Levon Helm: A Retrospective
Levon Helm’s spirit echoes through the mountains of Woodstock, NY although his voice, (which won three Grammy awards after damage by throat cancer), no longer calls across the trees. His contributions to music were so vast he won’t ever really be gone.
I’m glad to know that his remarkable Midnight Rambles, performances in the spirit of the Medicine Shows of his youth, continue to roll too. Band members gathered on his birthday (May 26th) in a celebratory performance, on what would have been his 72nd birthday. Of this, band member Brian Mitchell said,
“I know Levon would be very happy that we were back to playing at the Ramble. It’s something he was very proud of, something that took on a life of it’s own. It was Levon, the band, the staff, and the audience coming together. It worked because of the combination of all those things. Ultimately, the Ramble became a representation of Levon’s personality, and his view of the world. The idea of creating a unique environment that people would want to visit to hear music and be a part of is something special. He was truly one of the most unique and non compromising people I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.”
Helm brought some of the best musicians in the world to perform at his home nearly every weekend he was in town. I don’t just mean he brought them to his adopted hometown; he brought them to his home; that’s just the sort of man he was.
“Many people have this image of Levon as the rock star that connected to the everyman on the street,” Mitchell said. “He was what we call in our circles, a musician’s musician. Everyone wanted to hang out with him, play with him, get his approval. I’ve seen the biggest rock stars on the planet humbled in his presence. Which was funny because he hated rock-n-roll posturing.
“He only cared about the music, which made the rock stars frustrated by not being able to get to him. He loved being with blues and jazz musicians which maybe the public didn’t know much about. Those were the ones that got his attention and who he always tried to help out. He also loved hanging with anybody he met. There was absolutely no elitism. Many of my favorite memories I have of him are at road stops talking to truckers, waitresses, someone pumping gas. So, the image of Levon as the rock star that connected to the everyman on the street…..believe me when I tell you……you better believe it!”
A full list of past guests, reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in damn good music today. They came from a broad range of genres and generations. Among the brightly shining stars were Emmylou Harris, Phil Lesh, Leon Russell and a host of others ranging from Billy Bob Thornton to Bob Weir.
I asked Patterson Hood, (Drive-by Truckers) who played with Helm along with his father David, what their experience of Helm and his music was like.
David Hood said of him, “Levon and I first met at a club in Memphis. We hit it off immediately and he said that he wanted to come to Muscle Shoals to record. Having been a fan since the time I heard The Band, I was thrilled and flattered. The late great Duck Dunn brought him down in 1978 and we recorded tracks for the first of his self- titled solo albums.
“In 1981 we signed him to our MSS Records label. I was disappointed that he didn’t play drums on either of these albums, but he was such a huge fan of Roger Hawkins’ drumming. I think he also wanted to just be the singer after having been the drummer for so long.
“He played with the most natural groove I’ve ever seen and it was a joy to be part of it. The last time I saw him was at his 70th birthday celebration. Even though his illness was taking its toll, he played and sang with the strength and groove and a twenty year old man. Besides being a great musician he was a wonderful and dear friend and will be missed by all.”
Patterson added, “I had the honor of meeting Levon several times over a thirty year period. First, not long after The Last Waltz, when he recorded in Muscle Shoals. I was already a fan. In 2001, after his first battle with cancer, I drove to Memphis to see him and my dad record a project for Jim Dickinson. Levon’s voice then was just a hoarse whisper, but his playing was as vital as ever. Several years later, in 2008, when DBT played a show with him, his voice was again amazingly strong and vibrant. One of my fondest memories in the world was when we were asked to play one of the Rambles in 2010. Later, I sat in his kitchen with him and the next day, I sang “Unfaithful Servant” with him and his incredible band. He came up to me and hugged me afterward and told me that he had never done that song without Danko singing it and that I had “done good”. I will always smile when I think of him and the wonderful music he lived.”
I had the opportunity to both meet Mr. Helm and to see a number of his legendary performances beneath a blue Woodstock moon. He didn’t just perform, he celebrated. To watch him was to experience his joy. He exuded life; radiated a genuine spirit of kindness, humor and wisdom. It shone straight through his eyes when he looked at you. When he shook your hand, you could feel it there too.
After interviewing Band member Brian Mitchell in 2007, I followed the adventures of Levon and his Ramblin’ Band from a distance until catching back up with them, about a year later, in Charlottesville, Va. Helm lit up the town. Later that night Band members, Little Sammy Davis, an old-school Blues artist and Mitchell gave impromptu performances at a local venue, sitting in with the band. (Pictured is Brian w/ Soozie and Springsteen).
