The Band’s Robbie Robertson on his emotional last meeting with Levon Helm: ‘I spent an hour holding his hand’

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The Band’s Robbie Robertson was on this way to participate in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies when he heard that his longtime former collaborator Levon Helm was near death. After so much time, and so much water under the bridge, Robertson rushed over.

“It killed me to hear this,” Robertson tells George Stroumboulopoulos. “I did the induction ceremony, and then flew directly to New York and went to the hospital and I saw him, and I spent an hour holding his hand. Then a day, or a couple of days later, he passed on. I was relieved that I was able to get there, and just be there with him.”

Long after the Band’s initial late-1970s split, the relationship between Robertson and Helm remained torn by disagreements over songwriting credits. But, as Helm — the voice of such classic moments as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Weight” — edged closer toward losing his long battle with cancer, Robertson says they two men made amends.

“We were never not friends,” Robertson says. “What happened after I wasn’t with the Band anymore — I did leave, after The Last Waltz. I knew it was time. It was survival time, and I had to go. And years later, after that, Levon became very bitter — and he was right in saying I walked away. But he went to a whole other place in this that was never true. It just kind of ate him up, and it became part of his personality.”

Helm later won a trio of consecutive Grammys for his solo work, beginning with 2007’s Dirt Farmer. When he died in 2012, the only remaining Band members became Robertson and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Richard Manuel (for whom Robertson wrote “Fallen Angel”) passed in the 1980s, and Rick Danko died in the 1990s.

Robertson says he still feels the sting of Helm’s absence, though he was happy to have reconciled: “He was my best friend in the world,” Robertson adds, “and so it did hurt my feelings. But I knew what wasn’t true.”

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  • Sweet William

    I, for one, do take sides with Robbie as principal songwriter of The Band.
    It was he who worked late, for years, with Bob Dylan crafting songs. Again, it was Robbie who spent thousands of hours in the Woodstock library researching and studying.
    I do take stock of the ‘post Robbie’ Band and solo songs and find them in a much lower league of creativity. At the same time Robbie’s solo songs are still masterworks only the soul of Levon, Rick, and Richard are not there to lift them to the heights of the early Band albums.
    The three singers were often so inebriated that poetry was as foreign as mandarin to them.
    Rest in peace and I pray you three are among heaven’s choir.

    • Mike

      Robbie’s solo albums are worthless. Seems he needs some help with the songwriting.

    • Rich

      I agree wholeheartedly Sweet William and it really bugs me to hear all the Robbie bashing over the years. I’m not saying he doesn’t have big ego. Many artists do. But he was the principal songwriter. He worked hard and deserved the fruits of his labor.

      I never believed Levon’s claim that after the first album came out that the other members were shocked that Robbie was listed as sole songwriter for most of the songs. If that was the case why didn’t he quit then and there instead of making the remaining albums. Also the best post- Robbie Band songs were written by others. (Blind Willie McTell and Atlantic City come to mind)

      Levon sure was talented and the Band wouldn’t have been the same without him. Contributing a riff or a distinct drum fill does not entitle one to share songwriting credit. He was paid for his contributions recording and playing live. I’m glad he had success later on. But his sour grapes whining was ridiculous. It wasn’t Robbie’s fault that there’s good money in music publishing and nothing stopped Levon from writing good money making tunes in the 35+ years after the Band broke up. It wasn’t Robbie’s fault he was more of an astute business man and planned for his post- Band career.

      I’m glad that they were able to reconcile in some way but enough with the Robbie bashing BS.

      And for the record Robbie’s solo albums were not “worthless” Mike. The first two were very good IMHO.

  • Poss

    What Levon’s animosity tells me is thatRobertson never “took care of the boys” financially after they broke up. Robertson became the rich one…the rest were just getting by, relatively speaking. Robbie could have done better for “his best friend”…

  • Poss

    I read,somewhere that Springsteen of all people offered Levon 1 million dollars to rescue Levon’s home from the bank, and Levon turned him down. I don’t think Robertson offered anything , or “peanuts” over the years. If,Robertson had offered that generous an offer, or something akin to it…Im sure Levon would have piped down…

  • Ron

    Robbie always throws in the negatives….even with Dylan, always indicating he was not that much a factor in the Bands success…bull…what an ego…and not that good a songwriter

    • jim abbott

      Cant agree. He is a great songwriter but it took the three lead singers to make the Band’s sound what it was. As for Dylan’s influence…its there but not as huge as many think. I think moving to Woodstock was the key for them. Everything went downhill when some of them moved to Malibu. Just my opinion.

