The trouble with autobiographies - especially rock star autobiographies - is that it's entirely too easy for the author to leave out information s/he is uncomfortable with. There is also a risk of turning your memoirs into a case of dirty laundry. Both of these problems surface at some points in this otherwise excellent memoir of one of the best and most fascinating bands of the rock era.
There is no doubt that Helm is the genuine article when it comes to rock and roll music. Born in rural Arkansas just before World War II, he grew up in the epicenter of the land and time that spawned the genre. The early chapters, with his accounts of rock's emergence and his early involvement with the new music as a teenager, are among the book's strongest moments. It is, after all, a story that needs to be told, given the fact that the radio and the rock press alike have been ignoring for decades the ongoing influence of the 1950s on post-Beatles rock. You'll never ignore it again after reading Helm's priceless accounts of toiling across the South and Midwest, backing up rockabilly great Ronnie Hawkins. Few others could offer the glimpses of that era that Helm does.
The evolution of Hawkins' band from a collection of Arkansas country boys to an all-Canadian (except for Helm) outfit was an unlikely one, but his account humanizes it all remarkably well. There could be more information on the Band's "lean years" - roughly 1963-65 - after their involvement with Hawkins and before Bob Dylan stepped in, and Dylan himself is as enigmatic as ever even in the memory of one who knew him; but then again, this was the least productive stretch of their long career. The background on the recording of their legendary albums from 1968-75 is priceless to anyone who's ever listened to them, as are Helm's tales of Woodstock, Watkins' Glen, and the 1966 British tour with Dylan. Along the way we are treated to stories of all manner of hellraising when the boys weren't in the studio.
But that's where the selectivity comes into play. The Band was known in its heyday as one of the wildest bunch of womanizers on the road during its concert tours, but Helm avoids that issue entirely. Additionally, he barely touches on the drug use that also plagued him and his Bandmates in the early '70s, although he doesn't hesitate to detail the transgressions of other rockers, notably Neil Young. Helm has a right to keep all of this to himself, of course, but it does give us an incomplete picture of just what went on.
Then there's the Robbie Robertson issue. Helm hadn't been on speaking terms with Robertson for years when he wrote the book, and it shows in his often vicious accounts of the growing divide between Robertson and the others. This results in a glaring imbalance between the well-rounded profiles we get of Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and especially Garth Hudson, who has always been famously shy onstage, and the bitter caricature of Robertson. Some of Helm's criticisms are probably deserved, but it remains a wildly imbalanced account. Helm's biggest grievance, by the way, is his belief that Robertson got more songwriting credit than he deserved. Listen to any of the Band's three 1990s albums (none of which featured Robertson in any way) alongside any of their earlier ones, and it's pretty clear that Robertson deserves most of the credit he's received for their brilliant lyrics. Likewise, Helm's well-documented disdain for "The Last Waltz" might be justified, but the chapter recounting that legendary concert dissolves almost immediately into self-righteous outrage. Too bad, because regardless of any behind-the-scenes ugliness, the surviving recordings of that night are superb.
For all those shortcomings, Helm's personal recollections are essential reading for any Band fan. Many of the stories he tells could never be captured by any other writer, and if you're a fan you won't want to miss them. Just don't let this be your only source of information about the Band.