The Mockingbird office in Charlottesville is decorated with a collection of proud mementos. An inspiration constellation, if you will. Most prominently, there’s the foldout from the ET: Picture Book record, which has Michael Jackson posing for what seems like a school photo with the ExtraTerrestrial himself. There’s the 7-inch Slash figurine, complete with adjoining Marshall stack. There’s the framed original poster for The Muppet Movie. There’s the bottom piece of Lucas Cranach’s Marienkirche altarpiece in Wittenberg, which depicts Martin Luther preaching the crucified God. There’s the six-panel insert to All Things Must Pass of George Harrison looking like the haggard cousin of Jesus and Gandalf, which sits next to the picture sleeve of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” single, a signed photo of Woody Allen, and a print of one of Kathe Kollwitz’s Lord’s Prayer woodcuts. Are we justified yet?! If not, hidden amidst the clutter of one of the bookshelves you may even find a drum tom signed by one Levon Helm.
I fell under the spell of The Band the moment the needle hit my father’s copy of the brown album when I was a boy. That record still conjures up its own peculiar universe – “the old, strange America” found in its sepia-toned Civil War imagery, gloriously ragged singing, and instrumental backing that sounds more like a single, ten-handed organism than the work of five individuals. It was music made by men, not boys. Like many before me, I sought out everything of theirs I could: the equally haunting Music From Big Pink, the taught/strung-out neuroses of Stage Fright, the labored if still criminally underrated Cahoots (they had the songs – they just didn’t put the right ones on there!), the slightly academic but no less enthralling professionalism of Northern Lights-Southern Cross, the charming afterthought of Islands. And then there are the live albums, particularly Rock of Ages, which somehow lives up to its ultra-sympathetic title. In fact, with the possible exception of The Who’s Live at Leeds, it might be the greatest live record of the rock era. If they don’t have you completely hooked by the second “my biggest mistake was lovin’ you too much” in the opening “Don’t Do It”… check your pulse.
One of the wonderful things about The Band is that there never was a star or a frontman. Everyone carried the, er, weight in that regard. The Band was anti-celebrity, a group in the purest sense, very much the sum of its parts. In fact, you can’t even pin the guys down to their specific roles. Levon may have been known as the drummer, but Richard Manuel also regularly played drums both in concert and on record. And while Levon sung their most well-known songs (“The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up on Cripple Creek”), as distinct and expressive as his voice was, it was no less so than Richard’s or Rick Danko’s. In fact, if you were to break it down song by song, I’m fairly certain Richard took the most leads.
Instead, what distinguished Levon was his origin. The Band’s music virtually defines the term ‘Americana’, yet Levon was the sole Yank in the group – all the other guys were from Canada. Actually, confederate would be the more accurate term. His southernness rooted the group, with his adopted brothers appropriating, via osmosis, the old-as-the-hills pathos that seemed to flow through Arkansas native’s veins. Greil Marcus famously described Levon as “the only drummer who could make you cry”, and I used to think he was referring exclusively to Levon’s trademark behind-the-beat thud on the snare (achieved by laying dish towels over his beloved pawn shop kit). I’m sure that was part of what Marcus meant, but there was something else that you can hear in his playing, and especially his voice. Something tragic.
In her essay, “The Regional Writer”, Flannery O’Connor captured, via Walker Percy, the profundity of Levon Helm:
“When Walker Percy won the National Book Award, newsmen asked him why there were so many good Southern writers and he said, ‘Because we lost the War.’ He didn’t mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter. What he was saying was that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.”
For a group whose sound so beautifully split the difference between the various musical forms of the Mississippi Delta (blues, gospel, ragtime, Honky Tonk, Chuck Berry, etc), some might consider it a bit surprising that their content rarely touched on themes eternal. At least, explicitly (we’ve written about one of the chief exceptions elsewhere…). But Levon was always singing about things eternal. It was in his DNA. Even when he was essentially cat-calling, he couldn’t not sing about something deeper. As Bernie Taupin and Elton memorably put it in the opening line of their remarkable tribute, “Levon wears his war wound like a crown.” And is there a better song about defeat than “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”? Just watch how Levon varies the drum fills in the Last Waltz performance above, while singing his heart out, and you will understand what people mean when they say someone plays by “feel.”
This is not to say Levon himself was some kind of saint, or would ever want to be remembered as such. Just read his uproarious autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, and you’ll find that it is as generous in parts as it is vindictive in others. This is only to say that Johnny Cash may not have had the market completely cornered on the ‘voice of God’ after all. Authority and wisdom tinged with grief and compassion (and the occasional wink) – the death of Levon Helm deserves a lament sung with the same gravity that only the man himself could reliably deliver:
P.S. While Levon’s greatest musical moments did indeed occur within original run of The Band, there are still a handful of post-Robbie Robertson tracks worth hunting down:
- Hurricane – Levon solo, American Son
- Violet Eyes – Levon solo, American Son
- Tough Mama – Bob Dylan (Levon on drums)
- Revolution Blues – Neil Young (Levon on drums)
- Caves of Jericho – reconstituted Band, Jericho
- Atlantic City – reconstituted Band, Jericho
- Opus 40 – Mercury Rev (Levon on drums)
- 14th Street – Rufus Wainwright (Levon on drums)
- The Mountain – Levon solo, Dirt Farmer