  • Poss

    Also heard that at one point some major names, including Clapton, wanted to do a short tour and make another movie or tv show with The Band, post Richard…but Dylan wouldn’t do it. Then it fell apart. That was all about generating some funds for the surviving members. As it turned out…Levon rose from the ashes one more time and had a great late career…

  • Arthur Shepherd

    God Bless You Robbie…it’s all good. The Band, as a whole, shaped so much of our consciousness that writing credits don’t really mean that much now. What we are left with is priceless and irreplaceable. So, no worries….y’all got it done and I know I’m grateful. The Band has been my favorite band since 1970…Peace to you Brother…you’re awesome and same goes for Levon Helm…

  • Crazy Chester

    Was it Robbie’s responsibility to take care of Levon for 35 years after The Last Waltz? And the Springsteen story…ain’t no way Levon would turn down money—of any amount.

    • Dan

      Levon did turn down money from Springsteen. Keith Richards also offered to help pay medical bills, and he turned that down too. Why do you assume he’d take any money thrown at him?

      Levon was a proud man, not the kind of guy that would openly accept money being thrown at him. He didn’t want people to pity him.

  • Gerard Hill

    I will repeat the story again for the record,which is the story that was passed down to me. Whether or not it is true is only known in those who participated in the deal. Supposedly Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were offered a deal to cash in their rights to the songs many years ago when the thought of the songs being worth a lot more money than they were than because of the nature of the almighty dollar. Levon Helm refused to deal,and supposedly felt that Rick and Garth and Richard should have been paid more money in the deal. With Rick and Richard going out the way they did, I’m sure it didn’t help Levon’s feelings on this.No one has disputed this yet,as I have posted it in relation to the story. No grudges towards Robbie. I don’t know the man. But my heart was buried with Levon. gerry hill.

  • Gerard Hill

    Who participated in the deal, and if Robbie got the other player’s rights to the songs is not determined, but the songs are worth a hell of a lot more in the new millenium than they were thirty years ago, so it might seem that the other members of the Band were shortchanged. So Levon was bitter because Robbie made a lot of money off of the other members who went through some very tough times. Garth Hudson might be the only one to clear it up for the record. But having to have seen Garth and Maude and them being the beautiful people that they are, I do not think they would offer any discussion on this. It would be nice, now that Levon has passed though, to get someone who has knowledge to either confirm this or put it to rest. No one has, and like I said I have posted it everywhere. If it is the truth, truth is something I’m not afraid of. Levon taught me that. Anybody?

  • Brian Gauci

    Check out the songwriting credits on “Big Pink” then check out the same on the other albums….notice any difference???

  • J.Q.

    I’ll bite. Basically, after following this (tiring) debate for years, it seems to me to boil down to Levon being half right and half crazy cantankerous southerner. Robbie clearly wrote the songs, and Levon’s arguments about that don’t hold up at all: finding the part for your instrument is not songwriting; even what Garth did was arranging, not songwriting; Robbie came to the table with chords, melody, and lyrics–and that is what a song is. John Simon has said so, Richard Manuel has admitted he all but stopped writing after Big Pink. But still, Robbie should have been cooler about the money, and Levon has an excellent point there. Robbie was not obliged to be more generous, and it’s true that few other musicians in similar circumstances have been (someone brings up Keith Richards–just go ask Billy Preston or Mick Taylor how generous Keith was with songwriting credits/royalties, the answer is: not), but this was THE BAND, and no matter what the legal protections for songwriters may be, this exceptional group deserved an exceptional financial arrangement–a FAIR one. So yes, Levon was correct to gripe–but not to cast the guy as The Lord of Evil. His bitterness, the unbelievable vitriol he poured on Robbie (and that countless numbskull “fans” have imitated) is absurd and embarrassing, as are the songwriting claims–which only surfaced a decade after the group split–and they have obscured the good points he had to make.

  • T Herling

    Every time I see “the feud” brought up by fans on comments pages, I’m reminded of the “Yoko broke up the Beatles” mythology.

    A full accounting of the story would have to ask the painful questions of what happened to all the money Levon and the others made from touring, album sales, appearing in films, etc. The sad reality is that it’s likely that drugs and alcohol played a large part in how their fortunes played out.

    • charles dunn

      Yes, you are absolutely right. The four non writers made millions but squandered it away in very high living. In addition, Levon claims they were each given $400M as final settlement.
      How come Levon and Garth keep filing bankruptcy?
      According to Ronnie Hawkins Robbie was taking care of business while the others were zoned out of their heads except Garth.

      • Ronnie Lyons

        You Don’t know what your Talking About! What you have said is Pure hearsay and BS!!!

        • charles dunn

          Mr. Lyons, my information came from Levon Helm’s biography. You should read it if you can.

          • Ronnie Lyons

            I don’t have to read it. I knew Levon Well!

            • charles dunn

              So you’re saying Levon lied in his book. What a good friend you must have been.