Levon Helm died yesterday, at 71, from cancer. You didn’t have to know him (as I did, faintly, fondly), to know that along with possessing one of the most moving voices and wickedest backbeats American music will ever know, that he had one of the most incredible, most surprising lives imaginable. Born into sharecropper poverty in Arkansas, he not only witnessed the birth of rock and roll, but helped to preside over its re—birth, when he (briefly) played drums behind the wild, discordant, drug—driven rawk created by one of his bosses, Bob Dylan. That group, his group, The Hawks, went from five years of godawful, you-need-speed-to-get-through-’em gigs at every roadhouse and bar in the U.S., to being The Band, the biggest, most fawned-over Musical Ensemble this country had ever seen. By 1969, there were elegant concert halls, stadiums, tons of dough, more ink than any rock and roll band had gotten since The Beatles. Then, for Levon and several of the others, came near-poverty and very hard times. Forget Faulkner or Steinbeck; his life could’ve been scripted by Fitzgerald.
Like a lot of people, the first time I heard him sing, I had no idea how much I needed to. It was late—1969 and I couldn’t decide what was troubling me more. The fact that I was the “new kid” at a boarding school packed, seemingly, with a cadre of rich, feckless jerks, or this ever-increasing nightmare that America was investing in called Vietnam. Actually, the two things, in my paranoid nature, seemed somehow intertwined. For music, during those troubled times, we had, essentially, two choices: Snarling or jokey protest songs about the War (courtesy of Steppenwolf and Country Joe), or simpleminded, whip-stupid paeans to how great the USA was like “The Ballad Of The Green Berets.”
The first weekend I was allowed off campus, I took the bus to the local record store. After checking out anything whose cover had pillowy letters, or was daglo pink or psychedelic (very important when you’re 13), the longhair behind the counter said, conspiratorially: “Kid, you don’t need that. This is what you want.” And handed me an ugly brown album, sporting a cover photo of a bunch of ornery, bearded guys who looked like they’d refused to surrender at Appomattox. I gave him four dollars and split.
The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (from The Last Waltz)
I liked the Fats Domino-inspired groove of the first song and the kick-off-your-dancing-shoes ragtime of the second, but I was fated to hear the third song, sung by Mr. Helm. As this guy with the bottomless southern drawl began to sing, in the sad, outraged voice of railroad man turned farmer (no, forced to become a farmer), about what the Civil War had cost him personally, I sat down. And I started to shake. As this rich, twangy voice mournfully totaled up the cost of this tragic fight between North and South. And just knew I couldn’t be the only one who suddenly thought about how America was in the same kind of fight now, which was tearing Her right down the middle (which was cool to think). And how much it hurt because I loved Her so (which was totally uncool). But it was Levon Helm singing this song which made me realize our country’s situation was not new. This painful, bloody struggle for Her soul had always been going on. After three years of “Hell No, We Won’t Go” or “Love It Or Leave It,” there were actually deeper, more complicated ways of thinking about our country.
Levon Helm & friends, “The Weight” (Ramble at the Ryman, 2009)
Levon was a Southerner. And as much as Virgil Caine, the Don’t Tread On Me figure he embodies in “Dixie,” he believed in hard work and fighting back. After The Band broke up, there were a couple of fine records (“Jericho” is “a stone-cold gas!” my longhaired friend at the record store would’ve said), some really sad reunions, a tragically broken friendship between Levon and Band songwriter Robbie Robertson, one death from health problems (Rick Danko), session work (Garth Hudson) one goddamned suicide (Richard Manuel). Levon, already having troubles financially, then got hit with throat cancer. In 1999 we were already lamenting his early passing, getting ready to write our tributes, and then, as Levon might have said, he foxed us. He managed to beat the Big C and go from whispering to singing again. He made several splendid albums under his own name. Ones, which, he laughingly told me, “Thair calling it ‘Americana.’ It’s just rock and roll.” Then Levon reinvented the notion of the rent party with his reasonably priced, totally rockin’ “Rambles” up at his home in Woodstock. He managed to keep his farm and his studio, which seemed to be forever in foreclosure. And then this fella really showed us all what those old American virtues—the work ethic and self-reliance—really meant.
Things were not all storybook. Levon did himself no favors with his rancorous memoir from 2000 or his ridiculous claims (30 fucking years later!) that he and the other boys helped to write those dang songs, too. Like a lot of folks, I reckon, I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that Mr. Robertson had visited Levon in the hospital this week. As any fan, who considered The Band his family, you so wanted these two friends to shake hands one last time and say ‘I’ll see you down the line pardner.’ But this shouldn’t have been surprising. No more than these last 10 years of Levon’s life. The kind of story that is so encouraging to all of us who grow a little grayer with each passing day.
With his three albums for Vanguard in the past five years (after some truly miserable solo records in the ’80s), Levon refound his voice—literally, symbolically—and made his best music since the mid-’70s. Whether he was singing (or, I can hear him, “sangin”) Muddy Waters, Pops Staples or Randy Newman, Levon stopped horsing around and gave these songs the fear, humor, sarcasm and sadness they deserved. He attracted every cool musician in the Western World up to his home (literally, symbolically) in Woodstock, to play a Ramble. Gigs he also took on the road, reminding tens of thousands of kids hooked on The Black Crowes or Dave Matthews who The Big Daddy of Roots Music really was. He was lucky enough to have his friend, Woodstock native and legend Barbara O’Brien, take over his affairs, put his books in order and watch his back. Adopted dogs (one named “Muddy”), made some more appearances in moving pictures, got to be a grandpa, won a couple of Grammys. The aforementioned Fitzgerald was wrong about a bunch of things. Some Americans have second acts and, even third ones. And in Levon’s case, they can be really excellent.
I will always just remember Levon as a gentleman who answered my questions backstage with patience and humility. And then there was that time he called me. I was supposed to have done an interview with “Lee,” and, a day or so before, it got snaked out from under me by a guy who had “seniority.” I was heartbroken—until the morning the phone rang. It was Mr. Helm, calling to say he was sorry about the confusion and was I sure I wasn’t supposed to profile him? He could give me a few minutes if I needed them. I was so thunderstruck by hearing “Virgil Caine”‘s voice on the phone, I just hummana-hummaned like Ralph Kramden, and asked him how he was feeling, and told him that I was really glad he was playing and singing so well. I’ll see you play again, one of these days, I promised. That sort of thing. I’ll never forget the way he said my name, He called me “Pater.” That Arkansas twang, man. Hard to get rid of.
After I got the news yesterday that he’d died, I got into the car to drive around and think, two things I’m never good at doing simultaneously. Foolishly, I turned on the radio, expecting to hear The Band’s music blasting, from one end of the dial to the other. I forgot about how doomed my expectation was. Corporate radio was not going to budge its mix of Def Leppard and Rihanna for five fucking minutes to fete this great master of American Music. I thought, None of these porgrammers realize what terrible fate is awaiting them. And, that, as they say down South, Hell is only half-full. So, I turned off the radio and just started singing “The Weight,” one of the biggest hits The Band ever had and a song that introduced, to most of us little hippies, the first Southern voice since Elvis that didn’t seem scary, or possessed by a guy who had a shotgun pointed at the front wheel of our motorcycle. In life, Levon Helm seemed to understand a lot of things. Including the weight that we all, all of us, have to carry, from womb to tomb.
Thanks, Levon. You’ve done more than your share. The rest of us Americans? We’ll take it from here.