Brothers no more
Levon Helm was a great singer, a great drummer, and a great spirit. Bruce Springsteen once said, “We are used to seeing versions of the thing, but Levon is the thing.”
Without the songs Robbie Robertson wrote, though, it is unlikely we would know Levon Helm’s name. Without Robbie, Levon would have probably spent his life playing and singing in roadhouses for all he could drink and cash at the end of the night. Maybe he would have been happier. But we are all lucky that it did not turn out that way. We are better off that Robbie Robertson gave Levon Helm and the rest of the Band a platform to reach the world.
Bill Flanagan, an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL, contributes essays to CBS Sunday Morning and hosts Flanagan’s Wake and Northern Songs on Sirius XM Radio