Empire Of Dirt – Inside Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble
In tribute to the late Band legend, who died in April 2012, this week’s archive feature is a fascinating piece from October 2009’s Uncut (Take 149) – Barney Hoskyns travels to Levon Helm’s Woodstock barn for one of his Midnight Rambles, a musical hogroast-cum-celebration of the drummer’s life and legacy. “To me,” says Helm, “it’s just rock’n’roll…”
If Levon Helm’s studios have a Green Room, then this must be it. A ramshackle den leading off the kitchen, it’s currently crawling with musicians warming up for the Midnight Ramble, the weekly musical revue hosted by the former Band lynchpin at his backwoods spread in Woodstock, New York. Framed pictures of comrades – fallen or otherwise – cover the back wall, The Band’s Rick Danko and Richard Manuel prominent among them.
Conspicuously missing among these war heroes is the face of Robbie Robertson, guitarist and primary songwriter in that august quintet. It is, of course, almost exactly 40 years since The Band – defining practitioners of what we now know as “Americana” – played the Woodstock festival that wasn’t in Woodstock at all. Robertson recalled the 400,000-strong audience as “a ripped army of mud people”. For Helm it was simply a bad gig – he recently refused to give his blessing for any Band numbers to be included on the 6CD boxset, Woodstock 40 Years On – Back To Yasgur’s Farm.
Slouched on the sofa, raking his fingers across an acoustic guitar, is ex-Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who doubles as Helm’s bandleader and producer of the two albums that have resurrected the 69-year-old’s career. Wedged in the corner and almost obscured by a vast tuba is Mr Howard Johnson, whose services Helm has intermittently employed for 37 long years.
“Someone gimme an A?” requests Byron Isaacs, the dapper young bassist who anchors the Levon Helm Band’s sound. To which Howard Johnson responds by producing what sounds like a sub-atomic fart from the tuba. Laughter – from Isaacs and trumpeter Steve Bernstein, and from Campbell and his Tennessee-born singer-guitarist wife Teresa Williams – ripples across the room.
Johnson, whose baritone sax was first heard with The Band on the mighty live Rock Of Ages (“That might be our best one,” Levon will say later), asks Campbell why “Chest Fever” goes to “a strange place” in its Midnight Ramble incarnation. With a touch of defensiveness, Campbell says he took the arrangement from the original studio version on The Band’s 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink. Johnson, perhaps pulling rank, says the Allen-Toussaint-arranged version on Rock Of Ages makes more sense. “But hey,” he concludes diffidently, “no need for anyone to get crazy about it.”
Later Johnson tells me the original Ramble horn section was a mere three pieces, “but when Levon heard the full section with me, that’s what he wanted. It wasn’t a question of money, even though it’s costing him extra.” At this point Lucy – a bayou mutt Helm adopted in Louisiana when he was playing a cameo role in his good buddy Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada (2005) – hobbles in with a leg bandaged after she got hit by a car on Plochmann Lane. Seems it’s pretty much business as usual at the Helm homestead on a Saturday night.
“Hi Daddy,” says Amy Helm, Levon’s only offspring and a singer who’s had everything to do with the autumnal third wind of his career. She it was who brought Larry Campbell into the fold and conceived the idea of Dirt Farmer as a collection of songs her father had grown up with in the South. “Hi baby,” comes a ravaged voice from the kitchen – for Helm has finally come into the tumbledown studio complex from the home that abuts it, where he lives with his wife, Sandy, and Lucy, and a sweet-natured pit bull named Muddy (after Waters, naturally).
Rumours have been drifting around the studios all afternoon that Helm won’t be singing at the Ramble tonight – that he’s suffering from acid reflux after pushing his voice too hard on recent dates with The Black Crowes. Underlying the whisperings is the dread of something worse: the return of the cancer (of the vocal cords) that led to 28 doses of radiation therapy and put paid to his singing at all for the better part of five years. The good news is that a tour stopover to see a specialist in Little Rock (capital of Helm’s home state of Arkansas) revealed he is still in remission from the cancer.
