I just finished reading Levon Helm’s 1993 memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. I had heard about it, heard the book was infused with his bitterness toward Robbie Robertson. Tuffy P ordered up a copy online the other day and I gobbled it up. I don’t read a lot of biographies or autobiographies and these days I don’t listen to much pop music either. However, over the years, I’ve listened to more than my share of music by The Band and their buddy Bob Dylan, even if my musical tastes have shifted considerably over the years. I appreciate the fact that 4 of the 5 players in The Band were Canadian – and when Levon Helm’s voice recovered after many treatments for throat cancer and he released Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, those recordings got a lot of play around here.
I enjoyed the storytelling style of this book as well and reading about Levon’s life was fascinating. I’m aware that Robbie Robertson has a much more recent memoir out but having watched some interviews with Robertson talking about those days, I didn’t want to read it, mostly because he comes across as a bored know-it-all Hollywood fat-cat in those interviews. While Helm gives Robertson his due regarding his importance to The Band and their music through a chunk of the book, at a certain point he can’t hold back the bitterness and I notice Levon even stops calling him Robbie and switches to Robertson along the way.
As interesting as is the story of the group’s rise from Ronnie Hawkins’ back-up band to playing with Bob Dylan to recording a remarkable body of work, the real story here is the price of success and the resulting excess, including the pervasiveness of heroin and cocaine among successful musicians.
It wasn’t long after The Last Waltz I more or less stopped listening to much of the music played on the radio. I’ve told people many times that Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles pretty much drove me to other genres of music. Of course there were exceptions along the way, but mostly I haven’t looked back. It seemed to me that much of what I liked in so-called rock music was pretty much over by the time Robbie Robertson shut down The Band.
This Wheel’s on Fire is a good read by a talented and dedicated musician determined to convince us he was in it for the music, who loved that life and managed to keep doing it until his death in 2012.
27th Street Recommended