Reflecting on The Band’s Break-up and Levon’s Death

Among the pieces of journalism and commentary I’ve read about Levon Helm since word of his terminal condition was released by his family last week, and then since his death on Thursday, this one by Mark Guarino is the best yet. I recommend you read it, for it captures the injustice that accompanied The Band’s dissolution, and how Robbie Robertson and the businesspeople around him really did treat his four bandmates inequitably. According to Levon, in his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire, Robbie claimed all the publishing royalties on most of their songs, compositions that had famously been workshopped by all five of them, beginning at the Big Pink house, and in later sessions. For the sake of argument, even if Robbie believed he was genuinely responsible for most of the songwriting, why not assert a claim on a larger share of the royalties and then split the remaining percentage four ways? Instead, he just walked away with it all on most of their repertoire and by the time Levon received his cancer diagnosis in 1998, he had to declare personal bankruptcy and nearly lost his house. I know Robbie came to his bedside this week, and if Levon really reconciled with him that’s great, but it’s hard not to see Robbie’s visit as some self-serving absolution. It certainly adds to the sadness of Levon’s passing to say this, but I believe it’s true.

Now, as many articles have pointed out, Levon did mount a great second act with the Midnight Ramble, the Grammy-winning albums, and playing and singing with his daughter Amy. But that happiness stands in sharp contrast to the fact that nothing like that happened for Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, and this is where Guarino’s Christian Science Monitor article, “Levon Helm and The Band: a rock parable of fame, betrayal, and redemption” is most valuable.

Manuel’s post-breakup troubles ended with his 1986 suicide, during a revival tour of The Band sans Robbie. Guarino tells us that Levon is the one who found him after he’d hanged himself. As for Danko, he died at fifty-one from complications of heart disease. Guarino, quoting from the memoir, reminds us of Levon’s words: “If Rick’s money wasn’t in their pockets, I don’t think Rick would have died because Rick worked himself to death.… He wasn’t that old and he wasn’t that sick. He just worked himself to death. And the reason Rick had to work all the time was because he’d been [expletive] out of his money.” To be fair, it should be admitted too that a hard-partying lifestyle would have contributed to Manuel’s and Danko’s early demise (see Danko’s stoned moments with Janis Joplin in the rolling concert film “Festival Express,” if you have any doubt how much Rick loved getting high), but it doesn’t change the fact that playing half-empty dives to keep making a living, for a musician who once played to 600,000 at Watkins Glen with the Allmans and The Dead in ’73 (which I personally attended*), had to have depressed him and Manuel to a point where continued substance abuse was, if not inevitable, unsurprising.

All this sadness acknowledged, it is comforting to see how sadness brings us all together, bridging intervening years. After posting on Facebook and Twitter over the past week, I’ve heard from high school friends, such as Seth Foldy of Friends School and hometown Cleveland pals, like Eric Broder. Eric referred me to the Drive-by-Truckers’ Danko-Manuel song, with its haunted lyrics, “Got to sinking in the place where I once stood/Now I ain’t living like I should . . . Richard Manuel is dead”.

It was fitting to me that the family’s first message about Levon’s illness, while originating with his wife and Amy (who I had the privilege of hearing sing a few months ago with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings**, a performance I wrote about here), was immediately passed along on social media by “Bob Dylan and The Band.” And then, after Levon died, this appeared on bobdylan.com: “He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.”

In honor of The Band and Bob Dylan, and yesterday’s Record Store Day, I’ve taken photos of all my LPs and CDs coming from their great musical enterprise, even Robbie’s first solo album. (click on thumbnails for full panorama of album images

* From that great weekend, I recall that a heavy thunderstorm with distant bolts of lightning let loose on the Saturday night, and The Band, then playing, had to flee the stage out of safety concerns. When the downpour had ebbed, Garth Hudson came out first and sat at his organ beneath a protective little canopy, launching into an unforgettable rendition of the solo that opens “Chest Fever, a song on “Music From Big Pink,” “Chest Fever.” These moments are forever captured on one of the CDs photographed below, “The Band- Live at Watkins Glen.”

**From Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Colin Linden, who knew and had played music with Levon, was interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC Radio program ‘Q’ the day after his friend’s death, as was Garth Hudson, conversations that can be heard via this link.  

12 replies
    • Philip Turner says:

      Thanks a lot, Mark. I’m glad the piece hit the mark for you. Fun having a blog these days, huh? Best, Philip

      Reply
  1. Wallsend says:

    Rick and Richard both got paid for writing songs, why shouldn’t Robbie also get paid for his work? Rick, Richard and Levon chose to be addicts. There deaths are in no way Robbie’s fault. It is irresponsible of you to suggest otherwise.

    Reply
    • Philip Turner says:

      Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on this post from 2012. I’m curious how you know with such certainty what the financial arrangements were among members of The Band. Though I quoted Levon on the causes of the deaths of Richard and Rick, I did not write that they were Robbie’s “fault.” I wrote, “To be fair, it should be admitted too that a hard-partying lifestyle would have contributed to Manuel’s and Danko’s early demise.” I do believe the record shows that Rick’s financial conditions contributed to his decline. As to whether people “choose” to be addicts, that is a harsh judgment I do not share with you. Thanks again, Philip

      Reply
    • Scott says:

      Bingo.

      There was ample opportunity, according to Robbie in his new book, for the three drug addicts to bring in songs. They chose not to.

      And for the record, composition consists of words and melody. Anything else is the arrangement. Ever hear Paul McCartney’s “And I Love Her” from “A Hard Day’s Night?” Well, the iconic intro guitar pattern was entirely George Harrison’s. Did he moan and complain that he didn’t get a co writing credit? Nope.

      Reply
  2. Wallsend says:

    There is much material in the public domain about this issue but in your piece you have not made any attempt to be objective only quoting pro-Levon sources. You may not have noticed but in the comments section of the CSM article you relied on is a complaint from Libby Titus, Levon’s former partner and Amy’s mother, about the unfairness of that article. This is what Libby told Barney Hoskyns about Levon’s relationship with Robbie: “The story of Robbie and Levon is much more complex than the bloggers and the press understand,” Libby Titus-Fagen wrote me on April 25. “I can tell you that for the years I was with Levon, from 1968 to 1974, they each shared a part of the other’s soul. One would start a sentence, pause, and the other would finish it. They had their own alphabet, their own clock, their own DNA, a Levon-Robbie double helix. When I called Robbie to say Levon was dying, he was stunned, shattered—he thought Levon had beaten the cancer. Robbie flew to New York to say goodbye. Amy, Donald and I were in the waiting room, and I don’t know what Robbie said to Levon for the long time he spent by his bedside. All I know is that there’s a side to this life-and-death song no one has heard. Levon wouldn’t want this bitterness to ramble on any longer.”
    It is a pity commentators don’t listen to Libby’s words.

    Reply
  3. mike says:

    wallsend, what could you possibly know abouit this? You make a fool of yourself by defending Robertson. You know nothing.

    Reply
  4. Clare Knight says:

    Robbie Robertson is a scum sucking slut compared to Levon Helm. He doesn’t know “soul”s address. As John Lennon said, ” How do you sleep at night?” And I wonder, how do you?

    Reply

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