“This is only the second time this has happened,” Helm will tell me after the Ramble has wrapped. “Before that we haven’t had to worry about it. What voice I’ve got, I’ve always been able just to push it on out there. All of a sudden we hit Denver – I don’t know if it was the altitude or what – and I sang myself into a hole right there.”
The first time I ever came to this spot was in 1991, mere months after Helm’s original RCO studio had burned to the ground. A literally smouldering ruin was all that greeted me as I pulled up next to the property his ex-wife, Libby Titus – mother of Amy – described as “Levon’s swampy Ponderosa”. A line from The Band’s “King Harvest” (“My whole barn went up in smoke”) rang through my mind as I gazed over the wreckage. “For years it was one of those white-elephant places,” Helm concedes. “My dad once came up and saw the place, and I told him it was going to be a great studio one day. He said, ‘Lee, you’re tryin’ to cut too big a hog with too lil’ a knife’.”
The fire was part and parcel of the general misfortune that cursed The Band after the Scorsese-filmed 1976 farewell, The Last Waltz. Worse by far was the 1986 death – Helm has always refused to call it a suicide – of pianist/drummer and “lead singer” Richard Manuel.
The second time I came by Plochmann Lane was a little over 10 years ago, when “the Barn” had been rebuilt, but Helm’s cancer had just been diagnosed. “I didn’t have to have any chemo stuff,” Levon told me that night in a desperately faint voice. “They tell me they think they got it, and God, I pray they did. I’ve never thought much about singing because Richard Manuel was always The Band’s lead singer. But now that I can’t, fuck, I really want to!”
Helm might not have been the band’s lead vocalist – he may not even have had as affecting a voice as Rick Danko, the dear friend he would lose at the end of 1999 – but the roustabout Confederate flavour of his singing was the centrepiece of the The Band’s two most famous songs, “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. To think that he might never sing again was little short of a musical tragedy.
A decade later, Levon Helm is a) still alive, b) still singing, c) free for the moment of the threat of bankruptcy that’s long hovered over him, and d) as musically fulfilled and credible as he’s been since The Last Waltz. For 2007’s Dirt Farmer and this year’s rousing follow-up Electric Dirt have finally captured Helm as he should sound, in raw musical settings that feel right whether the genre is stark Appalachian balladry or rambunctious New Orleans R’n’B.
“I feel like it’s the best I’ve been able to sound,” he says as we sit around the kitchen table at midnight. “And it’s about time. For the most part the solo records I made before this [including 1977’s RCO All-Stars album, American Son, and a pair of lazy efforts both called Levon Helm] were just opportunities to record in, say, Muscle Shoals or Nashville. But this is the first time ever – after being sick for a while and not being able to do it – I had a real want and a need.”
Earlier in the day I had popped round to witness the weekly preparations for the Midnight Ramble, which has now been going, on and off, for five years. I was greeted by its queen bee, Barbara O’Brien, a tenacious Irish-American redhead who once waited tables – regularly serving the likes of Helm, Danko and Manuel – at such Woodstock dives as Deanie’s and the Joyous Lake. O’Brien has been managing Helm for at least as long as the Ramble has been active and must be credited with getting his wayward career back on track. “Barbara is amazing,” Larry Campbell states. “She can accomplish what six people can’t accomplish.”
“When Larry came in, all of a sudden we had a real band leader.” Helm tells me. “And then Barbara coming in, that kind of took care of everything on the other side of the desk. It was the first time we had some people really looking after the business part of it.”
When O’Brien first came over to Plochmann Lane in 2003, what she found broke her heart. Plastic sheets were flapping at the windows of the studio, which the bank was about to foreclose on. “The whole place looked abandoned,” she says. Helm had contacted her after she’d organised a fundraiser in nearby Kingston for the Armed Forces – at the time she had two sons in the military – to which he’d donated his services. Her first thought was to stage a star-studded fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. Helm told her he’d always been prepared to work his ass off, but could never accept charity.
