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When the Band Got the Blues : THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE, <i> By Levon Helm with Stephen Davis (William Morrow: $22; 352 pp.)</i> : ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE: The Band and America, <i> By Barney Hoskyns (Hyperion: $22.95; 428 pp.)</i>

<i> John Schulian, a television writer and producer who was a rock columnist in Baltimore 20 years ago, fell in love with music the day he bought his first 45, "Since I Met You Baby" by Ivory Joe Hunter</i>

They found Richard Manuel hanging in the bathroom, deader than all the bottles of Grand Marnier he had drained in his tortured life, deader than all the bankrupt rock-and-roll dreams that had led him to this motel in Winter Park, Fla. Not many hours before, he had closed the Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge by singing “You Don’t Know Me” in a voice that ached with loneliness and regret. It was the way he had sounded even when suicide wasn’t an option.

Now, on a March morning in 1986, suicide was very real, and as word of Manuel’s death began making its way across the country, it carried with it subtext about the long, hard fall of a band called the Band. Playing shorthanded in the Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge, for God’s sake? You never would have imagined it when Manuel and the Band were plunging into the fires of electric rock alongside Bob Dylan 21 years earlier. After that came Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, then the cover of Time magazine. And when they played their final concert at full strength, none other than Martin Scorsese was there to document it for a memorable movie called “The Last Waltz.”

The Band couldn’t have climbed any higher on the mountain without resorting to what their alternately charming and cantankerous drummer, Levon Helm, dismissed as “fruit rock.” They left it to the competition to dress like drag queens and act like nincompoops while they worried about the thing that recently got them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--the music. It was a blend of blues and country and rhythm-and-blues that has yet to be categorized except to say that it was the most quintessentially American rock ‘n’ roll anybody ever played. Yes, American, even though the Band consisted of four Canadians and an Arkansas farm boy.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” emerged as the Band’s classic song, bearing witness to the grief and defiance that still permeated the South a century after the Civil War. But there were so many others, songs about sporting ladies and small-town spinsters, traveling medicine shows and harvests that would surely come. Some made you want to put on your dancing shoes, others had you looking for your funeral rags--and the best of them taught you that rock ‘n’ roll could appeal to the head and the heart as well as the hormones.

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Given this emphasis on the cerebral by musicians whose lives couldn’t have been more visceral, it is no surprise that there are two admirable books about the Band upon us. The first, “Across the Great Divide,” comes from Barney Hoskyns, a British rock critic who embraces the Band’s reclusive eccentrics with the passion most Americans never had. Working from old magazine and newspaper articles, a sprinkling of fresh interviews and his own take on seemingly every note the Band ever recorded, Hoskyns paints the best picture an outsider possibly could.

The key word here, of course, is outsider. It is what separates Hoskyns from Levon Helm, who was at the heart of the Band until it started falling apart long before Manuel’s suicide. Helm collaborated with rock journalist Stephen Davis to write “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and you have no doubt about the drummer’s involvement when you read about moonshine that would “make you hair hang down” and a bewildered Band member looking “like a hog starin’ at a wristwatch.” You know whose sentiments are in play, too, when guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, an aloof but admirable free-thinker in the Hoskyns book, gets flayed for forsaking the Band for his own selfish needs. Helm obviously neither forgives nor forgets.

In the beginning, though, he and Robertson couldn’t have been tighter. There is even a quote in Helm’s book where Robertson refers to him as “my best friend, my big brother,” and surely many of the best songs the Canadian Robertson wrote were informed by that son of an Arkansas cotton farmer. The force that brought them together was Ronnie Hawkins, a Razorback honky-tonker who was larger than life in every respect except talent. “Folks,” he used to say when introducing a favorite song, “this is the one that took us from the hills and the stills and put us on the pills.” And everybody who wound up in the Band heard the Hawk’s call.

It wasn’t just Helm and Robertson, the offspring of a Jewish gambler and a Mohawk Indian beauty. It was Manuel, the piano player who sang like a white Ray Charles even when he was a 17-year-old drunk. And Rick Danko, the bassist who was going to be a meat cutter until he found an outlet for the music in his soul. And Garth Hudson, the classically trained organist who had been raised in the Anglican Church, was the only one in the bunch who could read music, and got paid for giving the others music lessons.

