Tooze brings a man and a musical era to life ... Ms. Tooze, a drummer herself, interviewed Helm in 1996 for her Muddy Waters biography. She draws on that material as well as on rigorous research and numerous other interviews with key figures to depict Levon Helm both as a consummate musician and somebody it’d be a lot of fun to have a beer or three with. Helm co-wrote (with Stephen Davis) his own memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (1993). It, too, is a top read, but Ms. Tooze relates two things the drummer wouldn’t, or couldn’t, easily convey: the cradle-to-grave sweetness of his personality (with the occasional flare of red-hot anger, to be sure) and the subtle, understated nature of a technique that influences drummers to this day.
[Tooze's] fresh investigation couldn’t come at a better time, seeing how Robertson’s version of events – set out in a recent autobiography, documentary, and what feels like daily media interviews – is currently the uncontested narrative ... Tooze really shows her chops. She succinctly zeroes in on how an untrained Helm developed as a drummer, from his influences to the way 'he laid down his groove at the far end of the beat' because that’s how you made the music more danceable. Every aspect of his kit set-up and technique is examined, often playfully ... While there’s plenty in the book for drum enthusiasts, Tooze doesn’t skimp on the main draw: the years between 1964 and 1977, when Helm and Canadians Robertson, Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson set out on their own ... Painful chapters about the break-up of the Band and its farewell concert, the Last Waltz, are powerful and intimate ... While there’s no way Helm’s second act could be as enthralling as what came before, Tooze teases out the tension in his compulsive need to perform, a throat-cancer diagnosis, the award-winning solo albums made after his recovery, and the famed Midnight Ramble musical celebrations Helm held in his barn in Woodstock in the ’00s toward the end of his life ... achieves a clear picture of Helm’s magnetic personality with very little editorializing and no sycophancy. And despite more than a few unsavoury stories of Helm’s drug use and treatment of women, he remains the definition of generosity and warmth.
Helm gets his due here—it’s about time—in a biography that spans his impoverished but richly lived rural Arkansas boyhood through his salad days with Ronnie Hawkins and then The Band, that group’s bitter dissolution, and Helm’s final, wonderfully redemptive solo albums ... Tooze makes unmistakably clear that, yes, Helm was uniquely gifted, but it was also his unceasing efforts to improve his craft—he attended Berklee College of Music after his first tour with Bob Dylan—and the joy with which he shared it that defined his greatness.