For a while the Midnight Ramble was a “rent party” for local musicians, friends, scenesters. O’Brien gradually built it up to the point where 400 people came along on a Saturday in April 2004 and forked out $150 a pop for the privilege of witnessing Levon playing live in his home. “I’ve never wanted to live in a house,” he says with a hoarse chortle. “I always wanted to live in a studio, and we’ve always had it that way – it’s just that when the Rambles are going on there’s more people. I love having people here and I like people coming in and getting what they need out of the room.”
John Simon, producer of the first three Band albums, sees Helm’s studio as part of a continuum that runs from The Band’s “Big Pink” house in nearby West Saugerties through the Sammy Davis Jr poolhouse in LA where (most of) The Band was cut in 1969 – and on to the Shangri-La “clubhouse” where The Band holed up near Malibu in the mid-’70s. “This is a dream Levon has always had, to make music in his own house and invite people in,” Simon says. “It takes a lot out of him. He gets up there and gives his all to a set. But he loves the people, loves the audience: it’s a very generous and joyous thing, and the people that are here really appreciate it.”
Barbara O’Brien is fiercely protective of her charge. “Lee would throw himself in front of a train for me,” she says. “And we would all do the same for him.” The affection and loyalty Helm commands is all too evident in the fact that many of the people who help out with the Ramble every weekend are volunteers doing it purely for the love. The couple who take tickets at the gatehouse drive up every Saturday from New Jersey. The Ramble’s good vibes – even from the drolly named “Helmland Security” heavies – are infectious. Moreover, they suggest a new model for rock performance that’s local, organic, and intimate.
The original rambles were, says Helm, “the after-hours part of the show where you’d see the girls do a little hoochie-koochie dance and the drums would get a little of that stripper action on the tom-toms”. He adds that generally they were avoided by “regular churchgoing folks” in and around the tiny Arkansas town of Marvell where he grew up.
Helm’s Ramble begins not at midnight but at 8pm with a brief set by octogenarian bluesman Little Sammy Davis (no relation), a typical cause of Helm’s and even more so since suffering a stroke last November. (The icy morning in February 1975 when Helm arranged for his original Delta blues hero Muddy Waters to receive the keys to Woodstock may be the proudest moment of his life – unless it was when the very same honour was bestowed on him in 2006.) It continues with a whimsical jazz-cabaret set by the John Simon Trio.
At around 9.30pm, Levon and band kick off with “The Shape I’m In”, the hardest-hitting – and most autobiographical – of the many Band vehicles for the late Richard Manuel. In all we’re treated to six Band songs, with piano man Brian Mitchell depping for Manuel on “Across The Great Divide” and Teresa Williams tearing the guts out of the desperate Danko showcase “It Makes No Difference”. Stick-thin and ghostly pale in a loose pink shirt, Helm is still – in Larry Campbell’s stage announcement – “the greatest drummer in the world”. And that’s the case whether he is channelling the second-line spirit of New Orleans on Jelly Roll Morton’s “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Sing” or supplying clipped country-soul rimshots for Amy’s rendition of William Bell’s “Everybody Loves A Winner”. As he so often did with The Band, Levon also switches periodically to mandolin – in this instance for the country waltz, “Did You Love Me At All”.
As with The Band, the Midnight Ramble is a history lesson dressed up as a musical hog-roast. It’s a grand tour of American blue-collar music motored by a man at home in almost any roots genre. “A lot of musicians who came from the South would concentrate on their one narrow area,” says Campbell, a New Yorker by birth. “Like, ‘I’m a country singer’ or ‘I play the blues’. But Levon was open to everything. And what makes him really unique is that there’s no distance at all between who he is and what he does. That’s a rare and magical combination in any kind of artistry.”
After the show I ask Helm what he understands by the overused term “Americana”. “Well, that’s the latest title for our kind of music,” he muses in his richest Southern brogue. “It’s what everything else ain’t. Everything else is whatever it is, and this is not that! They used to call it folk-rock, country-rock and country-blues. To me it’s just rock’n’roll.”
