Levon Helm: An appreciation
Last night, I wrote a short piece for The Irish Times about Levon Helm. Here is an extended version for those who will have a hard time letting Levon go.
Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist with The Band, has died at the age of 71. American music has lost one of its last true veterans.
Helm was a musicians’ musician, a drummer who would lay out a groove with punch, control and refinement. Then there was his voice, one of the most distinctive in music. To hear him play and sing was to here generations of American music, across all styles and genres, from folk mountain tunes to the dark swamp rock of the Mississippi, distilled and refined through a lifetime of playing with the best musicians of his generation.
He was a direct connection to the music of the 1960s and 1970s that has, in more recent years, led to the resurgence of Americana; but through his knowledge and vintage playing style, he recalled a much earlier era, with its roots in the cotton fields and the American civil war.
Levon was the living embodiment of what many musicians strive to be. He was a preacher with music as his cathecism, and listening to it you can’t help but be a convert to the cause.
Together with bass player Rick Danko, Helm formed one of the finest rhythm sections to ever put a groove to a beat, and a partnership that formed the backbone of The Band. In Danko, he had the perfect complementary player, one of the finest bassists and one of the gentlest souls. His music was subtle, his instinct for just the right note unwavering – he could play one beat in four bars, but lord could he make it count. Their subtle, intense rhythmic conversation brought shape and distinction to the Band’s music – it gave it heart and soul.
The group, comprising Danko, Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, met as the backing group to journeyman Ronnie Hawkins in the late 1950s, before ending up as Bob Dylan’s backing band as he sought to go electric. When it came to performing on their own, they opted to stay simply as The Band.
In a way, their story is the story of every band who ever called the road home. A core group of musicians, closer than family, with all the advantages and impassable rifts that brings. Bonds formed through playing every flea pit, dive bar, rotten to the core joint, and strengthened in the good times, lighting up the best venues the country had to offer, and carving out a place in musical history at events such as Woodstock.
When The Band decided to call it a day, after roughly 18 years of almost continual touring, with a farewell concert in San Francisco’s Winterland, music royalty showed up to send them off. Among them were Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison (who reportedly stole the show), Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris and Dr John. Martin Scorsese immortalised the concert in his documentary The Last Waltz.
The end of The Band, though, was not a gentle parting of the ways, and Helm was unhappy that the group were calling it a day, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of guitarist Robbie Robertson.
The rift between Robertson and Helm festered, fuelled in no small part by Helm’s bitter treatment of his former bandmate in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, in which he accused Robertson of following a personal agenda in breaking up the group, and of stealing song credits and royalties.
In recent weeks, as the extent of Helm’s illness became apparent, a reconciliation of sorts was reached. Robertson sent “love and prayers” to Helm during a speech at a rock and roll hall of fame induction ceremony and, in the following days, visited his former bandmate. In a statement on his Facebook page, Robertson said: “It hit me really hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer and had no idea that he was this ill. I spoke with his family and made arrangements to go and see him. On Sunday I went to New York and visited him in the hospital. I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together … Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me.”
Back in the 1980s, it would have been hard to imagine the pair ever getting along again. A few years after The Last Waltz, a reformation became inevitable, and in 1983 The Band got back together, without Robertson. Then, in 1986, Richard Manuel killed himself on tour. Helm, Danko and Hudson would limp on until Danko’s death in 1999, but there was little doubt that the Winterland concert had marked the effective end of the group.
Helm was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s, and in a way it forced him to concentrate on his solo career to pay his medical bills.
He began performing in his home and studio, The Barn in Woodstock, and again America’s finest showed up to play at his “Midnight Rambles”. In 2007 he released his first solo album since 1982, and it won critical acclaim and a Grammy (instead of going to the awards ceremony, Helm had his own celebration at one of his own Midnight Rambles). He followed this up in 2009 with Electric Dirt, and again won a Grammy, and made it a hat trick in 2011 with his live album, Ramble at the Ryman.
Helm was still playing until recent weeks, when he cancelled a series of shows as he became too ill to perform. So now, take a load off Levon. With your music and your inspiration, you sure took a load off me.