Levon Helm: American Son (1940 - 2012)
We may not know what happens to our souls after we die, but the fate of our musical and cinematic output is pretty clear: a huge bump in iTunes downloads follows on the heels of the New York Times obituary and pretty much persists until after the memorial services are completed. For those in the right audience and demographic, buying copies of the departed's music is like sending a sympathy card to yourself. As a career move, from James Dean and Buddy Holly right up to Whitney Houston, mortality is pretty well established as a lock. Even for people from the 1960s, the outpouring of coverage after the recent passing of drummer and singer Levon Helm has been something of a surprise, and it may be that those on the younger side of what one old country songwriter called "Life's Railway to Heaven" might appreciate a brief overview of the man's impact on what we often call "The World of Entertainment," but which -- in this case -- is actually a true and embraceable expression of American culture. If you want to chronicle the musical timeframe spanned by Levon Helm's life and art, you'd have to begin by time-traveling back to string bands and minstrel shows before the Civil War and stay at the job until, say 2070, by which time we can presume that the oldest member of the Black Crowes, a band that recently recorded with him, will have passed on to his last reward. Levon's roots grow that deep, his output was that expansive, and his shadow is that long.
Levon Helm was born into a cotton-farming family from Arkansas in the middle-Mississippi Valley, the ground where the Civil War played itself out, the fields and juke-joints where African-American blues evolved, the last place to get supplies before settlers headed west into Texas and beyond. The people in that time and place were just as music-obsessed as we are today -- without benefit of the internet, television, or, early on, radio. In those days, the traveling minstrels shows that pre-dated electricity were still making their way through the south, with their gaudy tents, hootchie-cootchie dancers, and sideshows. Radio was still a novelty, with some rural families hooking up the batteries out of their trucks to hear bluegrass king Bill Monroe for a few hours broadcasting clear out of Nashville. The African-American blues singers who would later inspire Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were mostly from the state of Mississippi, but Mississippi didn't repeal Prohibition until 1966, and so a lot of the action happened over on the Arkansas side of the river.
As a very little boy, Levon Helm was immersed in a basic mixture of the musical traditions that we all take for granted today as a popular rock music -- but in their separate, root forms. By the time Levon was in high school, nearby Memphis teenager Elvis Presley synthesized black and white music into rock n roll and for teenagers across the country, and the world was transformed by the musical mix of black and white. Levon, who had been playing drums and guitar since boyhood, soon signed on with early rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. The first explosion of Rock n Roll propelled Levon and the group called the Hawks on a jet-fueled journey of gigs in dance halls, bars, and frat houses across the South and eventually into Canada. It was there that he and Hawkins hooked up with a second generation of Hawks musicians -- the four Canadian teenagers who, along with Helm, would later make up the group known as The Band. Indeed, it was that group that ventured out without Hawkins in 1963, making up in camaraderie and musical chops what they lacked in income and fame. Even as just one of thousands of Twist-era rock bands, they developed a reputation as one of the hotter white R&B groups in the country, fielding a first-rate southern-rock shouter in Helm, a Ray Charles-style bluesman in Richard Manuel, and a heart-broken country crooner in Rick Danko, along with guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboard virtuoso Garth Hudson.
The group came first to the attention of blues singer John Hammond, Jr. who cut a searing LP with them in 1966. That album that led them to the attention of Bob Dylan."You guys wanna play the Hollywood Bowl?" Dylan is reported to have asked Helm, who asked back: "Who's headlining?" "We are," replied Bob.
The ensuing world tour got more than a little weird for old Levon, who dropped out and eventually found his way to a job out on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Late in 1968 the group reunited in a ranch house in the woods near the quiet town of Woodstock, New York, and began inventing an entirely new form of singing that would later be captured as "Music from Big Pink." For millions of young Americans, it was Levon Helm's voice "pulled into Nazareth, feelin' about half-past dead" that introduced them to the Band and to the strengths of bedrock American music, about the time that it started to dawn on people that summers of love and ages of aquarius might well be followed by some long hard winters ahead in a country with a decidedly uncertain future.
What ensued artistically was a body of work unrivaled in what became know as the rock era; albums, songs, and performances that drew legitimately, creatively, and redemptively from the shared cultural landscape of North America. What you are seeing in the tributes to Helm, at least in part, I think, is an older audience embracing a body of work that has aged extremely well, that has truly become the rock of ages. In the kind of phrase they used years ago in old general stores, The Band's songs were an honest measure. You could depend on them, and thousands of us still do. After the fortune and fame, as they sang in "Stage Fright," things were never the same.
