Levon Helm is still ready for the load

Times Staff Writer

The “Beware of Bear” signs outside Levon Helm’s home and studio are not a joke. A real black bear made itself all too comfortable the summer before last, somehow squeezing through a doggy door and heading to the kitchen, then the “big room,” where they stage the Midnight Rambles. It was making angry, pounding noises while the supposed master of the house huddled behind another door with his gun, “praying, ‘Please go. Please go.’ ”

The bear is like the past, then, for it too has a way of barging into his private space, for better or worse.

The for-better part is one reason this crooning drummer is up for a Grammy tonight, for his album “Dirt Farmer” was inspired by irrepressible memories of a childhood in Arkansas, when mules were giving way to tractors, and that came out when he got to singing again after throat cancer left him unable to do more than whisper. “A miracle,” he calls the rediscovery of his voice.


But the for-worse part is one reason he won’t be on hand to hear whether he’s won for best traditional folk album, or more to the point to receive a lifetime achievement award as part of the Band, whose recordings, many made here in the Catskills, earned a passionate following in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His memories of those high-flying years are not always so fond -- some get him sounding more like an angry populist than dirt farmer, ranting about the “blowhards’ paradise” that Grammy weekend will be. So he’ll be here, doing another Midnight Ramble, his frequent home-studio concerts, except he’ll call this one a “Gramble.”

But let’s take them one at a time, the bear, the good memories and the bitter residue left by the Band.

The bear may have been 150 pounds, or 250, he guesses, and he was amazed it got through the portal cut in a door for Muddy, his Staffordshire terrier named for bluesman Muddy Waters. The dog was the hero, for when the bear ambled from the living area to the performing space, he sped outside, then around, to drive it back. The bear must have “wanted out,” Helm says, for it did reverse course, back out through the doggy door.

Thus the “Beware of Bear” signs in the dirt lot where the cars pulled in last Saturday, some down from Canada, or up from New York. There are no tickets. They sign up over the phone or Internet, $150 a head. They share potluck pizza and apple pie and peruse recipes of Anna Lee Amsden, Helm’s friend from Marvell, Ark., who inspired lines in “The Weight,” The Band’s best-known song, “Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?” She ain’t young anymore, but she joined the party here for a stretch last year.

Upstairs, it’s more like a ski lodge than the cramped studio at Big Pink, the house where the Band recorded “The Basement Tapes” with Bob Dylan. Wood beams rise to an A-frame above a small stage facing seven rows of folding chairs and a fireplace. The audience reaches 250 when you add those seated on a balcony or standing behind the stage, some dancing as they peer down on what’s anything but a bare-bones nostalgia act.

No fewer than 11 musicians take part, horns and piano on the left, guitars and other singers center, Helm and his drums to the right. They start with the Band’s “Ophelia.” But the 2 1/2 hours include a rollicking “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” and cuts from the new album of “the kind of songs my parents would have liked,” Helm says, meaning none that sound “made-up.” So he recorded songs like “Calvary” whose lyrics go, “Every man will see the day / That his hopes are dashed away.”


The irony is that Helm learned of such hard times as a musician, after leaving home as a teen. Though his father had been a Depression cotton farmer, Helm has a boy’s fond memory of that life in the ‘40s, like being in back of a wagon “with two mules pullin’ it, full of cotton and layin’ up on the top of it, just as soft as a mattress, and layin’ there and watchin’ the sky go by . . . and that harness jinglin’ and rattlin’, going to . . . gin that cotton and . . . I would go right into Chapel Silas’ grocery story and Mr. Silas had one of the best jukeboxes in Phillips County, and I would set there and feed that jukebox and he would feed me, you know, bologna and cheese. . . . “

His Midnight Rambles were inspired by a memory of medicine shows that came through town. This night’s high point is when the other musicians back off, leaving him to sing almost a cappella with his pregnant daughter, Amy, and sweet-voiced Teresa Williams, accompanied only by fiddler Larry Campbell for a song about “Anna Lee,” only not the Band’s Anna Lee. It’s by North Carolina’s Laurelyn Dossett, about a woman who “kissed her two babies on cheek and on brow” before she’s swept off in a raging river.

The only song to get more applause is the closer, “The Weight,” the Band’s anthem offering to share the burdens of life: “Take a load off Fannie / And AND AAAND you can put the load right on me.”

It’s near midnight when Helm plops down, a white towel over his shoulder while he fingers a lighter, a remnant of the 50-year habit that caused the throat cancer that hit him in 1998 and required 28 radiation treatments. A decade later, he feels he’s just getting his voice back, though higher pitched than when he sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1976’s “Last Waltz” concert memorialized by Martin Scorsese as supposedly the last performance by the Band.

Helm works with a voice coach to strengthen atrophied vocal cords, but it’s like the recordings Johnny Cash made at the end of his life on which it’s not so much the instrument as the honesty that sells the songs. Helm is 67, but there’s more road than that on his narrow face -- it wasn’t for nothing he was cast back in 1980 as Sissy Spacek’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Now he’s like the old coot on the porch, singing ‘bout women he’s known and the wide river yet to cross.

“I noticed here lately I get some of that old man respect,” he says as band members pop in to say good night. “You’re gonna win,” says bass player Mike Merritt.


Staying home

It came out just that night that he wouldn’t go to the Grammys. Barbara O’Brien, manager of “Team Levon,” told the crowd they’d be here Sunday for a first “Gramble.”

He would have gone if they’d been invited to play. But when you’re Category 68, that’s a long shot. “We’re gonna have a celebration here,” he says. “I’m not too good sort of sittin’ about wavin’ at everybody.”

Then there’s the one he’d likely be seated with, Robbie Robertson, lead guitar and chief songwriter on the Band. Helm’s autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” complained that Robertson hogged song credits and thus future royalties. He also thought Robertson pushed them into a retirement concert that took a good band “from productivity to oblivion.” Then, as edited by Scorsese, with whom Robertson shared a home, he thinks “The Last Waltz” made everyone else look like window dressing.

By the time Helm spewed that out in 1993, one of them, Richard Manuel, had hanged himself at 42, while the remnants of the Band were reduced to playing “an upscale fern bar” near Orlando, Fla. Rick Danko at least died in his own bed, at 56, though Helm blamed that on how “Rick had to work all the time.” Then Garth Hudson went bankrupt, and finally Helm too, as his studio burned, he got his diagnosis and couldn’t work.

Things have turned since his voice returned. But a brush with death doesn’t magically purge bad blood, and when he said he wanted no part of the blowhards and “Century City suits,” there was no talking him out of staying home.

A film crew will be with him. They came from L.A. to do a video for “Dirt Farmer,” then stayed to do a full documentary. It may not have Dylan like “The Last Waltz,” but he’ll have guest stars -- just wait. Plus the film crew will be here this summer, when the sweet corn comes up and guess-who is a good bet to come knocking, as black and furry and hungry as ever.


“If we’ll barbecue burgers, I’m sure he’ll show,” says the man who will be Grandpa Levon by then. “I’ll keep the powder dry, just in case.”