Larry Campbell pipes up to expand on what the older man is saying. “It’s music that’s been born in America,” he states as if for the record. “And in my opinion, this Americana genre would not exist if The Band hadn’t done what they did back then. Because that opened the door and gave everybody permission to start appreciating the roots of American music and throwing it into a big pot and seeing what you could make out of it.”
When I last met with Helm, he was still seething about how Robbie Robertson made off with the lion’s share of The Band’s spoils. “He’s got people who’ll say he wrote everything,” he told me. “Those are the same people that are helping him spend the fuckin’ money, but he knows it ain’t right, it ain’t fuckin’ true... and it damn sure ain’t fair for him and Albert Grossman’s estate to spend all The Band’s money.” Then as now, the issue came down to the hoary conundrum of songwriting vs performance royalties: did Robertson merit full credit on songs that were developed in rehearsal, and in which royalties could have been split five ways?
Today it’s a subject one is politely asked to sidestep. Except that it cuts to the heart of The Band’s tragedy – to the indignities that followed for Helm, Danko, Manuel, and the group’s nutty keyboard genius, Garth Hudson. A band of brothers was in some way betrayed by the worldliness and upward mobility of their putative leader, and none of them quite recovered from it.
When I asked Robertson in 2005 whether he thought Helm would ever bury the hatchet and heal the rift between them, he replied thus: “I feel deep in my heart that my brotherhood with Levon is untouchable, and my admiration for him and what we were able to do together [is] the important thing. I just wish him well and hope he doesn’t have to live a life of bitterness and anger. He was like my closest friend, so I just want the best for him and hope he finds a way to relieve himself of having to deal with everything through negativity.”
But could it be that Levon will have the last laugh in this feud? Where Robertson is an almost redundant musical force in 2009 – 40 years after The Band’s definitive second album – Helm has bounced back (from the dead, almost) with two albums that trump anything Robbie has done as a solo artist. Just as Raising Sand enabled Robert Plant to leave behind the legend of Led Zeppelin, so Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt – the first two-thirds of a Dirt trilogy, perchance? – have allowed Helm to jettison the baggage of The Band.
With a voice as ancient and resonant as those of Dock Boggs or Ralph Stanley, Helm’s versions of “Little Birds” and “Anna Lee” (and his friend Happy Traum’s achingly remorseful “Golden Bird”) come straight out of Harry Smith’s hinterland of the American psyche. The fact that Helm can switch from the swampy gospel of the Staple Singers’ “Move Along Train” to the Bourbon Street blast of Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is what makes him such an extraordinary musician. “Levon,” says Larry Campbell, “is one of the only people in popular music who can authentically, and with a great deal of authority, perform any one of these genres that make up Americana.”
All that remains now is for Helm to prove he can build on the promise of “Growing Trade”, the sole song on either Dirt album to bear his songwriting credit. “We just started writing together and I’m hoping we can continue in that vein,” says Campell. “I think that’d be the next interesting thing for people. We’ve established we make good music together, so the next step would be to establish that we can really write together.”
If there is something a mite contrived in the way Helm has been positioned as the patron saint of Americana – O Levon Where Art Thou, anyone? – the man himself is as genuine an article as American music can boast. “He’s not a clone of anybody else,” says John Simon. “He’s a soulful guy who’s gone through his trials and tribulations and come out the other side very valiantly. It isn’t as if he’s in a situation now where he can kick his feet up and sip a Margarita on the beach at Waikiki. This is hard work, what he does here.”
Adds filmmaker Jacob Hatley, who for the past 18 months has been making a documentary about him, “Levon has been through every kind of rock’n’roll scenario there is and somehow he still has a very clear sense of what he’s in it for. That’s a really hard thing to hold on to.”
Helm himself summarises his long life and considerable oeuvre with the aw-shucks good-ol’-boy humility that’s become a personal trademark. “I’m lucky to have been employed,” he says.
“Otherwise it would look a lot worse than it does. I could have been a farmer but I wouldn’t have been a very good one. Music was what was always in the cards. I never wanted to do anything else.”