I’d Rather Die Happy Than Not Die at All

levon-helm

In Australia, stores that sell second-hand clothes are called op-shops, and I assume the “op” is short for “opportunity.”  Their combination of lower prices and unpredictable inventories often results in opportunities to try things that I might have, or had, passed up in other circumstances.  And so it came about that, as a classically impoverished graduate student, I acquired for a dollar each The Band and Stage Fright, the second and third albums by the guys who’d hit it big with “The Weight” and Music From Big Pink a few years earlier.

I hadn’t been impressed by the 1968 debut.  I was in one of those phases where Bob Dylan bored me, and the melodies and rhythms of “The Weight” seemed lumpy and graceless, the lyrics inchoate, leading nowhere.  But now, half a dozen years later, I was living in the South and hearing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” on the radio often—not just by the Band but Joan Baez and maybe more importantly Johnny Cash.  “Rag Mama Rag” and “Up on Cripple Creek” were FM radio staples and wildly popular amongst a crowd of us grad students eager to slot into something that seemed a comfortable approximation of Southern culture.

I grew to love those albums while I was learning to recognize spice bush moths and crape myrtles.  Those two albums by the Band were the soundtrack to my explorations of the South, my introduction to the pride and the poverty, the broken hearts and the abiding faith of my new home.

I’ve been waiting a long time now to watch Ain’t In It For My Health, the documentary about Levon Helm that was shot mostly in 2008, and released on DVD in 2013 on the first anniversary of Helm’s death.  The moment arrived last night, and it was worth the wait.

While there is some archival footage from the Band’s career, the bulk of the film is centered on Helm’s home in Woodstock, NY.  From his first appearance, Helm is striking in his gauntness, his age, and given that he’s lived in this rural New York town for fifty years, for his Arkansas affect, full of grit and humor and a stoic, sometimes cynical enjoyment of life.

levon_helm_1The first time Helm appears on the screen it’s shocking to behold the visage of someone’s grandfather.  Gray-haired and strong-jawed, he looks older than I’d imagined he would.  And he has that same grandpaternal mixture of kindness and old-timer irascibility you’d expect from a old man who’s seen all that the world can deliver for good and bad.

In 2008, Helm had recovered from bankruptcy and was struggling back to performing after being treated for throat cancer.  To save his home, he had begun holding concerts in a barn on his property that were known as “Midnight Rambles.”  The term itself derives from an old Southern tradition that had provided the inspiration for the Band’s song “W. S. Walcott Medicine Show.”  Traveling musical revues would feature an after-midnight coda, once the children had been sent off to bed, that was racier and more uninhibited.  And there’s an element of that illicit performance throughout the film: there’s a fair amount of on-screen smoking and the air of silliness that pervades many of the scenes demonstrates that more than tobacco is involved.

The good humor and laughter is counterbalanced by the persistent threat to Helm’s health (there are some grisly medical examinations to endure) and by the sense of a man who lives with an abiding bitterness.  In the course of several interviews it becomes clear that Helm felt cheated by the years with the Band, particularly in the way that Robbie Robertson, as the chief songwriter, grew richer from publishing royalties that the rest of the musicians didn’t share.  For Helm this was especially galling as he felt that the distinctive Southern American ethos that informed and elevated the Band from the general run of late-sixties rockers came from Robertson’s ability to channel the knowledge of the South and its musical traditions that he extracted from Helm.

This bitterness has come to encompass the entire music industry and carries the weight of the deaths of Richard Manuel (a suicide) and Rick Danko in the years between the band’s heyday and the turn of the century.  At the time of the filming, Helm had just released Dirt Farmer, his first solo album since in over 25 years.  The album was nominated for a Grammy in 2008, and Helm himself was to be given a lifetime achievement award, but his deep cynicism about the industry’s motives made him refuse to attend the ceremony.  He opted instead to host a “Midnight Gramble” on the night of the awards, and the concert was informed by the undeniable joy that everyone in the ensemble felt when they learned that Dirt Farmer did indeed win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

What the film demonstrates best of all, though, is the way in which that traditional Southern music runs through Helm’s spirit, and how his Arkansas roots continue to nourish him.  The tag line on the cover of the DVD is a quote from Daniel Carlson of The Hollywood Reporter: “A captivating look at a musician hanging onto his art for dear life.”  That sounds too pat, and too Hollywood, but there’s more than a grain of truth to it.  His family and friends are all part of his joy, and many of them, including his daughter Amy, are there to make music with him.  And the music they make, the debilitating tours, the Midnight Rambles in the barn, provide Helm with the means (literally the money) to keep on living his life and filling it with a sense of accomplishment and continuity.

levon-hem-2The music is exquisite and intriguing, joyous and mournful.  “Anna Lee” with its sawing fiddle takes you from a barn in Woodstock down into the Deep South and across the ocean to a Celtic homeland; and when you listen to Helm sing, you know he’s walked every mile of that journey with the tune humming in his blood.  Elsewhere, he’s on mandolin, leading the rehearsal of “Rag Mama Rag,” and then he and Larry Campbell are sitting on a couch trying to puzzle good words to add to the bridge of an unfinished lyric by Hank Williams.

Later in the film, we return to that couch to watch Helm and Campbell devise a melody for the song.  At times Helm’s head lolls back and his eyes close and you wonder if he’s really there, or if the exhaustion of his life has caught up with him.  And then Campbell plays a lick and Helm responds, pointing a thumb up or down to guide Campbell’s chord changes and harmony according to some innate sense of how this song sings.  Helm tires sometimes, his head falls backward, he rocks in a canvas chair, he gets up and walks away.  He’s almost never without a big plastic cup, sipping to ease his throat.  He’s hoarse and he’s eloquent.

In a surprising interlude, we get to see Helm hanging out with the local farmers.  He gets to drive the tractor that culls the dead corn stalks when the harvest is done.  He drives the machine in tight circles with all the glee of a teenager doing wheelies around the Dairy Queen on a night when nobody’s looking.  And he sits with the farmers and swaps a turkey sandwich for ham, and you know that he’s never ever really left the South behind, for all his years in upstate New York.

And so Levon Helm, who gave me a way to feel my way into living in the South, spent his whole life among Yankees without ever letting them get in his way.  Me, I’m still a Yankee, I guess, despite having lived two-thirds of my life down here.  When I first moved here someone quizzed me about the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee.  I gave him a dumb look, of course.  He told me a Yankee comes to the South, looks at the Spanish moss and the plantation’s cotton fields, snaps a picture of two, and goes back North.  A damn Yankee does the same things, and then doesn’t go back North, but stays (dammit).  Watching Ain’t In It For My Health, I thoroughly enjoyed this man from the deep South, permanently transplanted to upstate New York revel in driving tractors through his neighbors fields, helping out with the clearing of fields after the harvest, and bringing the mirth and the sorrow of his roots to his community.

The film ends rather abruptly.  There’s no real conclusion, summation, or moral.  There’s just a black and white title card that notes Helm’s death in 2012.  Ain’t that just the way life goes?

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