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This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band Paperback – September 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Arkansas-born Helm, drummer for classic-rock outfit The Band, and Davis ( Fleetwood ) here present a down-home account of the quintet's development. Whereas Barney Hoskyns's recent Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Nonfiction Forecasts, June 7) portrayed the group as aesthetes squirreled away in Woodstock, N.Y., this firsthand chronicle highlights earthier episodes: the musicians' lowbrow rockabilly antics in Canada and the South, their incarnation as Bob Dylan's much-maligned backup band in the '60s and guitarist Robbie Robertson's estrangement from them in the late '70s. While Hoskyns quotes Robertson almost exclusively, the guitarist is rarely heard from here. Helm denounces notions that he and his fellows were smug: "Calling it The Band seemed a little on the pretentious, even blowhard side--burdened by greatness--but we never intended it that way." Although Helm and Davis open on the predictable downbeat--band member Richard Manuel's suicide--they close positively, with kind words from Dylan and the hope of a comeback. Of the two books, this plainspoken effort proves less dry and doesn't put its subjects on too high a pedestal. Photos not seen by PW .
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

Enjoyable history of a seminal late-60's rock group, told by the group's drummer with the help of Davis (coauthor, Fleetwood, 1990, etc.). The Band were an anomaly among groups of the era: Neither psychedelic nor commercial, their music harked back to the folk and blues roots of rock 'n' roll--and band members even looked like they'd just stepped out of a tintype. Working in seclusion in Woodstock, New York, with their sometime employer Bob Dylan, the group crafted a music that eerily captured the spirit of America's past. Here, Helm draws on his own memories of this heady time, along with interviews with surviving Band-men (other than Robbie Robertson, with whom he's had a nasty falling out), to give a fairly honest appraisal of the music and the times. Unlike some other celebrity rock-star memoirists, Helm doesn't concentrate on the sex and drugs that seem to be an integral part of any legitimate rock memoir, but describes as well the making of each album and the genesis of the songs. He also gives a scathing portrait of the making of The Last Waltz, the film of the group's last megaconcert, given in 1976--a film in which, Helm says, director Martin Scorsese glorified Robertson to the detriment of the group's other members. Helm's folksy manner can grate (``Memory lane can be a pretty painful address at times''); overall, though, a readable and evenhanded account that will appeal to Band fans and 60's nostalgists (though Barney Hoskyns's Across the Great Divide, p. 643, covers much of the same ground). (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press; 2 edition (September 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556524056
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556524059
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (151 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #403,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

253 of 255 people found the following review helpful By Shelley Mckibbon on January 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
In this book, it feels like Levon Helm is honestly trying to tell the real story of The Band, without prettying it up too much or casting too many aspersions. The overwhelming feeling I had when reading this book is that he feels there's too much Robertson -- and maybe too much Helm -- in the popular vision of The Band, and he seems to be making a conscious effort to ensure that Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and especially Richard Manuel get their fair share of the credit.
Judging by the way this book reads, it seems that it's largely composed of verbal reminiscences by Helm, later pieced together by Davis and embellished with accounts from other interested parties. This can make for confusing reading -- you have to either be alert to changes of voice or be willing to back up and remind yourself who said this or that. It also leads to some apparent "mood swings" on Helm's part -- it is clear that there are certain things about the history of The Band that still make him angry. His attitude toward Robbie Robertson is a case in point: the guitarist is "Robbie" throughout most of the book, becomes "Robertson" when Helm is talking about business/publishing quarrels and the whole "Last Waltz" situation, and then turns back into "Robbie" when Helm is discussing less loaded issues or reminiscing about the good times.
It's also very clear that Helm feels guilt as well as grief about Richard Manuel. The story begins with Manuel's death and then goes back to the beginning, and several times alludes to warning signs of Manuel's emotional instability that Helm seems to feel they should have caught.
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102 of 109 people found the following review helpful By David A. Bede on February 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
The trouble with autobiographies - especially rock star autobiographies - is that it's entirely too easy for the author to leave out information s/he is uncomfortable with. There is also a risk of turning your memoirs into a case of dirty laundry. Both of these problems surface at some points in this otherwise excellent memoir of one of the best and most fascinating bands of the rock era.
There is no doubt that Helm is the genuine article when it comes to rock and roll music. Born in rural Arkansas just before World War II, he grew up in the epicenter of the land and time that spawned the genre. The early chapters, with his accounts of rock's emergence and his early involvement with the new music as a teenager, are among the book's strongest moments. It is, after all, a story that needs to be told, given the fact that the radio and the rock press alike have been ignoring for decades the ongoing influence of the 1950s on post-Beatles rock. You'll never ignore it again after reading Helm's priceless accounts of toiling across the South and Midwest, backing up rockabilly great Ronnie Hawkins. Few others could offer the glimpses of that era that Helm does.
The evolution of Hawkins' band from a collection of Arkansas country boys to an all-Canadian (except for Helm) outfit was an unlikely one, but his account humanizes it all remarkably well. There could be more information on the Band's "lean years" - roughly 1963-65 - after their involvement with Hawkins and before Bob Dylan stepped in, and Dylan himself is as enigmatic as ever even in the memory of one who knew him; but then again, this was the least productive stretch of their long career.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 19, 2002
Format: Paperback must read this book.
Levon's down-home personality floods every page, and makes you wish you'd known him and his family growing up. Honestly, I probably enjoyed the chapters about his childhood as much or more than the chapters about being in one of my favorite groups--The Band.
There are some self-serving moments, but hey, they're illuminating too! Check out how casually Levon dismisses his own drug addiction in the early 70s, and completely ignores the fact that THAT might have contributed to the rift between the rest of them and Robbie (Rick and Richard were addicts too). He blames the rift primarily on Robbie's receiving most of the writing credits, but if everybody else was strung-out, SOMEBODY needed to write the songs!!! Oh yeah, and Levon devotes a few paragraphs too many to an incident in which Ronnie Hawkins claimed that Levon had a large genital appendage...not really the sort of information I was looking for... Apparently these guys were knee-deep in the hedonistic lifestyle too, but Levon doesn't much go into that...which is probably for the best.

And oh boy, there are shades to the relationship between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm that go far beyond what I previously realized...after reading this, you'll NEVER watch "The Last Waltz" the same way again. Man, oh man! Robbie comes off as less than likable, to put it kindly. And I gotta say, this isn't just a one-sided account, because Rick is quoted extensively too. Seems like money and fame can really wreck the best of friendships. Here's how.
If you'd prefer to think of the Band as a bunch of kindly guys who simply had fun recording good albums, you might want to stay away from this book! But if you'd like to see what sort of stuff was going on behind the scenes, and what fuels the continuing bitterness between the surviving members, or if you want to know more about Richard Manuel's untimely death, this book is your best source.
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