“Hey now! Don’t take my job! You’ve got a better one than I do!” I remember the guitarist saying as he grinned from ear to ear, clearly having the time of his life. They all had a true spontaneity, the ability not only to be in the now but to transform it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. Since that time, Mr. Davis and now Mr. Helm have passed. I’ll never see quite the same thing again.
In a way, however, everyone can see something like it. At the time, the documentary, Ain’t In It for My Health, was being filmed. Band members laughingly described microphones snaking around corridors, catching them, at times, unawares. In his blog about the movie, director Jacob Hatley vividly describes what filming was like:
“It’s late. You’re sitting around Levon’s kitchen table… He describes the duckbilled platypus (“the absolute baddest thing you can get a hold of!”). He reenacts his favorite scene from The Wild Bunch. He talks about an old boy he knew who rode his mule into town to go to a dance and on the way swapped his .38 for a .22, because you just can’t move around with a big .38 in your pocket. …
“Then things happen… Levon records his first record in twenty-five years. He loses his voice. He runs into serious financial trouble. He is told he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for The Band and rejects it. Suddenly, events loaded with dramatic potential swarm around you; stuff documentary filmmakers supposedly dream about. But the thing that keeps nagging at you: “What about the duckbilled platypus?” … if faced with a choice between a sequence about The Band’s importance to the evolution of Americana versus Levon explaining how to properly hog a catfish, you can bet the farm we went with the catfish.”
I have tried many times but can’t describe my own experience talking with Mr. Helm and members of his Band, (though it was less intensive), as well as Mr. Hately describes them above. From the time of my interview to the last Ramble I attended, they won three Grammy Awards and experienced some of the other things he describes. Through it all, they played often sold-out shows again and again with some of the most amazing artists of our time.
As hugely significant as that all may be, it was the Band themselves that stood out to me the most. Their strikingly singular personalities, their vast musical backgrounds full of stories, their sometimes jaded wisdom, which was nearly always delivered through veils of laughter… and their freedom, their rare, true free-spiritedness… that’s what I will always remember the most.
Mr. Helm was remembered in much the same way by Beat Poet Charles Plymell. He recalled him as a young renegade, arriving at Bob Dylan’s house, (made famous by the albums ‘Big Pink’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’), in the dead of night:
“He’d driven all the way from Arkansas to Woodstock; pulled into the big pink ranch house in a Hudson Hornet with a back seat as big as bed & cocktail lounge!” he said, and then evoked images of Levon as bootlegger, on the best run of his life, (the Hornet had been their car of choice too). Helm later showed the poet his favorite boulder, “His pet rock…”, added Mr. Plymell. He said the Band played a few tunes for him, Ginsburg and Kerouac that night. I could almost taste the whiskey hear the crickets.
A Rolling Stone writer summed up the arrival of Helm other band members less descriptively, but still evokes the scene Mr. Plymell paints: “What the Band brought to Big Pink was the dust of the road. But then, that’s the story of how the Band got to be the Band.” (‘Remembering Levon Helm, a Classic Interview With the Band’, 1968).
Who were these pink house dwelling, Beat Poet fraternizing, romantically road dusty people? Who was this Band with a capitol ‘B’?
When they joined forces with in Dylan 1965, Helm, the first member of the band to join it said in a Rolling Stone interview, “We’d barely heard of Bob Dylan, but somehow he had heard of us.” They established that impressive sort of reputation when they were recruited, one by one, to play with Ronnie Hawkins, later dubbed the King of Rockabilly.
The Band became an instrumental part of Dylan’s then revolutionary electric sound. Adding electric guitar to Folk, let alone a drummer from the King of Rockabilly’s band, was unheard of and wasn’t well responded to. Their debut at the Newport Folk Festival was met by Pete Seeger with shouts of, ‘Cut the cord!’” Following the negative reaction, Helm left the Band but rejoined them at Big Pink when offered a recording contract.
(I wish I could travel through time and tell a then surely upset Mr. Helm, “Hey! Who cares if they booed you! Wait till you hear what you guys do with this! Wait till you see what the Dead do with this idea! And man, you won’t believe this but they are going to one day create an entire new genre called ‘Americana’ that would not have been possible if you hadn’t done this!”)
The then controversial performance jerked Folk out by it’s roots. Though the genre continued to thrive, it grew new branches. One of many examples is the Americana genre, for which Helm received the first Grammy Award in 2009, (Electric Dirt).
