There are many, especially among Americana aficionados, who would consider John W. Barry a very lucky man indeed. To have spent so much time with the late, great Levon Helm, at the tail end of his life, must have been a very special experience, as this new book on the great man suggests. It also suggests it was not without its difficult times, but this is an excellent book about the end of days of one of America’s finest musicians of his generation.
It’s important to say up front, as the author does in his preface, that this is not a biography of Levon Helm as such. This is a record of Helm’s Midnight Ramble concerts, that ran from 2004 until his death in 2012. In the process, it also touches on the wider aspects of his life and some of the places and events that helped to shape it, but the focus is on the remarkable comeback he achieved as an artist long after the days of The Band. It is a fascinating tale well told.
The Midnight Ramble started out as what is described as a “rent party”, a means of paying the bills when times were tight. The gigs grew to become a means for Helm and his family to haul themselves out of bankruptcy and secure the future of their home but, along the way, they became so much more; they became about the value of community and the importance of music on a local, national and international scale. As the author says, quite early in the book, “Levon not only painted himself out of a corner, he generated a curtain call that lasted eight years – one more gig, with one more encore and it kept repeating on a loop.”
The latter part of Helm’s career, prior to the Rambles, is a series of disasters that would’ve taxed the most stoic of us. It started in 1986, when his good friend and bandmate, Richard Manuel, following a gig they played together, left Helm’s hotel room and hung himself in his shower. Five years later, Helm’s home and recording studio in Woodstock, which had come to mean so much to him, burned to the ground in an electrical fire. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and advised to get a laryngectomy, a procedure which would’ve removed his voice box and put a permanent end to the singing he so enjoyed. Instead, he opted for severe radiation treatment that, over a period of time, destroyed the tumours but also removed his voice, at least in the short term. Not surprisingly, this all impacts on his ability to make a living and, by the early 2000s, he’s faced with the loss of his home as the debts pile up. This was the start of the rent parties – occasional gigs with a view to paying the bills but, more importantly, showing that he could still make a reasonable living and, with some development, these informal gigs could give him the income to not only pay his immediate bills but also help to restructure the debt that could have lead to the loss of the family home. Helm set about building a house band that would be the core of his new venture and recruited Larry Campbell, a multi instrumentalist that had been part of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour Band and guitarist Jimmy Vivino, who knew a bit about house bands having been in that role on a number of Conan O’Brien TV Shows. From this beginning they build a band that plays a real americana mix of country, blues, rockabilly, some Band songs a bit of rock and roll, and the popularity of what becomes known as the Midnight Ramble steadily spreads with both audiences and musicians. So much so that the audiences are prepared to pay premium prices to be inside Helms’ studio, that houses the Ramble and only holds a couple of hundred people, and the musicians who want to sit in with the house band starts to include people like Dr John, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and many more. Tickets were $100 dollars each and you were also expected to bring a dish for the potluck supper that preceded every gig.
It’s a great story of triumph in the face of adversity. The icing on the cake is that Helm’s voice finally comes back and, while it’s not the commanding tenor of his heyday with The Band, it’s good enough for him to return to recording and his final albums, starting with “Dirt Farmer” in 2007 (produced by Larry Campbell and Helm’s daughter Amy, for which he won a Grammy) are all recorded with family and friends and are all made possible by the Ramble.
That’s the bones of the story that John W. Barry tells but there is so much good flesh on those bones. The sense of community and of Helm’s commitment to his music are the two things that run throughout this book. The community in Woodstock, where Helm chose to make his home, emerges as one of the big heroes of this story, the community of musicians who worked with Helm, not least his own daughter, Amy, are another, and the community of people who made the Midnight Rambles so successful, from the musicians to the technicians to the audience themselves, also play their part in this story of the importance of community to Levon Helm’s life. Then you have the man himself, and the story of Helm that emerges is one of a man who refuses to give up on the goals he sets for himself. He also comes across as a very likeable and honest human being, lacking in pretentions. It seems that Levon Helm never stopped being that Arkansas boy from Turkey Scratch, despite his international career as a musician and the many heights scaled. The Midnight Ramble was a series of expensive concerts that often featured the great and the good, but the idea was firmly rooted in the neighbourhood get togethers he’d enjoyed as a boy, and it was always about the music and the sense of camaraderie that was encouraged by Helm and those around him. As Larry Campbell said, “The whole concept of the Rambles was making everyone feel welcome, making everyone feel we’re just here to have a good time and enjoy making music – and that’s for the musicians as well as the audience, and that’s a direct reflection of his soul.”
You can’t not smile when you read this book. It’s a bit of a roller coaster at times but, through it all, there’s the presence of Levon Helm, his positivity and his down home attitude. You feel like you really know the man, even though you’ve probably never been near him or ever attended one of the Rambles. That’s possible because the author, John W.Barry, has done such a perfect job of being the fly on the wall observer. There’s no attempt to interpret Helm or his actions, no cod philosophy about who he is or what his secret motivations might be. It’s all a quiet recording of the facts and simple observations of the day to day events around the Ramble and Helm’s life in Woodstock. Towards the very end of the book the author observes, “You look at him up onstage, projected in the image of a celebrity by so many, and at the same time, you see the guy who simply loves to hear a good story as much as he loves to tell one”. There can be no better summation of what this book is about – a man who loved to hear a good story as much as he loved to tell one. I’m now going to read the whole book again, because it really is that good.
This book was published in July 2022 and is available from the usual outlets but also via the website rockrollramble.com