Levon Helm, the drummer and sometime lead singer for the Band, passed away yesterday at the age of 71.
Much has been written about his short-lived contemporaries like Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – a little too much, I think. Helm was, for me, the voice of a generation. A generation, not my generation (pretty sure we’re stuck with Darryl Hall). Everyone has a favorite band that played at Woodstock, and mine happens to be the Band.
I can’t imagine the first time I heard “The Weight” any more than I can imagine I’ll ever understand what it’s about. It remains, for me, the most rewarding rewind of the era – unlike, say, “Volunteers” or “The Feel I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” it never dissolved into an awkward irrelevance. “The Weight” is still a soundtrack staple, ever since appearing in Easy Rider, which was the first film to feature a soundtrack of contemporary music (the reason “The Weight” is not on the soundtrack is because Capitol Records wouldn’t allow its inclusion – Smith was commissioned to record one of the first of many covers of the song).
The Band never released a single that reached the top 20 (“Up On Cripple Creak” was their peak, at #25). In fact, several songs on the 1976 Best of the Band compilation so important to my childhood, could only be generously described as “hits”. The highest chart position they reached was, ironically, for the album Stage Fright. The unease and anxiety expressed in the title song captured the band’s mood – they were never fit to become pop stars, at least not in the way the band had been conceived in West Saugerties, New York (at 2188 Stoll Road, the house now so well known as “Big Pink”). Success becoming a curse is sort of an old story, and the Band’s version is hardly the most hearbreaking, but it’s a shame that five people who could make such great music together went through so many periods of inactivity and disagreement with each other.
I have always been especially saddened by the way success crushed the spirit of Richard Manuel, who is my favorite singer in the group. His leads never had the confidence of Levon Helm’s, nor the pitch-perfect full sound of Rick Danko’s voice, and it almost seemed as if the simplest breeze could knock him over. “Maybe the greatness we heard in his voice, that catch in it, came from all the pain,” wrote Helm in his autobiography written with Stephen Davis (This Wheel’s on Fire).v “To this day, we don’t really know.”
The Band’s eventual implosion has been the subject of several books. I’d recommend to fans This Wheel’s on Fire, but I have always taken Levon’s side in the conflict over the Band’s legacy, so I guess that’s a biased opinion. I feel like his book had more about Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson than did other books that seemed to focus on Robbie Robertson.
I guess the thing that give me a lot of hope, in general, is that new reports of Levon’s illness and passing have said that Robbie Robertson paid a visit to his former bandmate in the past week and they spend several hours together. If these two can set aside disagreements over three decades old, couldn’t I do the same?
They needed one another, something that’s obvious in the post-Robertson Band albums and in Robertson’s increasingly languid solo work. The Band was a group of top tier musicians, and Levon kept that sound together. He will be most remembered as a singer but his work on Big Pink and The Band is exceptional – it’s his work at the kit that keeps the Band’s disparate influences and leanings in check, and rooted deep into old time and blues. He was never a flashy Bonham/Moon type of drummer, but he kept it together.
The Band’s sound – irrepressibly describable as “rootsy” – captured an enormous cornucopia of Americana. Helm could comfortably serve everything from old time string band jams to cajun and zydeco and good old fashioned swamp rock. His genuine, approachable performances as a singer were reflected in his playing.
He never stood out because his peers – Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson – were themselves so extraordinary. Helm actually sang lead on relatively few of the songs on the three classic albums by the Band (Music from Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright). It’s just that his performances were so memorable. This was a hallmark of his career – from his performance in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter to his parts in the 1980 Paul Kennerley concept album The Legend of Jesse James.
One of the coolest things about Levon Helm was that most of the music he created was truly collaborative – with the Band, with his first solo project (the RSO All Stars), and with his “comeback” album Dirt Farmer, on which he worked with his daughter Amy. This was followed by Electric Dirt and a really fun live album called Ramble at the Ryman, which had Helm and his band bringing a variety of guests to the famous Grand Ole Opry theater.
(“Blind Willie McTell”)
Dirt Farmer earned him a deserved revival, and he even continued to sing after his recovery from throat surgery. His daughter’s contributions suggest he had passed along a tradition. I hope so – as much as the Band has been influential over the years, it’s never seemed like a “mainstream” sound. Perhaps the next generation will get it there.