Touchy Subject: Robbie and Larry Discuss Levon’s Songwriting

Now that Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel have left this mortal plane we may never know how much truth there was to Helm’s contention that he deserved more songwriting credit for the songs of The Band. American Songwriter dedicated their September/October issue to Helm and while they decided not to get into the songwriting debate in their cover story, a post about it featuring quotes from the man who did get the credit, Robbie Robertson, and Larry Campbell (Levon’s last musical director) has been posted on the magazine’s website .

Campbell’s take isn’t as pro-Levon as you might expect…

The breakup of The Band and the longstanding animosity with Robbie and Levon, did he ever discuss any of that with you?

Oh yeah. He had a lot of bitterness about that. My observation was, Levon was 50 percent right and 50 percent wrong. That’s all I could put it into because I wasn’t there. The thing Levon would do, once he got into a frame of mind about something, it was a logic-free zone. There was no changin’ his mind. … [and] I was not in a position to try and make him think otherwise about his experience. My take on it was always that I’m sure there’s plenty of legitimacy to what Levon was bitter about, but that he’s missing something, too; that things could have been different, had he approached the situation differently — that whatever inequity he felt with Robbie, he had some responsibility for that, too. That’s just what I feel about it. Don’t know the facts. All I know is Levon’s side of it.

While Robertson still feels credit was given when it was due as when Levon contributed to the song Strawberry Wine on 1970′s Stage Fright…

The only song that Levon ever really had any writing part of was ‘Strawberry Wine.’ He came back from Arkansas one time and said, ‘I’ve started this song; see if you think there’s anything there because I’ve got like, a verse and a chorus, and if you think it’s worthwhile, maybe you can help me finish it.’ So he sang what he had and I really enjoyed it. So I wrote some more verses to it. I loved the idea that he was willing to try and do some writing. On the other songs, he was there when I was writing these songs, and I really wanted to be encouraging for him to try and to participate in the songwriting. I just loved the feeling of him participating in that, and I was being a little bit naïve in the idea that some people write and some people don’t.

Yesterday we came across a performance of The Weight from the 1989 Canadian Hall of Fame induction ceremony for The Band. Levon refused to show, so Robbie Robertson handled Helm’s famous vocals. Robertson’s ragged vocals made us realize why he let Helm, Manuel and Danko sing his songs. The trio gave Robbie’s songs life and we wonder if these songs that are now known worldwide would’ve ever gained any attention if it wasn’t for Levon, Richard and Rick’s stirring vocals.

You’ve got to expect Robertson will share more of his take on the subject in his forthcoming autobiography. Be sure to read the whole article for more from Robbie and Larry about Levon.

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4 thoughts on “Touchy Subject: Robbie and Larry Discuss Levon’s Songwriting

  1. fwwank Reply

    This Wheel’s On Fire is a MUST read.

  2. vic mix Reply

    Levon’s take is a more modern one where bands collaborate as a group and share the writing credit. It is the way REM and other alternative acts have shared credits and gives all members a chance to contribute without semantics. Under those terms Levon has a case but Robbie was schooled by Dylan and that’s just how it was in the 60′s. I’d believe Levon’s side more if his post Robbie career was filled with his own tunes. Like David Gilmour, Levon deserves all the respect in the world for performing some of the greatest material ever written a step above perfection. His drums, his voice, his persona, a gift from above. He’s even more special because he was so cantankerous..

  3. Kevin John Reply

    Scott,

    In your search for the truth, perhaps best to present the truth. The following 3 statements from the most reliable witnesses are as follows:

    “ Robbie was the one who wrote the lyrics and wrote the music. Wrote the lyrics on legal paper, or whatever he wrote it on, and figured out the chords to the song and dictated the melody and chords to the other players.” – John Simon, the producer to the first two Band albums and someone who should know.

    ”writing with Levon, my experience was, he wasn’t gonna do any labor where writing a song is concerned. The songs we’ve co-written, when it came down to constructing the song, that was my job.” – Larry Campbell.

    ……..and finally, if the above is not enough to end one of the silliest arguments in rock n roll history, what about Levon Helm himself from a 1993 NPR interview: “Well, that was a bit of a distraction. I didn’t think it was quite fair – not that Robbie didn’t do a lot of the songwriting, most of it, in some spots. But at the same time, Richard did some good work, and I always thought that Garth and Rick and myself was there all the way, no matter whose idea the song was or if it was halfway there, or – you know, it was finished….”

    Don’t mean to be curt but it is time responsible journalists started presenting things fairly.

    Best,

    Kevin

    • JB Reply

      Kevin…you hit the nail on the head. Those songs were written by Robbie Robertson. Elliot Landy once said that Levon had said that he was owed money for the photos taken by him…which was also untrue. I am a big Levon Helm fan. He was a great drummer and singer.

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