Tag Archives: This Wheel’s on Fire

Levon Helm

Most of the tributes to Levon Helm (who just died at 71 after a long fight against throat cancer) rightly focus on his remarkable career as a musician. I thought I would highlight his short but memorable list of movie credits: narrator and sidekick to Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and in particular his superb work as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. His Arkansas-bred drawl and charisma never failed to light up the screen whenever he took a role. Any man who could hold his own with Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard was no joke.

Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s On Fire is hands-down the most entertaining rock bio I’ve read, and I only wish he’d recorded an audiobook version in that inimitable storyteller’s voice. As someone who could never quite swallow Robbie Robertson’s self-important pronouncements in The Last Waltz, I trust Helm’s take on the breakup of The Band far more than anyone else’s. Nobody disputes Robertson’s place as chief songwriter for The Band, but there’s also no question that the heavily workshopped songs on those first two Band albums (in which Robertson shared songwriting credits) are the ones that sustain the group’s mystique, while the Robertson-only songs on subsequent albums are a far cry from their predecessors. And if Robbie was the sole genius at work in The Band, why has he failed to record a note of music that matters in his post-Band career? I think Helm’s lasting bitterness was justified.

All that’s done now. Helm had a fine late phase in his career, garlanded with Grammy awards and sparked by plenty of fine music. I only wish I’d been able to catch one of his Midnight Rambles. 

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Blue Monday (Helm on Buchanan)

Roy Buchanan was the bluesman’s bluesman, and he could do some pretty amazing things with a Telecaster. In the early Sixties, he briefly joined The Hawks, backing up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, and shared the stage with the musicians who would go on to become The Band. He even tutored Robbie Robertson just before Robertson stepped up to become the group’s lead guitarist. In his memoir This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm talks about Buchanan, whom he describes as “a brilliant and moody player who definitely had his own mystique.”

He had a beatnik look, complete with goatee, which both Ronnie and I adopted for a while. Roy had strange eyes, didn’t talk to anyone, and looked real fierce. Ronnie always reminded us to smile, move, and dance when we played. We had to look like we were having a better time than anyone. It was show business, those little leg kicks that fellas in bands had to do back then.

Not Roy. He didn’t believe in putting on a show. He just stood there and played the shit out of that guitar. Roy played a Louisiana Hayride style like Fred [Carter Jr.] and James Burton, who was playing with Ricky Nelson then. We loved how good Roy was, but he was too weird for the Hawk. One night Roy tried to convince us that he was a werewolf and destined to marry a nun. Not long after that, Robbie took over the lead guitar.

The clip above shows Buchanan playing “Sweet Dreams,” the instrumental version of a Don Gibson tune that became Buchanan’s signature piece.

Here’s another display of Buchanan’s fiery technique:

In this clip, Buchanan plays dueling Telecasters with Albert Collins on “Further On Down the Road.”

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