Levon Helm passed away this week at the age of 71. He was the lone American in The Band, perhaps the most influential Canadian rock band of all time. He was an innately soulful drummer who eschewed the flash and crash of so many of his peers in the late ’60s and ’70s, earning the eternal respect, if not awe, of every drummer I’ve ever known.
Why? The only example you’ll ever need is his groove on “Up on Cripple Creek”—not only is that song incredibly funky, but the reason it’s so beautiful and perfect is that he doesn’t hit his cymbals once. He doesn’t need to. Most drummers employ cymbals as punctuation marks; everything Levon played was so inherently eloquent that there was no need to dress it up.
The Band is an enormous part of rock music history (they made the Beatles jealous); specifically of American music history (they invented the genre now known as Americana); even more specifically, of Southern Ontario and Toronto music history. Levon was the link that his Canuck pals had to the musical traditions of the deep American south that they were so fascinated with. Levon grew up watching carnival shows, gospel music, blues, R&B, backwoods country music, Elvis Presley’s first tour—anything and everything. He came from a world that seemed a century away in 1968, the year Music From Big Pink came out, a year full of modernist flurry, psychedelia and political assassinations.
The rest of The Band were also gentlemen out of time, but none of them grew up amidst the cultural riches that Levon did. Together they made music at once rooted in tradition—which, really, is not hard for anyone of any time to do, regardless of trends—but that also sounded like nothing else, past, present or future. It was, and is, weird music, made by a group who had played every dive along the eastern seaboard backing up a B-list rockabilly star, and then large theatres with a beloved artist considered The Voice of a Generation. Left to their own devices, they got up to entirely different mischief.
It’s hard to separate the music of The Band from the legend that comes with it. Like their peers the Grateful Dead, however, if you don’t get The Band, you really don’t get The Band. (And I, for one, have never got the Grateful Dead.) If you don’t, you stand in opposition to the orthodoxy of critical verbiage about their legacy, including dubious claims about Robbie Robertson’s “surreal” lyrics (really?) or about how Richard Manuel is every bit as soulful a singer as Ray Charles (again, really? I’ve always wondered if any African American writer would dare to agree).
Most Band newbies start with The Last Waltz, which is inspiring and often exhilarating—and yet just as often bloated and self-important. Martin Scorsese’s film is revered, and yet Levon thought it betrayed almost everything The Band was built on. It was Levon who fought to get Muddy Waters in and Neil Diamond out, and it was Levon who left the experience angrier than ever at Robbie Robertson, for whom Levon thought the whole project was a giant ego trip. It didn’t help that, as Levon points out, Scorsese portrays the rest of The Band as mumbling, dazed bumpkins, and Robertson the sole genius.
Levon spouted off about this and much more in his 1992 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire. There are very few rock autobiographies worth reading, but Levon’s is near the top. Not because of the dirt he dishes, including plenty of venom directed at Robertson. Instead, it’s because even at his most bitter, Levon is still a perfect Southern gentleman, unfailingly polite even as he’s tearing strips off people (mostly Robertson) he feels hindered The Band from fulfilling their potential. I haven’t read the book in over 10 years, yet I remember it vividly, especially his portraits of growing up in Turkey Scratch, Alabama, of meeting and touring with Ronnie Hawkins, and of life at the height of The Band’s fame, watching the group fall apart in a series of bad deals and addictions. If you want to understand why Levon is revered, you need to not only hear him play, you must read his book; it’s as much a part of his appeal as anything he ever put to tape. You don’t even have to like The Band to love it.
Likewise, there are some pure objective truths about The Band’s music. On “Up on Cripple Creek,” the alchemy they weave together is incredible—especially Levon and keyboardist Garth Hudson, as we see on this clip.
Now strip away the rest of The Band, and just look at Levon. He broke the mould for rock drumming, introducing jazz and funk into roots rock and soul in ways that none of the other drum-hero showboaters (Moon, Bonham, Peart, etc.) would ever dare; even jazz lover Charlie Watts never dared get too complicated for the Rolling Stones. Levon took what the Motown drummers began and twisted it inside out until it was syncopated bliss, until it sounded like life was, indeed, a carnival. Look and learn.
In one of the most fascinating stories to emerge the week of Levon’s death, Robbie Robertson told the press that he visited Levon in the hospital, days before his death. There’s no sign the two had talked since they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the 1988 Juno Awards; Levon sat out the 1994 induction of The Band to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, specifically citing old wounds with Robertson as the reason. Levon’s book suggests that there was little, if any, contact between the two since the release of The Last Waltz 10 years prior to the Juno ceremony. And yet even Robertson’s statement seems carefully worded: “I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together.” He doesn’t actually say they spoke; he says that he sat with him. Was Levon conscious at the time? Did he carry his grudges to his death? Was this some way of Robertson making peace with himself more than it was about Levon?
No matter, that’s the business of two men and no one else’s. The only other surviving member of The Band now is Garth Hudson, a man whose musical brilliance is matched only by his eccentricity, and who continues to make music regularly with anyone who asks, high profile or otherwise, including Neko Case, the Sadies and Doug Paisley. Robertson rarely makes music anymore.
In the end, it was Levon that people would flock to see, travelling from far and wide to attend his Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y. It was Levon that fans wanted to know, wanted to witness. And it is Levon, the American, the catalyst to creating one of Canada’s greatest musical entities ever, that we will all miss the most.
For the finest obituary of the man I’ve seen this week, I refer you to Jason Schneider’s piece for Exclaim. I co-wrote Have Not Been the Same with him; I strongly recommend you read his other music book about The Band and that generation of Canadian groundbreakers, Whispering Pines.