Ironic that on a holiday celebrating American independence, I would be mesmerized by a book about a band that was four parts Canadian and one part deep Arkansas. (Sounds like the proportions of the cocktail I had in hand). But despite the lopsided genealogy, The Band might remain the quintessential American music group of the last fifty years. Inspiring the Americana and alternative country movements as deeply as anyone, they were and are a beacon of inspiration to everyone from Wilco to Mumford and Sons.
A few weeks back I bumped into an old friend, and Jamie and I were discussing books we were reading. When he mentioned This Wheel’s On Fire, I was certain that I had read it before, but his enthusiasm (and my love of the subject matter) caused me to dig out a copy. Sure enough, I had started the book at one point, but life or travel or whatever must have gotten in the way. Either that or my memory is much worse than I think it is.
Back in college, Lou, Dige and Cass used to commandeer the corner table in the campus pub and hold court. Clevelanders, they were inseparable but gregarious members of the theatre collective I was also a part of, and it was not unusual for all of us to huddle away in the corner and try to drain the keg while telling jokes and stories and singing songs. Way too much testosterone for Glee, but a similar fearless spirit to break into song, and for the Cleveland crew The Band was king, whether they were singing along with the jukebox or in spite of it. Sure, there were other songs (“You Know My Name” was a particular drunken favorite, Beatle fans) but there was a special passion when “Up on Cripple Creek” was howled, not sung, with coyote-like yodels accentuating the chorus.
The early catalogue got the workout – “King Harvest”, “The Weight”, “Shape I’m In”, and of course “Look Out Cleveland”. Their energy brought the band to life for me at a time when I was more focused on The Stones and The Kinks, and to this day I can’t listen to the band without thinking of the three of them. We lost Dige last year, Cass was lost to us in other ways many years ago, and although Lou and I wound up settling ten miles apart all these years later, it’s maybe one call a year. Life is not a carnival, believe it or not.
This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm’s wonderful book about how The Band got together and was pulled apart, is simply one of the best books one could ever read about the life of a musician. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, of grinding out a path and doggedly following it to the rewards and the disasters, and how one man’s passion to make music despite any obstacles helped forge one of the greatest bands of the rock era. Helm writes with an honest ease, fair but uncompromising, and I came away from the story with a deep respect for the man (and the urge to pull out every Band record I own, as well as a guitar).
Written in 1993, with an afterword from 2000, it’s really a timeless story. Starting out backing the electric Ronnie Hawkins, encounters with Bob Dylan, how a hanger-on named Robbie Robertson eventually wormed into the group and eventually positioned himself as leader, and later, executioner. While Robertson does come off like a heel at the end – “it’s just business” – Helm does spend most of the book acknowledging his prodigious talent and leadership. Rick Danko was the solid supporter, Richard Manuel the fragile casualty, Garth Hudson the rock upon which this church was built. Together they forged a new element, a whole greater than the sum.
I need not prattle on about the quality of the music; The Band is timeless. So is this great book. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.
Thanks, Jamie…what next?