Levon Helm was the man who left the infamous Bob Dylan 1966 tour early because he couldn’t take the boos. He was the man who led the once-elite The Band back into dive-bars and oldies circuits in the 80’s because he couldn’t stand the silence. It was a degrading routine that contributed to the deaths of his bandmates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. He bore tremendous guilt for that decision. He lashed out at Robbie Robertson for not sharing songwriting royalties, blaming Robbie’s greed for Richard’s and Rick’s deaths. He dedicated each album he released since then to them, his brothers.
Levon Helm was, without question, among the best rock drummers ever. He was the backbone of The Band, their only American member, the singer of their most popular songs. He was one of the five souls in that group that changed the way art and folk music interacted with rock-and-roll. He played a gorgeous mandolin. He released pretty ok solo albums in ’78, ’80, and ’82. He had a significantly better acting career than Robbie Robertson.
Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 90’s. But he beat that shit. That frog-howl of his floated on. He brought the W.S. Walcott Medicine Show back to life, hosting raucous Midnight Rambles at his barn-studio in Woodstock NY to pay for his medical bills. Musicians brought their instruments to sit in with Helm; fans brought potluck food and booze to sit and share and watch him. When his voice was strong, Levon sang the whole night. When it wasn’t there, he drummed, and let his collaborator Larry Campbell, his daughter Amy Helm, or whoever that night’s guest was take over the vocals. The Ramble’s resurgence led to live albums and DVDs, then, finally, to the comeback album Dirt Farmer, and it’s follow-up Electric Dirt–his opuses to his Arkansas childhood and the southern farmers’ cause he’d championed his whole career.
When I would come home from middle school and my parents weren’t home, I would put on the DVD of The Last Waltz and play a harmonica I didn’t know how to use, in the wrong key, along with The Band’s songs. I memorized all of their interview monologues. I learned their songs by singing them while I walked my dog in the morning, and while I drove to nowhere in particular at night. I put every penny I earned in high school towards collecting their entire discography–Big Pink through Islands, Jericho through Jubilation. When we learned rhetorical devices in high school, all of the sentences I wrote for practice were about The Band. They were the first band I obsessed over.
Now, seemingly all of the sudden, the cancer caught up with him. The man is gone, but, cheesy as it sounds, his beats live on. He was incredible and bitter and resilient, strong and beautiful. Mostly, he was the coolest mutherfucker ever in those Elliot Landy prints.
Listen to “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (The Last Waltz version is the best) on your own time. Right here, let’s go deep, with a million thanks to Levon Helm.
Levon Helm – “Only Halfway Home” (a short film inspired by and featuring music from Levon Helm’s Grammy Award winning album Dirt Farmer.)