Levon Helm documentary "Ain't In It For My Health" - commentary by Ricki C.

January’s presentation for the Reelin’ & Rockin’ at the Gateway series   – hosted by Brian Phillips & Colin Gawel – will be the Levon Helm documentary “Ain’t In It For My Health.”  Showtime is Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 8 pm, preceded by a 7 pm happy hour at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High Street.  Admission is $5, proceeds benefitting 102.5 For The Kids.

There are only a limited number of ways to grow old in rock & roll.

There are lots of ways to die young in rock & roll: drug overdoses, airplane crashes, jealous husbands/wives, drug overdoses, accidental drowning, suicide, drug overdoses.  Did I mention drug overdoses?  From Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain to Jeff Buckley, the adage “Die young and leave a pretty corpse” pretty much sums up the rock & roll ideal.

But growing old in rock & roll, that’s a different story: maybe you’re lucky and you’re Bruce Springsteen and you hold onto not only your hair AND your money, but your artistic integrity, too.  Or maybe you’re lucky like Pete Townshend of The Who and you get to spend your later years selling your ass to the highest bidder on endless “farewell” tours and CSI franchise theme songs.  Or maybe you’re not so lucky and you wind up as two-fifths or three-fifths of some mid-level 70’s band – say, Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner or Kansas – dragging your ass around America playing the Hollywood Casino, Wing Zings, county fairs or Picnic With The Pops.

The subject of this week’s film – Levon Helm – falls somewhere in the middle of that growing old in rock & roll equation.   

“Ain’t In It For My Health” was filmed between 2007 and 2010, but not widely released until 2013, owing to various legal hassles.  (Parenthetically, I choose to believe these legal hassles probably pertained to Band member – and main songwriter – Robbie Robertson refusing permission for filmmaker Jacob Hatley to use The Band’s music in the movie.  I suppose I could have googled the reasons – or whatever you kids do nowadays – but I didn’t, so look it up yourself.)

Levon Helm died in the interim – of a recurrence of the cancer he battles in the film – on April 19th, 2012.  He was a road musician to the end.  One of his last shows was just north of us – in Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 19th, 2012 – exactly one month before he died.

There are only a limited number of ways to grow old in rock & roll.

Richard Manuel – piano player and one of three lead singers in The Band, alongside Helm and Rick Danko – died in 1986, at age 42, hanging himself from a motel shower rod after a gig in Florida.  Bass player and vocalist extraordinaire Rick Danko died in 1999, at 56, of heart failure: heart failure brought on by, in my humble opinion, decades of drugs, alcohol and road food.  Levon Helm soldiered on, making two of his best records – Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt – decades after Robbie Robertson unilaterally ended The Band’s career with 1976’s “The Last Waltz.”  (At the moment I am typing this sentence Robertson is probably sunning himself at his Southern California manse, rubbing shoulders with Martin Scorsese and living off his songwriting royalties, royalties from the tunes Manuel, Danko and Helm gave voice to.)    

I’ve seen a lot of rock & roll movies since “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964.  Some have been great, most are thoroughly mediocre.  This film – chronicling the final two of Levon Helm’s 71 years on the planet, roughly 55 of those years as a road musician and rock & roller – is absolutely one of my top five of the last 10 years.

And the opening shot – of a tour bus idling in pre-dawn darkness outside a Holiday Inn, ready to take Levon Helm and his band down another road to another gig – is worth the price of admission all by itself.  – Ricki C. / January 15th, 2015

By the way, I saw The Band when they were still called the Hawks, backing Bob Dylan on his first electric tour, at Vet's Memorial, November 19th, 1965, when I was in the eighth grade.  For a full accounting of that show, check out Bob Dylan & The Hawks on my old blog, Growing Old With Rock & Roll.  As stated in that piece, I either saw Levon Helm or Bobby Gregg playing drums that night - different Dylanologist books tell me different stories.  Myself, I have no idea, I was an eighth-grader that night, for Chrissakes.  All I know is, all of The Hawks - except for Robbie Robertson - had hair that was much too short by the prevailing rock & roll standards of the day.

And, all I know is, those six guys were BLAZING.