Newton, Mass.

Call Me Levon

By Ken Gordon

So I’m driving around my leafy suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, in the kind of stretched-out silver roadster you see everywhere in this neck of the woods. I’m picking up my 13-year-old daughter from a play date. Not my coolest moment. Suddenly, from the classic-rock precincts of satellite radio, sounds a clear, beautiful middle C.

A beat.

Then the piano steps up the scale, one white key at a time —

— and within seconds I’m no longer a 46-year-old suburban husband and father of two, a Jewish Yankee in the bluest of blue states. Instead, I am Levon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.

That’s also Levon Helm of the Band, who died three years ago, on April 19, 2012. The lone Southerner in a band consisting otherwise of Canadians.

Behind the wheel, I am a very specific Levon.

Not the Levon of “Ain’t in It for My Health,” the superb 2010 documentary I recently Nexflix’d, in which our suffering hero fends off bankruptcy, loses his voice and blows off a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

Not the Levon whose civil war over songwriting credits with the Band’s Robbie Robertson lasted for decades.

Not even Levon the singer, whose Arkansas voice allows “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to jump from a mere dramatic monologue into an classic artifact of American culture.


Virgil Kane is the name and I served on the Danville Train….


No, I am Levon the drummer. Levon from “The Last Waltz”: vital, trim, brown hair and beard, shirt open at the neck, alive behind the kit. That’s the vital primal power of music. The right song can make you, momentarily, into a strange, happy, beat-driven being.

“My joy is to play the drums,” Levon told CBS News in 2007. “The singing part is just something I glommed my way into.” I hear that.  

And I recall that Levon attended Berklee School of Music, which happens to be exactly 5.7 miles from my house, for a semester in 1972.

“I'd always had a complex about my total lack of musical training — beyond several million hours of field work," he writes in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire.” And so he shaved his beard and enrolled with his given name, Mark L. Helm. Why he only lasted a semester, I don’t know. But I love that this bona fide rock star gave education the old college try.

I do what I can to simulate the subtle rolling snares in the chorus, but in truth, I am no drummer, Confederate or otherwise.

I’m smacking the hell out of my steering wheel, as I happy as I’ve been in months, grooving in the idea that my history with this song, with The Band, with the great glorious American past, is part of my living breathing life.


The niiiiight they drove old Dixie down….



• • •


Scratch that — when “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” comes on, Virgil Kane is my name.

Because that song isn’t primarily about the drums. It’s the lyrics. Robbie’s lyrics. Better yet: the unlikely and imperishable character of Virgil Kane.

First, let’s talk about that name. Our Canuck lyricist is being a kind of subtle show-off. Virgil is the Roman poet and Dante’s guide to hell. It signals, to the knowing listener, that an epic story is being told. “Kane” is clearly a reference to Cain and Abel. Our Virgil bears the mark of Cain, in his very voice.

The big steering-wheel-tapping insight: There is nothing that can bring a Northerner like me closer to Southern culture than when Levon plays the part of Virgil Kane against the musical scenery of his bandmates.

I mean, you admire Faulkner when he has Quentin Compson respond to the question, “Why do you hate the South?” with the following:

“‘I don't hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I don't hate it,’ he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!”

The ambivalence is undeniable and it freezes our attention, but none of this, as interesting as it is, makes you say, “I feel just like that guy!”

“The Night They Drove Dixie Old Dixie Down” does precisely that.

The question is: Why? What about that song makes me feel so much?


• • •


Part of the song’s success can be attributed to the charm of the Southern story. Americans love an underdog story, a rebel tale, particularly when it’s told in a colorful, demotic dialect. Robbie understands the appeal of the Southern literary context. As he said in a 1988 radio interview:

Tennessee Williams just appealed to me, the flavor of writing, the titles of the things, “Sweet Bird of Youth,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — this catches my attention, partially because I had gone to the South from Canada, really yin and yang, really a big extreme, so it hit me much harder than somebody who had gone from Washington, D.C., down to South Carolina — I went from Toronto to the Mississippi Delta, and … I liked the way people talked, I liked the way they moved. I liked being in a place that had rhythm in the air.

(You can almost discern, if you wish to do so, a sort of cosmic coordination between the circumstances of my hearing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” Quentin’s famous retort comes when he is talking to his Canadian roommate, Shreve, at, of all places, Harvard! Or am I reading too much into the overlap?)

All this academic stuff is, of course, academic. What makes this song live is how Virgil takes shape through the sound of Levon’s voice. Levon was a superb and natural actor — not just in his film roles, like his portrayal of Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” but also in his singing.

Levon and Virgil: How can you tell the singer from the song?

