Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm: An Appreciation

I once began a story. Actually, many times I've begun many stories, but this one in particular was always sort of for my own enjoyment. It probably dates back to the late 1980s (I can't locate a copy of it). The working title was The Triumphant Return of Chip Chumley & The Champions, the story of a not very successful high school band that gets back together (socially and musically, each presenting challenges) to play their 25th high school reunion. It was a fantasy borne out of my own failed band aspirations.

Without getting bogged down in the details of the plot and the various character assassinations I'd planned, there was a scene early on when the band members were in high school and the drummer was asked to also handle lead vocals (I myself was an aspiring singer and lyricist who suddenly found myself taking drum lessons because the opportunity had been offered to me). The drummer isn't feeling sure about this and the others try to convince him that there was in fact a proud tradition of singing drummers (and in fact, there is, more than I knew at the time I was writing this). The dialogue went something like this:

Band member: What about Ringo?
Drummer: He's not really a singer.
Band member: Micky Dolenz of the Monkees!
Drummer: He wasn't really a drummer.
Band member: Karen Carpenter?
Drummer: Are you kidding me?
Band member: Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.
Drummer: Yeah, but he wasn't that great at either singing or drumming.
Band member: I know: Levon Helm.
Drummer: Yeah, OK. Levon's cool.
Truth is truer than strange fiction, and Levon Helm of The Band was indeed cool. And today, he passed across the great divide, a victim of cancer. He rejoins bandmates Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in a hotel room in 1986; and Rick Danko, who died in 1999 after years of substance abuse accompanied by massive weight gain. The Band was one of those unique groups with multiple lead singers; oddly, of the five members, the three who handled lead vocals are all now gone.

Also oddly: Richard, Rick, and Levon all died 13 years apart from each other.

In the late 1960s, The Band were an oasis of Americana roots music, though only Levon was from the USA, the others being Canadian. His Arkansan drawl brought authenticity to songs about hard times and risky ventures and his earthy drumming came from Dixieland and the Delta. Their sound influenced such diverse artists as Eric Clapton (who quit Cream upon hearing their first album, realizing that he'd had it all wrong) and Elton John (whose Tumbleweed Connection was directly inspired by The Band's first album, Music From Big Pink).

It's always a sad thing when we lose an artist, but Levon's death seems to be eliciting an extra degree of emotion. Unlike Manuel and Danko, who battled and lost to their own personal demons, Levon was seemingly fit and constantly upbeat. He remained active musically and also appeared in films, filling the screen with his personality no matter how modest the role. He'd been fighting cancer for several years (one thing the rock and rollers took from the Rat Pack was a love of whiskey, cigarettes, and stage-door ladies) yet had a full concert schedule right up to his death. In fact, I was to have seen him tomorrow in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Of course, we always have the music but even better, we have The Last Waltz. Though the Martin Scorcese-directed documentary film was at the heart of a long-running feud between Levon and guitarist Robbie Robertson, it provides not only brilliant musical performances but also revealing glimpses of the band offstage, without the greasepaint or the impulse to please the audience. Here we see the all-too-human Levon Helm talking about his initial experience being in New York City:

"You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again."
Passing away at age 71, Levon Helm had plenty of time to try things again. It's not a tragedy when a person reaches the three-score-and-ten years he's supposed to be allotted. But what we've lost is an artist and a man with such love for the music, such respect for the audience, and such enthusiasm for and dedication to his art. At the end of the day, whether it's a love song or a sad song, music is about feeling more alive, more fulfilled. It can be used for political purposes but it's ultimately a social thing, a way of binding together strangers as a temporary community of toe-tappers, thigh-slappers, and sing-alongers who just want to feel a little better than they did right before the drummer counted off the first song.

That was Levon Helm. He was cool.

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