We lost an American icon with the passing of Levon Helm at the age of 71. Helm was the drummer and singer for The Band, one of the most influential acts in the 1960s and 1970s. I'm nowhere near qualified enough to speak about Helm or The Band, so I'll pass that torch along to some others, like Katie Hasty over at Hitfix.com:
The thing I've heard most this week when talking about the imminent passing of Levon Helm is that the lifelong musician was still playing shows even a few short weeks before he was hospitalized in New York. As he battled his last against cancer, the Midnight Rambler was still rambling in Woodstock, N.Y., as a host, a part of the whole in addition to being a centerpiece.
You could say similar things about The Band, whose communal strength in the '60s in '70s was in its individuals, and the group's ability to be its own centerpiece or to play well with others. Backing Bob Dylan or — in its earliest incarnation, Ronnie Hawkins — the Band stepped out with brilliant “Music from Pink House” and went on to define, reform and inform roots-based rock music of the era from within the band and through those they worked with outside of it. Despite the loss in gravitational pull that brought Helm and other Band members together with Robbie Robertson, the group's legacy was firm by time they broke up in 1976.
That bust confirmed at least a couple of things: one, it put “The Last Waltz” firmly into the living curricula of any music lover and, two, it was a proven moment that Helm would continue to be a lasting, working musician, solo or in a group. Helm didn't slow, and spent his life finding ways to work with (and even launch) other greats, creating a special space in a barn in upstate New York for creation and cohabitation with his art. He's collected Grammys and played Woodstock, became the leading name to drop when you talk about singing drummers (and Helm on mandolin? My gosh!). But he wasn't just a stand-out. He also purposefully blended in, whether with Johnny Cash or performing Roger Waters' “The Wall,” bouncing back after interpersonal tragedies and other, potentially fatal health problems.
Or this from Timothy Malcolm about the impact Helm had on him as a Millenial in my hometown paper, the Times Herald Record:
When I was born, Levon Helm had already finished his first tour with The Band. Those guys were long gone, relics of those crazy '60s. My era was about synthesizers and hair gel. Guitars and drums, pianos and organs – those things didn't have a place in 1984. So Levon made his music with little fanfare; in fact, there wasn't any fanfare. Levon played tiny clubs, rubber rooms – like he was in purgatory, waiting for the next phase. I grew up in an age of street raw hip-hop and moody grunge. The music of my youth was depressing as hell, filled with drugs and violence, and if you were lucky, alcoholic binges. And love sucked. Like most kids my age, I grew up to believe everything pretty much sucked. [...]
I found The Band in college, I suppose, though I don't remember the day. I remember Dad sliding “The Last Waltz” into the CD player of the car during our drive over to Woodstock. We drove because Dad wanted to see Woodstock. I didn't. I was in college, on spring break. Woodstock was furthest from my preferred destinations. But we listened to “The Last Waltz,” and I heard that punchy “Up on Cripple Creek,” in which Levon claims he “sure wish I could yodel,” and the crowd roars in approval. Levon, man, you can do anything, just do it. Later he gives this performance on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that surpasses any performance you could probably dig up in any record store. You'd swear he's Virgil Caine, raw and ready to attack any man who shames his family name. That's not a song about the Civil War, but it's a song about staying true to what you feel is real. It's about devotion and honesty. Levon sings it so perfectly because that's what he is: devotion and honesty.
Kids my age, we dumb twenty-somethings who claim we've lived hard already, dress in old clothes. We love old clothes. And we love old things. Vintage furniture, earthen food, hell, even the pictures we take with our digital cameras and post on the internet have to be run through a filter that makes it look like daguerreotype. Our favorite TV shows are like older shows. Our favorite movies are homage to old movies, and that's if we don't simply like the old movies. We dress our new children in britches and boots. And our music? Pick any guy or gal strumming a banjo, or picking a guitar, or banging on a tub in any band out there in America right now. These people are everywhere. Head to 92Y Tribeca, or the Mercury Lounge, or the Bearsville Theater – you'll see crazy kids strumming and picking and banging in old clothes and big bushy beards. Everyone wants to be like them. Everyone wants to be like The Band. But nobody is The Band.
I don't think Levon could have accurately assessed the impact he had on music. Sure he brought musicians of all colors, shapes and ages into his Midnight Ramble every Saturday night, into some old barn with rugs and pure blue-stone and a buffet dinner – the kind of atmosphere everyone is trying to recreate these days. But there's no way Levon could have known what he started. After the synthesizers cleared out, and after Levon reclaimed his stage, all these musicians grew from the very earth that Levon himself created with his wrists and voice. Real and raw music. Folk and swing, funk and soul, rock ‘n' roll and rhythm ‘n' blues. The American in the most American band in history created this monster, this beautiful monster that swings and stomps, and there's absolutely no way he could have known just how much he mattered.
Bon Iver paid tribute to the late Helm during a show last night during a show in San Francisco. Check out the video for that over at Consequence of Sound, and below watch my favorite performance of Helm's: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from “The Last Waltz”: