"Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right? Just kidding. But I have to say my all-time favorite book is Johnny Cash's autobiography Cash by Johnny Cash." -- Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
Books about music are funny beasts. Writing a book and writing a song are two radically different undertakings, and just because you can compose a perfect three and a half minute ode to, I dunno, cars or girls or something, doesn't make you Joseph Conrad. (Don't believe me? Read DeeDee Ramones's memoir. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but whooooboy. I think his ghostwriter was Peeves.)
This is why Levon Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, was such a pleasant surprise. (At this point I'd like to give a shout-out to my good friend Bob Koch, who gave me a copy when I was in Madison a couple weeks ago. Bob has also introduced me to Ross MacDonald, Joe R. Landsdale, and numerous excellent but forgotten garage bands. Hey Bob!)
Helms's memoir, which begins with his childhood in Arkansas and finishes up around the time he started acting in films like Coalminer's Daughter, is primarily concerned with his time in the Hawks and the Band. Surprisingly, it's the Hawks chapters that may be the most interesting: full of tall tales, brushes with the law, irresponsible driving, Canadian roadhouses, the mob, and the irrepressible Ronnie Hawkins, these chapters capture the tiny victories and lunatic behavior that rock and roll bands get up to on the road.
I laughed aloud in several places, and bugged Mary incessantly with "And one time? Levon and Robbie parked the car on the train tracks and left the bass player inside, and then they waited for a train, and when the train whistle blew, they started screaming that they couldn't get the car to start, which gave the bass player a nasty start, and why are you walking away from me when I'm in the middle of a story?"
When the book moves on into the Band years, it gets pretty sad in places. Richard Manuel, in particular, is tragic. And Robbie Robertson certainly doesn't come off well, though he disputes some of what Helm wrote, allegedly downplaying the role of the rest of the group in crafting "Big Pink" and "The Band" and making a ton of money off what Helms feels should have simply been split five ways. (I'm inclined to side with Levon on this one.) Watching a group as great as the Band fall prey to the usual rock and roll demons - booze, drugs, money - is about as much fun, at times, as watching Superman tie one on and moon the Pope.
That said, Helms' book is now my all time, top five, favorite music memoir ever. I highly, highly recommend it if you are at all a fan of the Rock and/or Roll.