Levon Helm

20 04 2012

Levon Helm, who left us today, emerged in the ’60s and ’70s as a unique voice in the Band, a group with no shortage of unique musical voices. He was a drummer who sang, who revered the South and its musical heritage. He grew into the personification of Americana and he’ll be remembered for his musical triumphs and his years-long struggle with the cancer that eventually overpowered him.

Helm changed his look many times. When the Band finally got a mass public image, it was from The Last Waltz, where he was the reticent, gimme-cap wearing, drawling, common-sensical team player. He let Robbie Robertson take the lead and the fame. Helm appeared to have not cared a lick about the spotlight, unless it was to belt out the right song at the right time.

He was one of the guys who pulled Eric Clapton and George Harrison away from the flared trousers and psychedelic silliness into an earthier style of presentation and play that still reverberates in their work.

The past few years, post cancer and nearly unrecognizable from his old self with a new set of choppers and an old-guy haircut that actually suited him, Helm set up shop in Woodstock, a place where he began tasting underground fame in a basement of a poorly built post-World War II house in the woods in the mid ’60s. In a stroke of venue brilliance, he created the Rambles, where fans came to hear him and a cracking group of musicians, including the unsung Larry Campbell, play in a club atmosphere.

No longer would he have to put his body through the struggle of touring, planting himself in a new hotel room and a new concert hall for a night and then move on to the next show. Now everyone came to him. And gladly.

Phil Lesh took his cue from Helm and the result is Terrapin Station in Marin County. A new style of getting great music out to fans has emerged.

Levon Helm never sold millions of records. He may never end up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, though he deserves it. He did receive a Grammy for his work, and it was completely justified.

He was never a fixture in the tabloids. He never topped the charts. He just played on some great music over a lot of years with Bob Dylan and the Band, he had a role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and, with the help of his daughter, he created two fabulous solo records in the past few years.

He captured Southern music’s essence and recreated it in a dense form that bears repeated listenings. For me, his vocal on The Weight, and the place it occupies in Easy Rider, will always conjure up the joys of the open road and reaffirms the place of thoughtful, soulful country rock in the pantheon of the age’s music.

The Last Waltz will always be the Band’s best-known work, but give Rock of Ages a listen. It’s a live recording. The drumming is masterful, the vocals from everyone in the group are fiercely unique, and the compositions are timeless. 

Richard Manual and Rick Danko left us too soon, and now Levon Helm has joined them.

It’s just possible that Helm, and the rest of the Band, seem overrated, the group that everyone cites but no one actually listens to. The  music was meant to be listened to repeatedly over the years. But this peek into their prime makes them, and Helm, seem, if anything, underrated.



7 responses

20 04 2012
Noel Mayeske

Nice piece Lee. I always enjoy your writing. It’s interesting how, when we think of how country-rock was invented, or Americana as it later has been called, we think of Gram Parsons first.

But like you said, George Harrison pilgrimaging to Woodstock to check out what The Band was doing around the time of their debut, and becoming great friends with Dylan, might be the Big Bang of that whole movement. The same movement you still see today in tons of bands, from Fleet Foxes to Dawes, Jonathan Wilson to Iron & Wine and so many more.

Levon’s role in all that was huge, because as the only American member of the Band, and a scritchy old Arkansas cat at that, he was — as you rightly said — the burr in the rhinestone boot that brought some of those guys back down to earth.

I saw Levon live once, a couple years ago at Variety, and what a show. What fun to hear him sing “Long Black Veil” with his daughter. Timeless stuff!

20 04 2012
Out There

He played the Variety in the past couple of years? How in the heck did I miss that?

Anyway, thanks for your note, Noel. It’s great to know you’re out there.

21 04 2012
Don Johnston

Terrific observations, as always, Lee, and good discussion Noel. I love “Rock of Ages”! I listened to it on vinyl in college until the needle wore all the way through. I like the stage announcement by Robbie Robertson to the Academy of Music audience at the start: “We’d like to try something we’ve never done before, and we’d like to bring out the best horn men in New York to help us do it …” The music starts, and whose voice do we hear first: Levon Helm on an energized cover of “Don’t Do It.”

One of my favorite video clips of Levon of the many I’ve seen the last few days showed him sitting at his drum kit … but playing the mandolin. I mean it’s one thing for Peter Buck to put down his guitar and pick up a mandolin for a song or two, but it’s quite another for your drummer to come out and do it. Charismatic, down-to-earth, witty, entertaining … and versatile.

21 04 2012
Noel Mayeske

Yeah, it was a real cool show Lee. I wish I had thought to tell you because I ended up going to that one solo. One of the cool things was he sold t-shirts that have a pic of Big Pink on it – I got one. And he did his version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” which is a great cover.

shirt was similar to this:

21 04 2012
Out There

As always, thanks, Don. And I’m completely with you on Rock of Ages. It was my introduction to The Band. I read Ralph Gleason’s review in the Oct. 12, 1972, Rolling Stone. It still stands up:


Yes; I had to look that date up. But I clearly remember the review itself — lengthy and literate. I don’t think I’d ever heard anything by The Band before and Gleason changed all that.

Rock of Ages is also the first time I heard about Allen Toussaint.

For anyone who hasn’t heard it, buy it and keep a copy around for the next few decades. It’ll never fail to get your attention.

Levon Helm also wrote a memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. Haven’t read it … yet.

Noel, I’m getting one of those shirts.

22 04 2012
Noel Mayeske

I meant to say too, Lee and Don — love Rock Of Ages. Partly b/c, as good as “Last Waltz” is, it was a pretty staged event, and an elegy to their whole career. So, not the loosest thing in the world. But man, Rock of Ages packs so much punch. I read they hired Alan Toussaint to do the horn arrangements. I heard “Baby Don’t You Do It” on the headphones on a plane ride one time — those in-the-plane ‘radio stations’ — which was the first time I’d heard anything from that album. I went directly to a record store when I landed to get that album!

22 04 2012
Out There

Saw the Drive-By Truckers last night at the Tabernacle and the evening was a tribute to Levon Helm. Great walk-in music: Don’t You Do It from Rock of Ages and Long Distance Operator, a basement tape with Dylan & The Band. Nice to hear both at a punchy volume and in a large space.

I’m with you, Noel, on Last Waltz. Any criticism sounds like niggling, but it’ll never be my favorite Band recording. It’d be nice if someone out there has video of the Rock of Ages show. Something must exist.

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