It reflects another thought of Mr. Mitchell’s on Helm:
“He might have had no patience with rock n roll posturing, but he was the epitome of rock n roll. He had all the qualities of what rock n roll should be about. He had the attitude, the rebelliousness, the defiance. When he played it was time to kick ass, take no prisoners, pedal to the metal!
“He always gave 100%, left everything on the stage. Go check out the Band playing “Slippin and Slidin” in the Festival Express movie. I’ll put that next to any Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, or Metallica for balls to the wall rocking. He did not play by the rules, and always fought for what he thought was right. Of course there’s the side of him that was….”the only drummer that can make you cry with his drumming” We can save that for another time though. I’m just talkin bout rockin! He never hung up his rock n roll shoes!”
That moment at Newport is part of the action taken on a concept Dylan relates in his Chronicles, where he said he decided one day to stop trying to write songs like Mike Seeger and to just write his own songs. It is difficult to articulate, the importance of that epiphany. I suppose the best way is to ask you to imagine yourself what music might be like if Bob Dylan never decided to write his own songs. What if he had remained a Folk singer, perhaps even became an archivist like Mr. Seeger? What if there was no “Like a Rolling Stone” or “All Along the Watchtower”?
The importance of Helm’s drums to the sound of the music is equally hard to explain. His drumming style was so unique, so individual, that the music would absolutely not been the same played by anyone else. Dylan’s and also The Band’s lyric, new songs reflected the timelessness of folk, though they were new. Folk , the music of every man, the voice of the voiceless has also often been the voice of rebellion. By rebelling against the genre, Dylan and Helm were, arguably acting more in it’s true spirit than many others better received at Newport that year.
After time at Big Pink, Helm eventually built his own place at Woodstock, completed in 1975. From the start, the barn doubled as a studio and it was there that Helm later held his marvelous Rambles. The first person he recorded was Muddy Waters, who won a Grammy for the album.
In 1976, The Band held their legendary farewell concert, The Last Waltz. It featured some of the era’s most amazing musicians, including Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Star. Filmed by Martin Scorsese, it also became the first ‘Rockumentary’.
Also a talented actor, Mr. Helm appeared in several films over the years. His most remembered performances are as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter and the narrator for The Right Stuff. His last role, the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood in friend Tommy Lee Jones’ film In the Electric Mist, was a fairly recent one, (2009).
In the years between The Last Waltz and the Midnight Rambles, Helm continued to write and to play amazing music. My favorite was a concept album titled, The Legend of Jesse James. It was released in 1980 and was, to my understanding, one of his favorites too. He played Jesse James, of course. The songs, written by Paul Kennerley, were also performed by Johnny Cash, (Frank James), Charlie Daniels, (Cole Younger) and Emmylou Harris, (Jesse’s wife, Zerelda).
Helm continued to play the album’s “Train Robbery” in his Ramble sessions. He was, I think, a great deal like Mr. James. At least, like the Jesse James we learn about if we look closely enough. Both were distinctly Southern in a way that preserved the fading kindness, honesty, consideration and generosity of an earlier time. At the same time, they were fiercely independent, rebellious, two of humankind’s few true revolutionaries. Neither ever let the bastards get them down.
Mr. Helm did not even let throat cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 1998 and died of complications from this April, get him down. He kept playing right up to the very end and not one show on his calendar was cancelled until his death. I’ll bet Jesse was smiling down from heaven and whistling along every time he played.
What Rolling Stone said of his music in 1968 could be said just as accurately of it in 2012, “If it sounds real, the reason is that it is.” Sadly, so was the drumline through the graveyard at Woodstock Cemetery the day he was buried.
Many artists gave statements to the press about him when he died and all are beautifully moving. I think, however, Lucinda Williams may have summed it up the best when she said: “Levon knows what we can only guess: that there is no last waltz.”
And she’s right. The Band keeps Ramblin’ on.
~ Lonesome Liz
Photo 1- by Allison Murphy – 2010 Mt. Jam
Photo 2 – Brian Mitchell & Levon Helm, Courtesy of Brian Mitchell’s collection)
Photo 3- 2010 Mt Jam by Allison Murphy
Photo 4- Courtesy of Brian Mitchell’s collection
Photo 5 – Levon Helm -New Port Folk Festival by Allison Murphy
**Read Howlin’ The Blues With Sumlin – another great feature from Lonesome Liz.
Lonesome Liz is an Outlaw Country and Blues singer/songwriter, (http://lonesomelizmusic.
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