A new biography of Levon Helm — the late drummer, singer and well-loved member of The Band — sent its Victoria author, Sandra B. Tooze, on a journey through the building blocks of rock ’n’ roll, including stops in Arkansas (where Helm was born and raised) and Tennessee (where The Band’s brand of roots-rock has roots).
What she encountered on her multi-year trek was a universal fondness and admiration for Helm, whose life receives its first in-depth biography with Tooze’s Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of The Band and Beyond. She gravitated toward Helm, who died in 2012, after interviewing him for her first book, 1997’s Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man. Tooze was struck by Helm’s at-ease manner during their phone chat, having never met the man in person. But this same down-to-earth nature was reinforced repeatedly during the research on the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Tooze said.
“When I was interviewing him, he made feel like I was treasured friend of his. It was a really remarkable thing. And it wasn’t fake. He loved people, and he loved connecting with them.”
Tooze started writing the book in 2016, while she was still living in Toronto. She finished it in her native Victoria, where she relocated in 2017 after closing the chapter on her 15-year career as an editor with Penguin Books. She had read Helm’s 2013 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band — previously, the only book focused exclusively on Helm — but felt she could add something to the Southern mythology that surrounded him and The Band.
“I did some preliminary research, and I really was convinced that there was more to say about Levon than what was in his autobiography,” Tooze said.
The author has elicited some high-placed support of her book. Diversion Books will release Levon in Canada and the U.S. on Aug. 25 with endorsements from two notable Arkansas natives, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Oscar-winning actor Mary Steenburgen, in addition to Grammy Award winner Vince Gill and guitarist Steve Katz, a founding member of Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
She received similarly impressive endorsements during the release of her Muddy Waters book — Eric Clapton wrote the foreword for that one, and both Helm and Mick Jagger provided back-cover quotes — but the outpouring of love for her Helm tome was on a different level altogether, according to Tooze.
“That was one of the amazing things, how loved he was — not just as a musician, but as a person. Several people I spoke with broke down talking about him. They missed him so much.”
Though The Band had three lead singers, Helm is often identified as the group’s primary vocalist; that’s him singing lead on signature songs The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Up on Cripple Creek, Don’t Do It, and Rag Mama Rag.
Tooze covered that topic extensively, in addition to one of the most hotly debated themes surrounding the group and its legacy, the issue of songwriting credits, but came up with no clear-cut answer on the latter. Only two founders from the group are still alive, and neither guitarist Robbie Robertson or keyboardist Garth Hudson agreed to her interview requests.
Her attention to detail when it comes to Helm’s ability as a drummer, however, is one of the notable aspects of the book.
She interviewed studio drumming legends Steve Jordan (of Keith Richards and Eric Clapton fame) and Jim Keltner (John Lennon, the Traveling Wilburys) for their takes on the matter, combined with her own first-hand experiences as a novice drummer. She has been taking lessons from Victoria drum teacher Murray Creed, who helped her evaluate Helm’s considerable skills, which placed him at No. 22 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2016 list of the 100 Greatest Drummer of All Time (impressively, Helm also made it onto the magazine’s 2011 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, coming in at No. 91.)
Bob Dylan said of Helm, following his death: “[He was] one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.” Tooze captured that essence in Levon, but she isn’t sure if she has the resiliency to tackle another book. The idea of writing another music biography is not something Tooze said she is currently entertaining.
“It’s a really stressful process, I find. I’m not really cut out to approach complete strangers and ask them to talk to me. But it’s also extremely rewarding. With the Muddy [Waters] book, I was quite concerned about going to Mississippi. I thought a lot of people would kind of resent me coming into their culture and nosing around. But they were so receptive, and extremely helpful. It always amazes me how receptive people are to a total stranger asking them questions about their friends. But it worked out.”