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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