by Jochen Markhorst
By now it has the status of a classic, the book by The Band‘s drummer (1993). It is a textbook example of a rise-and-fall tragedy, embellished with some bitter venom (Robbie Robertson doesn’t get away well) and a Horn of Plenty of revealing, hilarious and moving anecdotes. It is not entirely clear why Levon Helm names his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, but the anecdote he tells about fellow Band member Rick Danko, the song’s co-author, could be a key:
“Those first royalty checks we got almost killed some of us. This Wheel’s on Fire was never really a hit, but it had been recorded by a few people and all of a sudden I got a couple hundred thousand dollars out of left field! This was half the writer’s royalties from one song. We were all shocked at these windfalls we never dreamed existed. Dealing with this wasn’t in the fuckin’ manual, man!”
At first it is amusing, the naivety of the men of The Band, who have been involved in the music business for some years at the time and who have toured around the world with Dylan.
Later in the book, however, it becomes clear that in retrospect Helm sees all accumulated money and fame as the root of the coming misery. After the success of Music From The Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969) and hits such as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he says, their lives become an absurd rollercoaster of luxury, drugs and tinsel. Particularly strange is the behaviour of the people around him; suddenly they get all sorts of things thrown into the lap, total strangers want to give them gifts, they get drugs thrown everywhere, bills no longer need to be paid. That, Helm analyses, has destroyed the bond, our friendship and actually our lives.
Hence perhaps This Wheel’s On Fire as the title for his book: that first royalty check is the beginning of the end.
Danko, by the way, is mistaken when he says that the song was not a real hit at all. In England, Julie Driscoll scores big with the song (no. 5 in the UK Single Chart) with Brian Auger and The Trinity, a version that is today considered a monument, as a standard-bearer of the psychedelic music of those years.
The British owe the hit to a rather cold, remarkable business clean-up by Dylan. In that mythical summer of ’67, when the master with the men of The Band records the legendary Basement Tapes in that Big Pink house, he selects fourteen songs, which manager Albert Grossman in London, at music publisher Feldman, offers to a small group of avid musicians. Manfred Mann picks up “The Mighty Quinn”, The Fairport Convention is happy with “Million Dollar Bash” and Brian Auger’s heart jumps at “This Wheel’s On Fire”.
Incidentally, Grossman does not, as persistent historiography tells, bring acetate pressings, but an ordinary tape recording, as Dylan scholar Hans Seegers has shown.
Thereof, from that tape recording, a few so-called Emidisc copies are made in England (a kind of CD-R avant la lettre), which eventually end up in the bootleg circuit.
Rick Danko wrote the music to the lyrics, which is probably the reason why Dylan gives up the song so easily. True, he has a proverbially poor view on the quality of his own songs, but it is hard to believe that Dylan could miss the exceptional beauty of this, “This Wheel’s On Fire”. Although… this is, of course, the same genius who rejects “Mama You Been On My Mind”, “Farewell Angelina” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, and dismisses some twenty other masterpieces.
“This Wheel’s On Fire” does reside somewhere at the top of all those disowned jewels. The opening line If your mem’ry serves you well already has, in part thanks to Julie Driscoll’s interpretation, the timeless, granite power of classics like Villon’s Où sont les neiges d’antan, or Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gently into that good night, or Heine’s Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten, and is at least as well known as the official title of the song.
It is a wonderful line. It plays with the petrified expression if my memory serves me well, an expression that does exist in most languages but suddenly shifts aggressively from the first person to the second person. It is not, as some analysts think, a Rimbaud paraphrase. Indeed, Rimbaud opens Une Saison en Enfer with “si je me souviens bien”, but it is too much honour to attribute that phrase to the French poet; the expression has been around for centuries. Still, Dylan is at a level that recalls his best works from the previous years; “Like A Rolling Stone”, “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Most Likely You Go Your Way”.
Thematically anyway. A suitor with a sharp tongue lashes out to his love partner with vicious venom. Content-wise, however, the poet takes a different turn, compared to those other put-down songs. This time, the loved one is not demoted, but on the contrary, with fierce contempt she is claimed exclusively. The words the narrator chooses inject a strange, uncanny suspense into the lyrics. It is quite a lurid, evil lover who is speaking here: no man alive will come to you. And the four times repeated “you knew that we would meet again” are the words of a rancid, dangerous assailant who deserves a restraining order, as a matter of fact.
Just as overstrained as the Rimbaud interpretations are the exegetes who resort to the Bible. Some see a monologue to God in the song (because of that same no man alive will come to you, mainly), but of course cannot place verses like I was goin’ to confiscate your lace within such an interpretation. The trigger is the title, which would then be directly traceable to Ezekiel, who sees burning wheels in his visions (remarkably enough Daniel 7:9 is never mentioned; “his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire”). And Greil Marcus even hears an unspecified “sermon on Revelation” from a grim, reproachful preacher.
The Scripturians ignore the emotional context of the chorus. The poet Dylan searches and does find here a pleasant-sounding metaphor that instinctively comes close to what he wants to express: drive, consuming passion, vengeful desire. Very similar to other language finds on the Basement Tapes, such as “round that horn” (“Lo And Behold!”) and “now, it’s king for king / queen for queen” (“Down In The Flood”), and older songs, like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.
Julie Driscoll’s and Brian Auger’s hit version eventually leads to a reworking in the 90s, which is used as the theme song for the hugely popular television comedy Absolutely Fabulous. In any case, “This Wheel’s On Fire” has penetrated the collective memory on the Old Continent, and the many, many covers only maintain that status.
Just before Absolutely Fabulous, the mascara collective Siouxsie and the Banshees already reached the Top 20 with a sterile, but not unattractive version (1987), just like in Australia the charming band Flake (1970) did with a somewhat exalted, psychedelic power cover.
In between, the half pantheon of the pop and rock world has had a go at it. Rod Stewart, Golden Earring, Elvis Costello, The Hollies (horrible again), Neil Young (with The Sadies on the very likeable Garth Hudson presents a Canadian Celebration of The Band, 2010 – a beautiful, trashy version turning the song suddenly into a thoroughbred Neil Young song) and Kylie Minogue are just a few of the names.
However, one of the most beautiful covers, besides Julie Driscoll’s protected cultural heritage, remains another old one: The Byrds. The opening track of the underrated album Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969) is a beautiful mix of country rock and psychedelic pop, with fitting, hollow backing vocals in the chorus and an equally fitting plaintive performance by Roger McGuinn.
Outside the competition, obviously, is the irresistible standard version of The Band, but it must be acknowledged that Levon Helm, over the years, did promote it to his own personal anthem. Not only because he named his autobiography after it, but mainly because he continues to play the song until his death. His last official performance, March 24, 2012 at Tarrytown Music Hall, a month before his death, again opens with “This Wheel’s On Fire”.
On April 27, 2012, he is buried in Woodstock Cemetery, directly opposite the Bandmate who provided the music to his song, Rick Danko.
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