In 1974, the group backed Bob Dylan on what was, at the time, the largest-grossing concert tour in musical history. There was a lot of approach/avoid of the spotlight in the group, and within two years, chronic drug use and growing interpersonal tensions led to the breaking up of The Band. Their farewell concert, "The Last Waltz," filmed at San Francisco's Winterland Theatre by Martin Scorsese, is still considered by some critics to be one of the best rock movies ever committed to cinema. Notwithstanding the appearances of dozens of luminaries (Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan), it is Levon Helm who steals the show--with a tour de force display of what it means to be a Rock n Roll drummer while delivering one of the greatest singing performances ever filmed in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
It was never Levon's idea to end the Band, and he felt deprived of his craft and livelihood. Still in demand as a musical craftsman, he hooked up with other musicians (Clapton and Starr, among them) and called on some of the best sidemen in rock to back him in a series of excellent if unheralded solo albums that are worth seeking out. He also pursued an acting career, starring in 11 movies, including The Right Stuff, Coal Miner's Daughter, and The End of the Line. Without guitarist Robertson, the Band reunited from 1983 to 1998, touring extensively in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and recording three solid albums before the deaths of sidekicks Manuel in 1986 and Danko in 1999. About the same time, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer; removal of the tumor damaged his vocal chords and he began a long series of painful radiation treatments at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
After his diagnosis, Helm set out to create a new set of intimate concerts at his home recording center in Woodstock, New York. Dubbed "Midnight Rambles," these events were designed to be intimate, "down home" musical experiences for the faithful and for new fans -- with stone fireplaces, throw rugs, log chairs -- and framed pictures of old buddies Danko and Manuel. The Midnight Rambles proved to be both financially and artistically successful, largely through the single-mindedness of Helm, his daughter Amy, and fellow musicians Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Jim Weider, and a fantastic horn section. In January of 2004, Helm's voice was recovered enough for him to sing again. Guest artists soon began flocking to these low-key but ecstatic gatherings, including Elvis Costello, Emmy Lou Harris, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Norah Jones, Gillian Welch, and others. Throughout the 2000's, Levon's group toured extensively, opening for the Black Crowes, and appearing on the David Letterman Show, Austin City Limits, and the Bonnaroo Festival, as well as regularly on the Don Imus radio program. Between Rambles, Helm began recording again, releasing roots music "Dirt Farmer" in 2007, rock and blues-themed "Electric Dirt" in 2009, and "Ramblin' At The Ryman" in 2011, all of which were critically acclaimed and financially successful, and all three of which won Grammy awards.
I think Levon Helm's response to his cancer diagnosis ten years ago stands out as unique- -- I'd like to think I'd have been impressed by it at age 25, but I sure as hell am at 63. He decided, by all appearances, to focus his energy on doing the things he loved the most --maybe did better than anyone else -- with the people he loved -- and leave the rest. At the Rambles, people treated each other cordially, just happy to be there. If you brought a covered dish, you were thanked for sharing it, and, whether you brought any food or not, you were encouraged to help yourself to the the ribs, the chicken, or the lasagna. There was no pushing or shoving on the way into the modest Ramble barn -- you took your seats, said hi to your neighbors, and waited for the music to start. When it did, it was as likely to be a local high school band doing show tunes or some local rock band that could say in later years, "Yeah, I played at Levon Helms.'" There was free popcorn if you wanted it. Eventually, Levon came out, looking older, and a bit emaciated, but with a beatific grin on his face, sort of a rock n roll Dalai Llama. And then, joined by great musicians and sitting in what he always called "the best seat in the house," he'd begin to lay down a backbeat that turned into "Cripple Creek" or "Deep Elem Blues," and then just went on to several hours of glorious, transformative music before blowing kisses to a happy and satisfied crowd of people. That's all he really ever wanted to do ... and he did it better than a anyone we knew.
He's left behind a well-crafted group of songs: with the Band in both its incarnations, as a solo artist, and on the Ramble recordings, the oldest of which have now stood the test of at least 40 years. From "The Weight" to "Atlantic City," then on to "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," we heard a voice that came not only from the heart, but from generations of hearts that beat before it. In a modern culture that seems predicated on flash and posture, snatch and grab, shuck and jive, his work speaks of a solid center, of humor and mercy, of a balm in Gilead, in the words of an old spiritual. If you're looking for the real thing, Levon Helm will show you where it went.
"Before the leaves all turn brown, before they fall to the ground, you will find a harmony ... wait and see" Levon once sang, in the sweetest lullaby I've ever heard or ever hope to hear, one that my daughters grew up with and now carry on to the next generation. It's not an inconsiderable blessing to have a song last that long, and to bestow grace and faith and comfort as freely and as well as it does to a world full of peril and doubt.
Good night, old friend, and thanks so much. We'll see you in the morning.
Tom Curren has listened to the Band for more hours than most of you have been alive.