That year in the country changed Dylan, changed the Band and changed the music. Dylan's next album was the spare and mysterious "John Wesley Harding" and the Band soon followed with "Music From Big Pink." They had always been virtuosos, but now they were archivists and alchemists who revived the roots of American music as the rock scene otherwise veered into psychedelic sound effects and endless jams. "Music From the Big Pink" and their second album, "The Band," remain landmarks of the era and songs such as "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" standard rock numbers. Before that, they backed Dylan on his sensational and controversial "electric" tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary "Basement Tapes."
Critics still regard their eponymous second album, released in 1969, as their best. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was written by Robertson for Helm, and the record also featured the playful "Up On Cripple Creek," the rascally "Rag Mama Rag" and other songs that anchored the group's stage act. They were on the cover of Time magazine in early 1970 and Elton John's hit "Levon" was named after the Band's drummer. When they did pair up with Dylan, notably for a 1974 tour, they were no longer anonymous. Critic Greil Marcus devoted a chapter to them in his landmark book on American music and culture, "Mystery Train."
Once they played in dives; now they were in stadiums. But attention weighed on them. The group, especially Manuel, struggled with drugs and alcohol. While Danko and Manuel shared songwriting credits in the early years, Robertson was essentially the lone writer for their last few albums. By the middle of the decade, Robertson especially was burned out and wanted to get off the road. They said farewell with a bang with the "Last Waltz" concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played at the show in San Francisco that was filmed by Martin Scorsese for a movie of the same name, released in 1978.
"The Last Waltz" is praised by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, formerly the best of friends. Robertson became close to Scorsese during the production and Helm believed the movie was structured to make Robertson the leader and advance his own movie career. They were estranged long after, despite efforts by Hawkins and others to intervene. While Helm would accuse Robertson of being on a star trip, Helm, ironically, was the more successful actor, with acclaimed roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter," ''The Right Stuff" and other films. And no one who watched "The Last Waltz" could forget Helm's performance of "Dixie Down," shot mostly in close-up, his face squeezed with emotion.
In his memoir, "This Wheel's on Fire," Helm said some hard feelings about Robertson also included his getting songwriting credits on Band songs that other members considered group efforts. Robertson would deny the allegations. On his Facebook page this week, he revealed that he had been devastated to learn of Helm's illness and had visited him in the hospital.
"I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together," wrote Robertson, who added that Helm was "very much like an older brother" to him.
Helm released several solo albums and toured with Ringo Starr's "All-Starrs." Without Robertson, the Band reunited in the 1980s, but never approached its previous success. Manuel hanged himself in 1986. Danko died in 1999, a day after his 56th birthday. The Band did play at a Dylan anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and Helm, Danko and Keith Richards collaborated on the rocker "Deuce and a Quarter." Original members of The Band were inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
To the end, Helm was a rock 'n' roller, as determined in his own way as Virgil Caine. Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, his voice was shredded and he was badly in debt. He saw no choice but to get back on stage. In 2004, he began a series of free-wheeling late night shows in his barn in Woodstock that were patterned after medicine shows from his youth. Any night of the bi-weekly Midnight Rambles could feature Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello or his daughter Amy on vocals and violin. Meanwhile, he recorded "Dirt Farmer" in 2007, followed by "Electric Dirt" in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for "Ramble at the Ryman."