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This Wheel’s on Fire

June 11, 2012

A couple weeks ago I finished a really wonderful rock and roll biography, this one by Levon Helm of the Band; it’s called This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band.

In the past 10 years, I’ve grown to love Levon in his solo career and been reminded of how much I always loved the Band from my youth. I’ve attended some concerts of his and been to a Midnight Ramble. And the only other performer I know who takes such obviously unbridled joy in performing is Bruce Springsteen. Levon’s dazzling smile while playing never failed to make me grin like a goofball, and the affection and love he showed to his bandmates (especially daughter Amy) warmed my heart.

In the late 1990s he learned that he had throat cancer, lost his voice for a while, but battled back and eventually put out three Grammy-winning albums and toured with the Levon Helm Band. That’s when I saw him with my daughter (a Band fanatic of the highest order).

All of that happened after he wrote this book, however, and makes a wonderful coda to his career and life. This Wheel’s on Fire tells the story of a young man who found himself in an amazing time and place in the history of rock and roll.

Levon isn’t his real name, of course. It’s Mark Lavon Helm. He was born and raised in Arkansas, across the Mississippi from Memphis. His hometown and county produced some big hitters (besides him): Conway Twitty and Sonny Boy Williamson. He saw lots of shows by the early pioneers of rock and roll, and of course his family’s love of music and the musical melting pot that was the South (country, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass, and New Orleans rhythms).

Levon tells his story in the straight-shooting, straight-talking voice that you’d expect from him. His simple approach to life, country upbringing, and Southern perspective help him deliver his tale with wisdom, humor, and real passion that are hard to deny.

Each day I read a little more, I found the experience to be particularly bittersweet, as I began the book less than a week before he died, just one day before the family’s announcement that he was in his final battle with throat cancer.

If you’re a Robbie Robertson fan, you may want to pass on reading Levon’s story (although he was quite fair and decorous when describing the falling-out the two old friends had, eventually leading to the break-up of the Band). For all you other music lovers, find a copy of this book and read it (it’s not too long and reads really quickly and easily). You’ll be glad you did.

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