This Wheel 's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band
Levon Helm with Stephen Davis

By John Goodin

Twenty-five years ago last summer the Band released Music from Big Pink, one of the most important records in American popular music history. Big Pink began healing the rift between America's vital roots musics, merging traditional country, blues and folk styles with the rock 'n' roll that had come out of those styles but had drifted into a glossier pop and rootless sound. Rock musicians everywhere heard the Band and realized it was time to "Get Back."

Now, twenty-five years later, Levon Helm has given us what may be the best account of the rock 'n' roll life ever written by an actual musician. Helm's cotton-farm childhood in the 1940s, his musical awakening (Bill Monroe and Sonny Boy Williamson, Conway Twitty and Elvis) and his life on "the road" with Ronnie Hawkins read like a Greek myth. His later life as member of the legendary Band reads like a Greek tragedy. All students of rock 'n' roll history will benefit from a close reading of this autobiography.

The Band was, in fact, Levon's band. Even when backing up Ronnie Hawkins, the contracts were all in Levon's name. When Bob Dylan hired the Band, the marquee at Carnegie Hall read "Bob Dylan w/Levon & the Hawks." Robbie Robertson came to the front as a songwriter during the Woodstock period but Levon takes pains to remind us of the great songs that Robbie didn't write. In a group with three excellent lead singers, Levon is still easily recognized as the voice of the Band and his drumming style and sound are widely imitated.

I don't mean to imply that this isn't a self-serving account with an axe to grind. Levon is clearly unhappy with Robbie Robertson for breaking up the group and wants to alter the prevailing notion that Robbie was the "star.' Rather than attack Robertson head on, he praises his songwriting and guitar wizardry but prefers to emphasize the communal nature of the Band's best work. He wants to see justice done for himself, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

Helm details the hard work all the members put into making the Band a crack unit, but he also describes the good times. He openly speaks of substance abuse and the wild life of the traveling musician in those bygone days. He doesn't moralize and he doesn't apologize.

Levon feels that Robertson killed the band. His own book offers enough evidence to suggest that perhaps substance abuse was an equal partner. It's tempting to divide the Band's career into four stages: alcohol, hemp, heroin and cocaine. Alcohol was the drug of choice during the Ronnie Hawkins years. Pot-smoking dominated the Bob Dylan/Woodstock era. Heroin grabbed hold as the Band became famous on its own and cocaine killed whatever group was left in the period leading up to the Last Waltz.

As a long-time lover of the Band's music, I found the section on the Last Waltz disturbing. Apparently everything wasn't peaches and cream on stage when they filmed that concert. Richard Manuel's suicide years later is especially hard to read about. Even now Levon is so totally committed to playing music that he can't allow that Robertson might have been right about the dangers of "the road." Helm, Danko and Hudson are still out there, however, playing their special brand of North American music.

This Wheel's On Fire is great reading for anyone interested in the Band or the history of rock 'n' roll. Bob Dylan says, "You've got to read this."