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Levon Helm and The Band: a rock parable of fame, betrayal, and redemption

Levon Helm of The Band found an unlikely path back to fame after decades of disappointment. But by the end, the homespun singer from Turkey Scratch, Ark., had come full circle.

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The long-term damage had been done by the time Helm reunited with his bandmates minus Robertson in the 1980s. Despite their acclaimed musicianship, the group was relegated to the oldies circuit and money did not come steadily. Mr. Manuel hung himself in a hotel room while on tour in 1986. Helm pulled his body down and never fully recovered.

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Mr. Danko died 12 years later, suffering various health complications. A month before Danko’s death, I watched him play to a half-empty Chicago-area music room. While his signature voice remained angelic, he looked tired and seemingly not deserving of such meager surroundings considering the hugely influential body of work he created with The Band.

In his book, Helm blamed Robertson and his former business partners for Danko’s condition. “If Rick’s money wasn’t in their pockets, I don’t think Rick would have died because Rick worked himself to death.… He wasn’t that old and he wasn’t that sick. He just worked himself to death. And the reason Rick had to work all the time was because he’d been [expletive] out of his money.”

Helm eventually insulated himself in Woodstock, N.Y., and declared bankruptcy following a house fire that destroyed his possessions and put him into debt. But in 2004, with the help of town locals, he started hosting Saturday night concerts at his new home.

The concerts were underground affairs until a New York Times article broke the news and soon, the weekly events became regular sellouts, which led to touring, larger audiences, and his first solo album in 25 years. In 2007, he emerged from bankruptcy.

The phenomenon of the “Midnight Ramble,” as Helm called the Saturday evening house parties, reflected Helm’s unique downhome sensibilities. At one performance I attended while on assignment for a music magazine, his house on a pitch-dark wooded back road was marked by a balloon tied to a mailbox. There, the road opened to a large field for parking. Tables set up by town locals had cupcakes, cookies, juice, pasta salad, and other food. People mingled and talked while Helm’s dog, Muddy, wandered around looking for ear scratches.

When it came time for the music, Helm emerged from a back room gleaming, shaking hands with the 100 people tucked around the room on folding chairs. Despite his age – and persistent throat troubles – he snapped at the drums with fierce strength while singing with emotive depth and tender inflections.

“It’s certainly a miracle for me and a dream come true. I never thought I would sing and play like I used to be able to do. I thank God. Every song is a celebration for me,” he said at the time.

At that time, the setlist comprised mainly of blues, Cajun, and Southern soul classics. But by the time Helm was playing to sell-out crowds on the theater circuit and to younger fans at festivals like Bonnaroo in central Tennessee, he acquiesced and performed more familiar Band fare, now accompanied by a band consisting of his daughter, family friends, and the occasional all-star guest like Elvis Costello or Emmylou Harris.

Like any music that remains long after the people who created it have moved on, The Band’s songs remain mysterious, much like the photographs from that era that showed them wearing saloon-keeper suits and gunslinger headwear, making them look like the images from the Civil War-era, not Vietnam.

That timeless sound, like photographs we receive from the people before us, is infused with a mixture of joy and sorrow.

At Helm’s home, I noticed two lit candles on a shelf. Helm later told me they were in memory of Danko and Manuel.

“We got some good spirits with us every day,” he said.

RECOMMENDED: Five biggest omissions from the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame 

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