Bob Cannon
January 28, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Most rock biographies focus on stars’ decadence-who took what drug at which show with which groupie. Sure, it’s juicy stuff, but it gets the reader no closer to knowing the subject. To do that, it helps to examine him or her away from the lights, when a rock icon most resembles a mortal being. In his autobiography, THIS WHEEL’S ON FIRE: LEVON HELM AND THE STORY OF THE BAND (Morrow, $22), The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm, understands that point. The Band-four Canadians and an ”Arkansawyer” (Helm)-played for years behind rowdy rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins throughout Canada and the southern U.S. as the Hawks (”Ronnie made sure that we had the worst reputation in North America”). A 1965 call from Bob Dylan put them on tour as his backing group, facing a continual assault by angry folk-music fans who felt betrayed by their hero’s new electric style. After Dylan’s debilitating 1966 motorcycle accident, the Hawks holed up in Woodstock, N.Y., and developed a woodsy sound unlike anything heard at the time. Their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink (credited to ”The Band,” as they were casually known around Woodstock), was hailed as a masterpiece, evoking homey lyrical images of Americana. ”This album was recorded in approximately two weeks,” reported Rolling Stone. ”There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.” Already they had earned a reputation as an intensely private and dedicated group more concerned with their music’s integrity than with rock & roll flash. Nevertheless, when thrust into the spotlight, The Band suffered from the typical trappings of success: greed, sex, and drugs. After eight years as headliners and critics’ darlings, they split up in 1976, making their final live appearance at the Last Waltz, an all-star testimonial to their pervasive influence on ’70s rock. If Helm had simply told a rags-to-riches story of The Band, This Wheel’s on Fire would have been a serviceable rock bio. Instead, he goes one step further and illuminates the men behind the records: the ambitious Robbie Robertson, the fun-loving Rick Danko, master musician Garth Hudson, and the gifted but doomed Richard Manuel, who killed himself in 1986. Helm describes the Hawks’ brutal training in honky-tonks and dance halls, as well as their frustration at being North America’s best unknown band. ”The big acts of the day-the Beatles and the Beach Boys-came across to us as a blend of pale, homogenized voices,” writes Helm. ”We were jealous and considered them our rivals, even % though they’d never heard of us.” Although coauthor Stephen Davis provides historical analysis, and other Band members’ stories are woven throughout, the book’s voice is unquestionably Helm’s. An engaging and vivid storyteller, he recounts a brush with ’60s Southern racism when a marathon jam session with blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson was broken up by Arkansas police. A meeting with a New York record company sleazeball reads like a prickly rock & roll morality play. And Rick Danko’s attempt at gutting a deer carcass becomes a wild cautionary tale of why musicians should stick to music. By focusing his yarn-spinning on these moments away from the spotlight, Helm achieves a surprising intimacy with these world-famous characters. Thus, reading about the eventual dissolution of The Band (who have recently reformed without Robertson) becomes as heartbreaking as watching two close friends divorce. According to Helm, his growing rift with Robertson was a product of manager Albert Grossman’s ”divide and conquer” mentality, whereby Robertson received full songwriting credit for what had ostensibly been a group effort. In Helm’s words, ”Somebody had pencil-whipped us. Far too much cash was coming down in his (Robertson’s) and Albert’s corner.” And finally, his heartache over the death of Manuel is palpable. ”Richard had flirted with the Reaper a few times before, and every time God threw him back to us.” Helm makes it clear that he is ultimately more interested in creating good music than in cultivating a useful public image. ”We’re just musicians,” he told Manuel on the night of his death. ”We’re just working for the crowd. It’s the best we can do.” In recounting his career, Helm achieves his best moments through that kind of disarming understatement. Not surprisingly, that’s exactly how The Band carved its own distinctive niche in rock & roll. A

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