There’s an implied humility to a group deciding on calling themselves, very simply, the Band. They got their start as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins in the late ‘50s before getting upgraded to backing up Bob Dylan throughout the mid ‘60s, so for the better part of a decade they had already been known collectively as “the band.” With their own debut album in 1968 Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm just made the title official with a capital B. As a unit, they had a monumental effect on the history of rock and roll, but director Jacob Hatleys Ain't in It for My Health focuses in on the rich past and present of the group’s drummer, and only American member, Levon Helm.
The film opens with a candid scene that catches Helm giving specific directions to his tour bus driver. The legendary singer and drummer knows the highways, backroads, and byways of America better than the guy paid to be behind the wheel, it turns out. As we’ll see, Helm’s the real deal, salt of the earth, and his story is one that alternates between creative highs and one particularly bitter betrayals that casts a long shadow over the body of work he’s left behind.
Royalties are a strange thing, broken down into two types, “performance” for the finished recorded product, and ”publishing” for the person or persons credited as having written the individual song. In the case of the Band, Robbie Robertson got the bulk of the publishing credits, and he has not had any desire to share the wealth they have gained him. As we’ve seen in previous instalments of this column (see: Beware Mister Baker) royalties are systematically shitty for drummers, but for Levon Helm there’s a lot more to it than just the financial slight. Other than him, every other member of the Band was Canadian, and thus lacking in a certain rootsy credibility, which Helm brought to the table. There’s a feeling that his southern birthright was the essence of the group, and that Robertson has robbed him of his rightful stake in the results. You could take the low road here and say that Helm should simply have written more songs, or insisted on more publishing credits since there’s obviously going to be a fair amount of creation-by-committee in any band, but for me it’s as (over)simple as this: sure there’s a Cripple Creek in Canada (near Ontario! I looked!) but you know that’s not the Cripple Creek that they were singing about.
Helm’s justified, in my mind, for harboring this grudge against his former friend and bandmate (he identifies every record after their third album as a “screw job”), but with Ain't in It for My Health we see that rock of a grudge come up against the wall of actually participating in his artistic legacy in the form of a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. Surely he feels pride for the work the group did and the massive, however subtle, effect they had on popular music, but the possibility of getting on stage with Robertson, even in order to be honored by the most prestigious music industry institution, is a complete non-starter for Helm. Much more important to him is his solo album, Dirt Farmer, that was nominated for the Best Traditional Folk Album that year, concurrently with the lifetime achievement award, and went on to win.
It wasn’t just Helm’s having been born in the south that gave the Band a throughline to the earthy music they were at the forefront of popularizing. The guy was the son of Arkansas cotton farmers (in a town called Turkey Scratch) and, as we see in the film, still loves turning donuts in a field with a tractor. He’s a genuine country boy, even after all those years on the road with The Band, never letting himself get too big a head from all the fortune and fame. He’s got charm for days, and there are innumerable moments throughout the film where you get to watch his face light up like a pinball machine while he’s telling some fantastic story or other.
The title, Ain't in It for My Health, is presented as Helm’s credo as a musician. If you’re going to pursue that line of work to its logical end, you sign away a good chunk of security in order to fulfil your creative calling. Joining up with any band, much less the Band, is "not a career choice you make based on how long you want to live" we’re told, but the filmmakers go to great lengths to impart the indignities of advanced age that Helm is forced to endure. It’s painful to watch him white knuckle through doctors probing his vocal chords through his nose, but it’s even worse to listen in as his voice goes out on him during performances. Helm would pass away just a few years after the filming of this documentary, but his 2011 live album Ramble at the Ryman would win him another Grammy before he left us. Despite the understandable inability to let bygones be bygones with Robertson, Ain't in It for My Health provides ample proof that Helm was much more than what defined him as an artist.