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.