SOMEWHERE OVER PENNSYLVANIA – Sitting on a plane, en route to Toronto via Charlotte, having just read a slew of tweets about the impending passing of one of the pillars of old- and new-school Rock and Roll, has gotten me thinking. Nothing too morbid or macabre, just pondering the value we as a society sometimes place on a life lived in the spotlight. My tweeted response cited not one of his Band’s tunes, but one of Elton’s: “And he shall be a good man…” Be at peace soon, Levon.
Levon Helm has apparently led both a charmed and cursed life, if the media machine is to be believed. What we know or think we know is, of course, tainted by those machinations, and can probably never provide a completely accurate picture of a person’s life, but based on the ripples that sometimes appear indirectly, not reported by their handlers and consultants, Levon’s effect on his fellow musicians and countless fans has been an overwhelmingly positive and lasting one.
Like many, I suspect, I first heard his distinct and gravelly pipes on Scorsese’s cinematic homage The Last Waltz, chronicling The Band’s final show and playing host to a bevy of colleagues and admirers. As a whole I thought the movie and the majority of the performances somewhat mediocre. Having not heard or seen any of them in at least ten years or more, I can still list the few standouts, in my humble opinion:
Neil Young’s “Helpless”
Emmylou’s “Evangeline” (try not to hear Levon on the BGVs on that one, even when he’s not handling a verse on his own)
Clapton’s “Further on up the Road”
And two from The Band’s own canon:
The rest were, for me, OK. “Stage Fright”, “Carnival”, and the other Band songs were listenable, but never really lit me up. They sounded like what I always imagined they were: Dylan’s former backing band playing some of their own stuff, which frankly wasn’t stellar. (And how unfair to ever compare their non-Dylan work with his. Who could ever live up to that?)
The individual playing, like some of the songs themselves, had its high points. Robbie Robertson’s guitar was never less than adequate, but always seemed to me to be playing catch-up with whoever else was onstage with them. Garth Hudson’s keys were a presence, but an obvious one. Danko’s voice stood out well, but I can’t remember much about his playing.
(I promise this didn’t start out to be a Band bashing session, and still isn’t.)
But obviously, The Band had an effect on many of that and future generations, not least of all Martin Scorsese. I realized even then, and nothing has changed my opinion since, that had Scorsese not made his paean to this band that he so loved many people would likely never have known their names, or be able to cite more than a couple of their songs.
But that level of adoration and the turnout of their contemporaries made me wonder, was there more here than I was getting? Did I need to explore some more before so haughtily dismissing them?
I got Music from the Big Pink, their seminal album and a bellwether for the rest of the hippies of the time; more than one artist that I came to love has cited that album as being a major influence on their sound and recording techniques. It was… OK for me. I liked that they lived, partied and recorded in the big pink house, and you could definitely hear the organic nature of the sessions in every tune. Aside from the now-known pieces, though, again I was struck by how average it all sounded. (Granted, listening to it years after it was recorded, it was filtered through the many bands and performers who built on that sound to craft their own; perhaps it would have been more impactful had I heard it when it first came out, before those influences had taken hold and become the new norm.)
But one thing about the music always stood out for me, and always will.
Levon’s voice, so compelling and so real, even when he was keeping them all on the rails with his metronomic, polyrhythmic beat- maybe especially then. Here was this mostly Canadian band, self-professed and quite obviously of the 60′s movement in dress, music, politics and overall style, and then here’s this Southern-sounding boom coming from behind the kit, singing about everything from Yankees laying his relatives in the grave to girls named Bessie living up on Cripple Creek. The juxtaposition was profound, and for me the tunes helmed by Levon were the ones that rose above the rest.
He looked old even then, like he could be everyone’s Dad – just as we had no problem suspending our disbelief when, a few years later, he played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Over the years that followed I kept trying to get into their solo stuff, thinking that with so many of the musicians I liked and respected showering them with kudos it must be me, I must be missing it. Some of Robertson’s collaborations were worth dropping in on. Danko did some interesting things. Manuel and Hudson popped up every now and again in the music media, but usually not for anything musical.
I remained underwhelmed.
Then, within the last ten years or so, I started reading about Levon’s now legendary Midnight Rambles, where he’d invite a select few musicians and an even more select group of listeners to his farm in upstate NY for what was in essence an old-fashioned guitar pull, albeit with decent sound systems and presumably great acoustics. Artists from Elvis Costello to Warren Haynes to Emmylou Harris to Donald Fagen played there, and the genre-crossing, egoless collaborations must have been wonders to behold in person. I hope to God that someone was recording those and that someday we’ll get to hear them.
That’s the sort of thing that’s always enthralled me: seeing and hearing some of my favorite artists in unusual environments, playing with people you might not have imagined them working with, and seeing what new sort of mojo comes out the other end. Covers, new arrangements of old tunes, shout-outs from the crowd – whatever they chose, the strange configuration of players and played-to always make for a special kind of spell, a renewed appreciation of the artists, and more importantly of Music with a capital M, reminding us why its magic will always have the power to move us so profoundly, and (sometimes) so surprisingly.
So if Levon passes soon, as seems to be the case, and at long last gets the peace he so deserves, he won’t get the coverage of a Whitney or a Michael, and that’s probably a good thing. He’ll be missed and mourned by those who truly knew and loved what he did: the musicians who played with him and those who were changed by his life and his tunes, and the fans of roots Music, of real Rock and Roll, played by real Rock and Rollers.
If, as the song says, “you know they got a Hell of a band…” in Rock and Roll heaven, you also just know they’ll be standing up and clapping him on home, making room on the riser and at the mic for a new voice. Keith and Bonzo can take a break, for a bit, or maybe they’ll play in the style of the truly Grateful Dead and the Allmans and have multiple drummers. Jimi, Jim and Janis will welcome the harmonies and the sentiments he’ll bring, and The Ox will enjoy working his beats into the new rhythm section. Jerry, Brian and Buddy will trade some licks on lead and rhythm, and though Rick Wright might be laying the bedrock with his spacey keys, I feel sure Richard Manuel will be at the head of the line, waiting to hug his bandmate and to play the old songs once again.
While many of those players burned bright and fast, leaving too soon and cementing their legendary status too young, Levon managed to burn long, sometimes smoldering just under the surface, sometimes blinding with brilliance, always making himself heard.
Good thoughts and positive vibes to his daughter, Ollabelle’s Amy Helm, so ably continuing in the family business, and to his wife and family and friends. You must be so proud of your daddy, Amy, and relieved that he’ll soon be free from pain at last.
Peace be with you, Levon. Thanks for everything, all through the years – and see if you can slip a recorder or two into some of those Elysian sessions for us, where surely you’ll shame the angels with your sound. We’d love to hear more.