Levon Helm: Five Years Gone

Levon Helm, seen in this 1970 file photo, a singer and drummer for the rock group the Band, has died, April 19, 2012 at age 71. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.

There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.

It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.

Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

Share

Levon Helm: So Real It Makes You Believe (One Year Later)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.
There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.
It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes. From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

Of course, you know a band has the goods when they sound even better live. Check them out in all their glory here (and yes, Helm is all over the place on that kit; good grief what an understated machine he was!):

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

Share

2012: Time To Die (Part One)

2012: In pace requiescat!

Theme video for this annual series (especially instructive for those not familiar with the title or the photo, above):

2/2/12:

This hurts.

A genuine American icon has left the planet. (NYT obit here.)

People born during or after the ’80s might know Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.

I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.

Simply put, Don Cornelius was a man who managed to do precisely what he was put on this earth to do. And better, he epitomizes the American Dream (the actual one, not the boilerplate that rolls so odiously off politicians’ tongues). If you read about his life, and you should, you’ll learn (as I did) Soul Train was entirely conceived and created by Cornelius, via a pilot that cost $400 of his own dough. Four hundred bucks to build an Empire. What a bargain. For him; for all of us.

Don Cornelius helped bring the music to the masses. Art that transcends trends and time will eventually, inevitably find its way forward. But sometimes tomorrow, or ten years from now, is not soon enough. In this regard, Cornelius helped American music and culture advance and evolve. If this meant we had to suffer through opportunistic but plasticized parodies like K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it also meant our country got early reads on everything from the latest James Brown or Marvin Gaye, to a necessary platform for never-ready-for-Prime-Time (in Honky America) rap music. Cornelius cultivated, and maintained, a street cred and kept it real for several decades. Not many artists are capable of that; and here was Soul Train, dedicated purely to the proposition of exposing worthwhile artists to a broad audience. That’s it.

Full piece HERE.

2/6/12:

What can you say about Gazzara? He was relevant in every decade going back to the ’50s. And it wasn’t just his longevity or his unique, idiosyncratic style(s); he was old school in the sense that he radiated that aura: above all, he was a man. That might not sound like much, or it may even sound silly (who cares? these are actors playing roles and they can be transformed into heroes or villains depending on the script and the director), but back in the days when special effects did not do as much to determine what an actor could –and could not– do, it mattered when a man could bring that certain gravitas to a role. As such, he was never typecast (because he was too talented) but he did inexorably bring that aura to each role. These were days when directors counted on that aura, because it conveyed legitimacy that was understood before a single line was spoken.

My impression of Gazzara is not unlike my impression of Gene Hackman: I have not seen all his films, and some of them are very bad indeed, but there is no doubt that each man makes the particular movie, no matter how messy, a lot better than it would otherwise have been. Even in movies where the results are difficult to adequately describe or defend (in many regards, the essence of a good film, no?), you always have to account for the Gazzara factor.

To take just one example, consider The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Nobody but Gazzara could have played that role. More, no one but Gazzara should have played that role. As much a period piece as a work of art, it epitomizes the extreme edge of the ’70s DIY ethos (which was the calling card of John Cassavetes). Equal parts improvisation and the channeling of an older world that was quickly changing (in less than a decade it would be gone for good), Bookie is, in an unironic twist, too convincing to be a first rate thriller. It’s too quirky to be a definitive character sketch. It is, ultimately, a window into that disappearing world that was leaving men like Cosmo Vitelli (they don’t have names like that anymore; they don’t have people like that anymore) abruptly in the rear view. More, it is a window of sorts into the darker angels of Gazzara’s nature: a man who struggled with drink and depression, some of that frustration, confusion and despair is uncomfortably palpable on the screen. Indeed, a portion of it was present in every role he played.

Full piece HERE.

2/7/12:

Nello Ferrara invented the Atomic Fireball, the Lemonhead, the Boston Baked Bean and the Black Forest Gummi Bear.

What, exactly, have you done with your life?

Check out this obituary, which amply describes a remarkable life, well-lived. (In other words, in addition to bringing countless little kids joy and their dentists second homes, he was by all accounts a happy, generous, friendly fellow. Do they make humans like this anymore?)

Having written, with neither irony nor (I hope) mawkish nostalgia, I’ve invoked the American Dream (itself mostly myth, but a genuine impetus for improvement and progress in a previous incarnation of our country), and if Don Cornelius and Ben Gazzara illustrate crucial aspects of this ideal –and they do– than Nello Ferrara is practically the dictionary definition of the 20th Century alchemy that turned opportunistic (and honest?) immigrants into wealthy, respectable and influential citizens.

4/19/12:

This is the face I remember, and the one I’ll recall most fondly. It’s nice to see the ones when he (impossibly) looked even younger or the ones where he (impossibly) looked so much older, but this is the face indelibly imprinted in my mind.

As a child of the ’70s, I got to know Dick Clark once he was already a legend, but before he became the ubiquitous go-to guy for everything from new music to New Year’s Eve. He was New Year’s Eve and for that alone, he will be remembered fondly. Plenty of other outlets will dutifully report his myriad, mind-boggling (in terms of variance and success) enterprises. Mostly he was famous for being who he was: Dick (motherfucking) Clark.

Here’s the thing: I’ve long since acknowledged that it’s only going to get more difficult for folks from my general generation to behold all the heroes (the super and the super-sized) dropping like flies as time marches unkindly on.

