THIS POST SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!
True story: The first time I ever saw Levon Helm in person, he was sitting in a lawn chair on the levee in Helena, Ark., amid thousands of other people, watching the performances at the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Nobody bothered him. I’m not sure how many people recognized him under that trucker hat, and I was too shy to introduce myself. Mind you, this was at a festival where I got Mike Huckabee to pose for a photo with a stuffed cow, so this was a very specific shyness.
By that time, I’d read Levon’s autobiography, which to my mind is second only to Jerry Wexler’s on the list of great rock ‘n’ roll autobiographies. I’d also listened to mountains of his music, and I’d learned how to sing high and lonesome harmonies by listening to those recordings. When I met drummers, I generally judged their talents — and heck, their overall I.Q. — by how much they sounded like Levon.
In short, I wanted to be Levon Helm — or at least, I wanted to have the musical parts of his life (the other parts were kind of rough at times). To my thinking, Levon had as pure of a musical soul as I was ever likely to experience, and he became the biggest influence on the way I play music and sing. There aren’t too many people who can shift from R&B to old-timey music to driving rock in a single set and make it all sound real — and on top of that, create a signature drum sound. In fact, there is only one person who could do that.
Levon’s family said Tuesday he was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer.” I didn’t even know until then that he had cancer again. I’d heard he was having back problems, and that issue was why he’d had a string of recent gig cancellations. I also was hoping I’d get to one of his Midnight Rambles some time soon, so I could check that off my personal bucket list. Now it appears I won’t have the chance.
I knew next to nothing about Levon until I saw The Last Waltz for the first time in the mid-1980s. Although Martin Scorcese’s camera spent too much time worshiping Robbie Robertson in that movie (Scorcese and Robertson were running buddies at the time), the film still educated me to the music of The Band. I had missed them almost completely in the 1960s and 1970s because they rarely hit the Top 40, and that was all I listened to at the time.
When the film opened and those rough-looking older dudes climbed onto the stage and sang “Don’t Do It,” well, that was pretty much all I needed to get hooked. My musical tastes already were changing, and I started digging deeper for something a little more authentic than the predictable stuff that had dominated my record collection.
Everyone in The Band was a fabulous player, but I’d never seen anyone play drums like Levon did in The Last Waltz. First, he held his snare stick underhanded, jazz-style. It gave his playing a sensitivity and control that you rarely see in rock ‘n’ roll, and you never saw it in that beat-the-drums-senseless era. Second, he didn’t set up his kit in the middle of the stage, behind the lead singer. The Band had no true lead singer — everyone sang — but Levon got a lot of the leads and he put his kit stage left, upstage. I still haven’t seen anyone else do that.
Years after The Last Waltz, The Band sort of re-formed minus Robertson. That effort eventually ground to an end for reasons too complex and painful to get into here, and then Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer and lost his voice. I thought I had heard the last from him. Instead, his second act was just beginning.
It took a long round of therapy, but Levon got his voice back. It was different, and more limited, but it was still very much his. And he began holding weekly get-togethers at his home/studio in Woodstock, which developed into the now-legendary Midnight Rambles. Then came Dirt Farmer, an impossibly good Americana album that netted Levon a Grammy and cemented his place as a performer again.
I saw Levon’s band last summer when they opened for John Hiatt at Wolf Trap. Frankly, he had a bad night. His voice, which had a tendency to bloom and fade after the cancer, was little more than a squawk. But he was great on drums and mandolin, and his band acted more like a family than a backing group. I filed the performance away in my mind, hoping I’d get a chance to see him in better form further on up the road.
Levon has done a lot of living. He developed his skills (musical and otherwise) by playing rockabilly on a brutal bar circuit in the late 1950s and early 1960s; he did the whole ’70s-rocker-excess thing, burning through a few Corvettes, a huge amount of money and a heroin addiction; he was a surprisingly good actor with some solid Hollywood credentials; he’s had moments of pure joy and pure terror that you and me will never experience, and he’s lived long enough to go through cycles of success and failure and success again.
Through all of that, he has stayed true to himself as a musician and a man. Few people can make that claim. His has been a musical life, well-lived.
Addendum, 4/19: From Levon’s Facebook page: “Levon Helm passed peacefully this afternoon. He was surrounded by family, friends and band mates and will be remembered by all he touched as a brilliant musician and a beautiful soul.”