We can’t. Perhaps we  shouldn’t. The story Levon’s Virgil tells is deeply personal. With his pride and his dead brother — “He was just 18, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave” — he seems downright righteous in his aggrieved self. It makes you, makes me, want to spit at the damned Yankees. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” makes the listener one with the narrator. It’s about feeling the unfortunate necessity of hauling around a failure from generation to generation. While this song plays, I inhabit this character, and I (a liberal, Jewish Bostonian), I am this bitterness.

But there is a complicating factor here, at least for me. There is a necessary confusion between Virgil and Levon. Their various forms of bitterness blend and blur. Are we, when we hear it, angry at the North? Yes. At Robbie? Yes. Virgil is angry about his dead brother; Levon about his late, beaten-down bandmates, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. And it’s this double antipathy, combined with the visceral thrill of the Band’s superb collective musicianship, that makes the magic go.

• • •


When I hear "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," I feel like a Southerner.

But what exactly, as the editor of this fine publication once asked me, does that fucking feel like? What could “feeling like a Southerner” possibly mean to a born and bred Northerner?

I think it is, in a rough way, about the same as being a Jew. 

As a Jew, I identify with Southern Otherness. There's something indigestible in both the Southerner and the Jew. And there's a Jewish element to my makeup that will never be entirely at ease among, say, upright religious Christians. (I'm not at ease among upright religious Jews, either, but that's another story.)

Both Southerners and Jews have to deal with the various cartoon versions of our heritages floating around. We need to constantly work to not succumb to the simplistic way so many people see us. That is, I aim to claim my heritage holistically, just as the Bitter Southerner does.

 How are the Southerner and the Jew similar? We both look, more or less, like everyone else.  We both pass, more or less, until we have an opportunity to open our mouths and then, bam!, the second your interlocutor hears those Extremely Distinctive Sounds the Jew or the Southerner makes, it's clear that one has encountered a Quite Possibly Aggressive Minority. 

The Jew and the Southerner are reflexively — historically — in reaction to the majority culture. We distrust the culture of the winners. We thus seek subversive ways to express ourselves. That's the overlap.  

The twist here is that Bitter Southerners are liberal-minded, Jew-style (take that!) Southern rebels. You're not simply against the North. You're also against the small-mindedness and bigotry right in your own backyard. 

As am I. 

I get that even more than I get what Virgil Kane's talking about. 


• • •


Save your neck, or save your brother
Looks like it’s one or the other

— “The Shape I’m In,” The Band

To illustrate the emotional complexity, let’s look at another song. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” there’s a line sung by the narrator, a marginal character, that goes, “There’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” When Levon covers it — with the late-model, Robbie-less version of Band — he renders the line as, “There’s just winners and losers and I’m south of the line.” With this change, I understand that I have been living what they would call in today’s parlance Northern Privilege.

The automatic defensiveness of the Southerner: That’s what I understand when I get this. It’s also the feeling I get from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” 

Another subtext is the story of the Band. In Levon’s version of things, the Northerners are those who focused on the money — and succeeded. Robbie, the band’s manager Albert Grossman and Martin Scorsese, who directed “The Last Waltz.” In the role of the Southerners are those who wound up paying the price: Richard, Rick and Levon.

When I hear this song, I have enormous sympathy for Virgil Kane, for Levon, and I set myself against the lousy carpetbaggers who luxuriate in their unearned and unfair reputation as victors.

Could I envision a dramatic monologue — musical or otherwise — that made me feel sympathy for a Nazi? Nein.


• • •


I’ve heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” hundreds of times in my life. I’ve played it hundreds of times on the piano. But until this fall day in 2014, I never really got it.

The feeling is really overwhelming. If I didn’t have to get my kid, I’d probably pull into a coffee house and start scribbling on a napkin about how how different this experience is compared to listening to Tom Petty sing, “I was born a rebel ...”

The irony is, for most of the time, the South is a little more than a cliché for me. I have rarely ventured there — a brief vacation to Atlanta once, a business trip to the same, two visits to Graceland — but there lurks in me a small but primordial fear that the second a Jew crosses the Mason-Dixon Line he turns into Leo Frank, bound to come face-to-face with some rip-roaring anti-Semitic bigotry. Ridiculous? Yep. That’s what the culture has prepared me for. Culture ...

The reality is more complex. All I need to do is conjure up reality in the person of my great buddy, Fletcher. Fletch is a born and bred Southerner — though he and his wife and first child lived in Beantown for a number of years — who happens one of the most decent, generous and intelligent people I’ve ever met. Not an ounce of bigotry there — anti-Jewish or otherwise.

So is there something in my non-aesthetic life that enables my act of imaginative sympathy? Could it be that my identification has less to do with the song than the real-life friendship which contradicts my own prejudices?

It could.

