RIP Levon Helm (1940-2012)Posted: April 19, 2012
Levon Helm performed a lot of songs that I really liked as a young teen. They were easy to sing and play on the guitar so I learned them fairly early on. I most recently remember him tooling around New Orleans when he opened his restaurant and performing venue in the French Quarter. It didn’t do well, but it was fun while it lasted.
The only non-Canadian member of the Band, Levon Helm was known for his deeply soulful, country-accented voice and his creative drumming style, which was highlighted on many of the Band’s recordings, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Helm was born in Marvell, Arkansas, and grew up in Turkey Scratch, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas. He saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys when he was six and decided to become a musician. He began playing the guitar at the age of eight, and he took up drums shortly thereafter. After graduating from high school, Helm was invited to join rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins’ band, the Hawks. Shortly after Helm joined the Hawks, the group moved to Toronto, Canada, where, in 1959, it signed with Roulette Records. In the early 1960s, Helm and Hawkins recruited an all-Canadian lineup of musicians: guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson. In 1963, the band parted ways with Hawkins and started touring under the name Levon and the Hawks and, later, as the Canadian Squires before finally changing back to the Hawks. Then, in 1965, Bob Dylan asked the group to be his backing band. Disheartened by fans’ negative response to Dylan’s new electric sound, Helm returned to Arkansas. Then, in 1967, he was asked to rejoin the group, which at this point was simply being called the Band.
Levon Helm died today at age 71, just a day or so after his family announced that he was in the late stages of battling cancer. For many of us of a certain age, it seemed like he was always there: a true American original (born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas), both a great singer and drummer, driving force behind The Band, who had made a strong comeback in recent years, winning three Grammys and many new fans.
I never did get to one of his Midnight Rambles up the river in Woodstock but I did interview Levon’s mentor Ronnie Hawkins. I also visited the iconic Big Pink, and even wrote an unpublished novel set there.
Of course, I saw The Band play numerous times, including with Dylan on his first “comeback” tour in 1973, and before that in 1969 in Buffalo at what still ranks as one of the greatest shows I’ve ever attended (see video below). But now, allow me to recall my first, but far from last, experience in the same room with him. Sad to say, I was so much younger then, I’m older than that now.
More than forty-five years ago, I attended my first rock concert. Many others naturally followed, from Blind Faith to Springsteen, the Clash, The Wailers, U2, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and beyond, many while I served as an editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever—Bob Dylan’s first full road trip after going electric.
It was a hot summer night very long ago, when my career in this racket was brand-new and distinctly alternative. I was in a beneath-the-sidewalk joint in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift’s, and I was listening to Levon Helm play with the Cate Brothers, who were formidable players in their own right, and old friends of Levon’s from Arkansas. We were all deep into the howl of the evening when it occurred to my friend and I that we were enjoying the show so much that we really ought to buy Levon a beer. So we ordered one up, and the waitress brought it out to the stage and Levon took a long pull, looked down at the two of us, touched his drumstick to his forehead and said, “Thank you, neighbor.”
It was what they were all about, Levon and the rest of The Band, in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats’s center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn’t even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find.
Then, Capitol released Music from Big Pink. It didn’t sound like anything on the radio. It didn’t sound like anything on earth. The lyrics were dense and allusive, as dense as Dylan’s, but drawn from a different place, a bleached-out roadhouse in Fort Smith, not a folk club in the Village, the kind of place where, as Levon once said, you had to puke twice and show them your knife before you could get in.
So, here’s to one of the guys who wrote the soundtrack to my dream-filled youth and my fun-filled middle age.