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What they shared initially was a love for the music that drifted into the northern provinces from down South, music by Jimmy Reed and Little Willie John and Bobby Blue Bland. Helm writes of how he and the boys paid homage to this legacy by looking up Sonny Boy Williamson in Arkansas, drinking corn liquor and eating barbecue with him, and ignoring the taunts of peckerwood cops so they could offer--no, beg--to be his band. All the while, Sonny Boy was spitting blood into a coffee can as tuberculosis slowly leeched the life out of him.

So these young dreamers stuck with Hawkins until they could no longer stand his edicts against pot, steady girl friends (one-night stands were fine) and the playing of rhythm-and-blues. But when Dylan called, they beat it out of Toronto, where the Hawk had become a local legend, and headed for the big time, where they were booed for aiding and abetting an alleged crime against folk music. Dylan was going electric, trying to create what Hoskyns calls “an avalanche of noise.” For Robertson, the experience onstage was “like going out there in your underwear.” For Helm, it was simply too much. “I wasn’t made to be booed,” he writes, thereby explaining why he retreated to Arkansas rather than endure any more abuse.

Helm returned, of course, and when he did, he discovered that his old friends had changed after following Dylan to the Woodstock hide-out he had discovered after cracking up his motorcycle. Helm’s friends were better than they used to be, and bolder, too. Dylan had showed them how to break down barriers, and Helm gladly joined them as they crashed into the national consciousness with their exquisite debut album, “Music From Big Pink.”

The title was inspired by the blissfully ugly split-level where they were more comfortable than they ever were on a stage. The name they were forced to use, the Band, which always seemed pretentious, was dictated by Capitol Records, whose executives apparently wrinkled their noses at Helm’s choice of the Crackers. And the music was sometimes mournful, sometimes playful, a triumph of invention by five first-rate musicians, three of whom--Manuel, Helm and Danko--took turns singing lead when they weren’t stacking their voices like the gospel groups they liked so much.

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When their next album, the eponymous “The Band,” soared even higher creatively, their lives were altered forever. No matter how their powers waned after that, they would always stand with the Allman Brothers and Little Feat as the best of the ‘70s bands.

But there was a downside to this musical glory, and it was personal. The Band had a predictable wild streak that dated back to their days with Ronnie Hawkins, when they made their mark as what Helm calls “pill-poppin’, whore-visitin’, gas-siphonin’, girl-friend stealin’ reprobate musicians.” As soon as they had money, they were doomed. “Ever make a million dollars fast?” Danko asks in the Hoskyns book. “Well, I have, and it’s a goddamn crying shame what success can do.”

Countless other rock ‘n’ rollers have sung the same woeful song about heroin and cocaine, sleek cars wrapped around telephone poles, and wives who didn’t appreciate their husbands relying on Polaroids when choosing groupies. But the Band moved from simple hedonism to tragedy with the suicide of Manuel, who could be liberated from shyness only by alcohol. Both Helm and Hoskyns agree, however, that he started dying long before he hung himself. He had one foot in the grave when his songwriting powers withered, and the other foot was poised to follow when the Band, his one true support system, broke up.

The villain in both cases, according to Helm, was Robertson--first for hogging writing credits and royalties that could just as easily have been shared, and then for using his weariness of the road as an excuse to bail out. Even Hoskyns, who is largely sympathetic to Robertson, concedes that the “endless highway” he wanted to get off really wasn’t that long. Helm, overflowing with the bitterness of the spurned, goes much further, portraying his former best friend as a traitor seduced by the lure of Hollywood and the whispers of Dylan’s conniving agent, Albert Grossman.

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In the final counting, though, both books about the Band are laments more than anything else. They are about the loss of something special, a loss you feel most deeply when you step back into the past. Near midnight on a lonely Saturday, you pull “Music From Big Pink” from a collection of vinyl albums that goes largely untouched in this era of CDs, and on Side 2, fourth cut, Richard Manuel is singing about Lonesome Suzie: “She just sits there waiting for a friend.” The song is perfect for the moment, and perfect, too, for a man who finally got tired of waiting.


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