Look, I’m 46 years old — I was born in July of 1969, just before the release of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — and I understand that our responses to any given stimuli are imbricated, and that only a fool thinks that a simple cause-and-effect explanation is the full or final word on just about anything.


• • •


What interests me — what worries me — is a cultural matter: The Band’s sure-to-be-forthcoming biopic.

Now, I don’t read the trades, and I’m about as far from Hollywood as can be … but I can just spy a movie about the Band smoking down the tracks. Here’s why: I just saw a bad, pretentious film about James Brown. Big critical success. A few years ago there was a successful one about Ray Charles. There is a market for this kind of thing, and a story about a tragic white rock band might just do boffo box office.

Hollywood is more than ready for a movie about the very troubled Band — we don’t just have the Robbie-Levon drama: The Band backed Dylan when they went electric; singer and pianist Richard Manuel hung himself in a hotel room; bassist Rick Danko pegged out at 56. And of course it will come — complete with an amazing re-mastered soundtrack and maybe a few new songs written and sung by Robbie Robertson.

This film will directed by Martin Scorsese, who, of course, made “The Last Waltz,” and who lived with Robbie when they both got divorced. Levon says that during the editing of “The Last Waltz” the two became “blow buddies” and “their wives kicked them out and they moved in with each other, and they just … poor guys. You know, that looks OK in Hollywood, but it just looks weird everywhere else.”


Robbie now does the music for each and every Scorsese film, and is an executive at Dreamworks. Nice work if you can get it.

Levon didn’t get it. And neither did the rest of them. Instead, he got cancer.

Robbie is currently writing his autobiography. You know that Marty will surely have some screenwriter adapt Robbie’s book — and you know whose point of view we’ll be getting in this film.

Interestingly, this is score-settling at its finest. For years, Band fans have only had Levon’s book “This Wheel’s on Fire” as the official word on the Levon/Robbie feud. A book by Robbie, and a film by Marty, will be the official word — at least for the larger public.

Speaking of which: There’s an anecdote Robbie loves to tell. I’ve seen a couple of versions of it. This one comes from the “Classic Albums” documentary series: "I was at Levon's house and I was there with his mom and dad. At one point in the conversation his dad said — just kiddingly, but there was some sincerity in it at the same time — and he said to me, 'Well, you know, Robbie, one of these days the South is gonna rise again.'"

So did Robbie steal this material from Levon and his father? Was he paying homage? Did he share the credit? The truth is, whatever happened, Levon signed off on it by bringing Robbie to his home and then singing the tune — but you can easily understand why there might be some legitimate after-the-fact anger.

• • •


But what about Robbie’s point of view? Is it not possible to see it? Is he not in the position of the quintessential artist, using the material that’s available to him? Why not see his decision to leave the band as smart? If Levon wasn’t in it for his health — most of the Band’s members clearly weren’t thinking about longevity — was it wrong of Robbie to do so?

I think it’s easy and obvious to side against Robbie.

Fact is, it took his organizing intelligence to create the songs that made the Band. Levon couldn’t have written “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by himself— even though the Southern history was his history.

So we have to thank Robbie for that.

The ethical question remains: Did he owe Levon? What did he owe Levon? How in the world can we judge this? Or can we? Must we?  


• • •


The thing I dread most about the inevitable biopic is the reconciliation scene.

Who knows what really happened at the end between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm?

“I did the [Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] induction ceremony, and then flew directly to New York and went to the hospital and I saw him, and I spent an hour holding his hand,” said Robbie on a Canadian TV talk show. “Then a day, or a couple of days later, he passed on. I was relieved that I was able to get there and just be there with him.”

Robbie also spoke about the strained relationship, adding, “We were never not friends.… What happened after I wasn’t with the Band anymore  —  I did leave, after “The Last Waltz. I knew it was time. It was survival time, and I had to go. And years later, after that, Levon became very bitter  —  and he was right in saying I walked away. But he went to a whole other place in this that was never true. It just kind of ate him up, and it became part of his personality.”

Robbie won. Levon lost. There’s no doubt about it. But the biopic will be the final word — more final than “This Wheel’s on Fire” or whatever Robbie’s book turns out to be. “Ain’t in It for My Health” is pretty good. It’s the anti-”Last Waltz” in some ways, but it won’t hold up to a Scorsese treatment featuring performances by, say, DeNiro as the Band’s manager Albert Grossman (he’ll put on the weight) and Leonardo di Caprio as Robbie and… who in the hell will play Levon? Maybe Billy Bob Thornton. Yes. He actually pays a visit to Levon in “Ain’t in It for My Health.”

Wait … did I just cast this movie I’m dreading?

Question is: How do I make sure that I’m properly credited and remunerated? Levon would insist on it.


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