I first heard Levon Helm singing and drumming in 1968. I was a sophomore in my high school cafeteria. A student with a record player was playing The Weight from The Band’s first album, Music from Big Pink. The song opens with a solo mandolin (acoustic guitar?) followed by Levon Helm’s very simple, perfect, four-note tom-tom fill. In 1968 no one else’s drums had that sound. Then Levon starts singing, “I pulled into Nazareth. I was feeling ’bout half-past dead.” No other singer sounded like Levon.
Fast forward to 1977-78. The Band, after releasing some excellent albums, called it quits at their 1976 Thanksgiving concert captured in the great film, The Last Waltz. The year before (1975) Levon co-produced, sang, and played drums on Blues great Muddy Waters’s “Woodstock Album.”
In 1977, the album Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars was released. I was freelancing for Modern Drummer; three years away from being Managing Editor. I decided Levon would make a great MD feature interview. MD founder Ron Spagnardi must have agreed, although I don’t remember talking about it with him.
Neither do I remember who I called to see if Levon was interested in an interview. Record company? Management company? At any rate, Levon was interested and I was asked to do the interview in New York City that day. The timing was such that I had to hang up the phone, gather my interviewing equipment, and get to NYC now! Not a minute to spare. Not the ideal circumstance.
I met Levon and, with several other people, moved to a nearby Japanese restaurant to conduct the interview. That’s when Levon told me I could not tape record the interview. Why? “I don’t want to be misquoted,” Levon said. In the past, Levon said, he had given interviews to music journalists who published invented Levon Helm quotes.
I was dumbfounded and disappointed. Dumbfounded because I couldn’t believe a journalist or a reporter would invent quotes. That was the antithesis of good reporting. Also, not tape recording Levon’s interview seemed to make misquotes much more likely, even inevitable. MD feature interviews in 1977 ran a minimum 7,500 words, most often in a question-and-answer format. The rule of thumb was 300 typewritten words per page. 7,500 words equals 25 pages.
Disappointed because I knew I could not do justice to a Levon Helm MD feature interview relying solely on notes scratched out with pen on paper over Japanese food and saki. Levon even spoke musically. His thoughts often rolled out in unique, funny expressions. For example, we closed the restaurant. And Levon asked one of his group to buy saki to take back to his hotel. Told the Japanese restaurant owner refused, Levon joked, “Dumb bastard. No wonder they lost the war.”
We did talk about his tom-tom sound. Levon told me he tensioned the top head loose so that, looking across the head, you could just begin to see it rippling. He was also impressed I had interviewed Joe Morello. Levon told the group at the table that Morello had started out as a violinist before he applied “the sensitivity of a violinist” to the drumset. Levon asked if I could introduce him to Joe Morello – but that’s a story for another day.
I tried once more, days later, to persuade Levon to let me interview him using a tape recorder. I offered to drive to his home in Woodstock, NY, interview him, burn the midnight oil at a local motel transcribing the tapes on my manual typewriter, and leaving Leon a copy of the transcript and the audio cassettes before driving back to Long Island, NY.
This story, however, does have a happy ending. Robyn Flans interviewed Levon for MD in 1984, and he went on to give plenty of interviews. I will always be grateful I had the chance to meet Levon and his wife, Sandy. We spoke a few times over the years. But, I will always remember my interview with Levon as one that got away.