Still, there are a handful of larger than life archetypes who we could never imagine dying, and will probably never reconcile no longer having around. Clint Eastwood is one; Keith Richards is another. But both of those dudes, for very different reasons (aside, of course, from the beastly burden of time not being on any of our sides) have worn their age on their faces: it has lent character and augmented gravitas. It has reminded us that even our gods play by rules they could not create. But Dick Clark was different, if for no other reason that he looked pretty much the same for decades. He was a real-life Dorian Gray, and it almost made sense that he sold his soul: how else could you get that rich, seem that happy and make that much money unless darker forces were pulling the proverbial strings? Even worse (for the haters and cynics), his act was genuine; it wasn’t even an act. Check out some interviews: he had no illusions what he did and what he had done (i.e., he wasn’t kidding anyone about his lasting imprint on the cultural landscape, but of course that is usually something only people who write about the culture from the outside looking in bother to obsess about, or better yet, people who have not made the money or connections to have any real impact). He talked about bringing a modicum of escape and pleasure to the people: no more, no less. And it worked. People responded to him and his ideas for a reason: they worked. He worked: as a concept, as a celebrity.

It didn’t seem like he would ever age, much less die.

Full piece HERE.

4/23/12:

I love hockey and I can appreciate the storied history of its most famous franchise, The Montreal Canadiens (a history that, regretfully, includes their stunning first round upset of my beloved Caps in 2010).

It is, therefore, on both hockey and human levels that I can lament the passing of the great Emile “Butch” Bouchard. I can also celebrate what a throwback he was, even in days when practically everyone (not to mention the hockey players) were throwbacks. To be considered a throwback amongst those dudes says all that needs to be said.

But I particularly enjoyed this nugget, from the recent obituary:

Invited to a Canadiens training camp, Mr. Bouchard cycled 50 miles each way twice daily to save money. Management was impressed by his conditioning; his new teammates less so, as his eager body checking exacted a toll.

They don’t make them like that anymore. They didn’t even make them like that then.

Full piece HERE.

4/24/12:

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.
There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.
It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

MUCH more on this American treasure HERE.

5/4/12:

Word is hitting the wires that Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, has succumbed to cancer. This is awful news, obviously, but also surprising since it sounded like he had been kicking cancer’s ass. Of course, cancer seldom has the good grace to stay down once it’s been beaten, so we should never be shocked when it rears its insidious head.

Let the tributes flow, and they will (as they must), it’s enough to lament the loss of a talented man, a cultural icon (anyone who was at least fourteen in 1986 has indelible memories of the way Yauch and his band exploded into the public consciousness like bozos with a bazooka) and a dude who left his imprint on music.

By way of appreciation, I feel obliged, albeit happily, to reprint a piece that went live almost exactly three years ago. The occasion was the remastered reissue of Check Your Head, the album I still maintain is their greatest achievement. With respect –and gratitude– I offer up this blast from the past.

MCA: I hope there are skate parks, soulful sounds and smiles wherever you’re at.

Any discussion of Beastie Boys’ third album is likely to divide fans into two camps: those who contend that Paul’s Boutique was—and remains—their masterpiece, and those who feel that their second album, while amazing, was also a necessary gateway for their best material. Put another way, they had to make Paul’s Boutique, and once it was out of their systems, they could embark on new challenges. This reviewer thought Check Your Head was a surprising and refreshing leap forward in 1992, and the passing of 17 years has done little to diminish its enduring appeal. It remains vital and engaging, in part because of the way it documents a particular moment when the band embraced the past while anticipating the future. A forward-looking album that establishes a distinctive ‘70s-era soul vibe? Only this band was capable, at that time, of pulling off such an ostensibly paradoxical achievement, and bringing the masses along to the party. That the group was able to establish a foundation from which their future work would flow was only slightly more momentous than the ways in which they turned a white-hot light on the myriad influences they wore so gleefully on their sleeves.

When the boys picked up instruments and actually proved they could play them it was intriguing; that they produced an album brimming with original, occasionally indelible material remains something of a revelation. Who woulda thunk it? This is the same band that announced themselves (quite successfully) to the world as wiseass clowns on License to Ill. They rallied the underage troops to fight for their right to party and, beer bongs in hand, a nation of nitwits made them millionaires. But there was always a sense that this was a naked, calculated ploy for commercial success. To their credit, it worked. So it was impressive and, frankly, astonishing, to see how quickly they put away childish things and got busy concocting Paul’s Boutique. Indeed, the prepubescent fan base deserted them as quickly as it had embraced them, and their second album earned instant street cred simply for not being a retread of what had worked so wonderfully the first time.

Although it eventually became a cult classic, Paul’s Boutique was deemed a commercial dud when it dropped in 1989. It was such a departure from the simplistic, goofy boys-just-wanna-have-fun shenanigans of their debut, it obviously alienated some, and left many indifferent. By refusing to ride the gravy train, the band drew a line in the sand and has never retreated. It took a while for fans to catch up with them, but enough people eventually gravitated to Paul’s Boutique to ensure they had indeed made an astute decision, artistically and commercially. And so, some of these newer fans must have been shocked when, three years later, Check Your Head appeared, signifying another radical musical makeover. The response this time was immediate and undeniable, with the album breaking into the Billboard Top Ten.

A lot more on MCA and a detailed overview of Check Your Head HERE.

Share

Levon Helm: So Real It Makes You Believe

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.
There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.
It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

Of course, you know a band has the goods when they sound even better live. Check them out in all their glory here (and yes, Helm is all over the place on that kit; good grief what an understated machine he was!):

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

Share