Take a load off (Levon Helm, 1940-2012)

One of those things we’ve discovered in the age of instant social media: Just how much regard many of us held someone when news of their death breaks.

Except in the case of Levon Helm, it was two days before, when his family announced he was in the final stages of the throat cancer he lived with for 13 years.

Let’s face it — for all that he did in the name of music, Levon’s was not the first name that came from many music fans’ lips. And The Band wasn’t atop many lists when it came to jotting down our favorite musical acts. But once his family posted the news Tuesday — he passed this afternoon (April 19) — all the outpourings came gushing.

All the feelings of “Wow — this man was something.” Plus, the added sense — and maybe extra comfort to his family as well — that all these things were out there while he was still alive. In the big picture, it won’t be the explosion or outpouring that followed Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston’s deaths, but among my large and rather eclectic Facebook community, this is pretty huge. And, considering how many of us know each other from other musical travels — i.e. punk, garage, rockabilly, soul — it’s a pleasant surprise.

*****

The Band, like Los Lobos to recent generations, is one of the most quintessential of American bands — meaning they touched a lot of cultural bases and have been terribly underrated and overlooked.

The irony was that, for being quintessentially American, Levon, who grew up the son of cotton farmers outside of Helena, Ark., was the only American-born member of The Band. Wanted to be a musician from the time he saw Bill Monroe at age 6, was weaned on country, blues, R&B and the hybrid of it all called rockabilly, started playing drums in the bars at 17 and shortly after, went on the road across the South and Canada with Ronnie Hawkins And he brought that authenticity to what became The Hawks, Levon & the Hawks … and, eventually, The Band. The same authenticity he brought to playing Loretta Lynn/Sissy Spacek’s daddy in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Having spent my late childhood, adolescence and beginnings of adulthood in the ’70s — and having been raised on top-40 AM in the pre-disco era and FM rock before narrowcasting destroyed it — The Band was just one of those groups I heard on the radio all the time. I never liked “Up on Cripple Creek” — just sounded too dopey-hippie for me — but I did like the voice behind it. No mistaking that rugged, burly Southern voice for anyone else.

Since my real immersion into music wasn’t until the summer of 1971, listening to the top 40 on WPOP in Hartford and WABC in New York, I didn’t know that Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” wasn’t the original. An excellent version, but hearing Levon sing that original — and looking very much the part of a rough-hewn Southerner doing it, especially in his bearded days — put the song into context: Virgil Caine, defeated by a crippling war, yet proud and even a little defiant.

Nor, for that matter, as a kid, had I any awareness of The Band’s Bob Dylan connection, the one that sprung them to fame after years of playing bars. It didn’t matter to me. It was just good music. It didn’t excite me the way some of the biggest acts of the day did; by comparison, it was furniture crafted by the finest artisans — it was reliable and built for comfort … and to last. Thus, songs such as “Stage Fright,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Acadian Driftwood” and “Living in a Dream” settled into my subconscious, beneath my overt like for The Beach Boys, Steely Dan and the Allmans in the ’70s , and eventually Elvis Costello and The Ramones as well.

And, of course, there was “The Weight”:

And The Band, posthumously, was one of my heretofore unspoken, unarticulated teachers of music history. I bought the original The Last Waltz album as a double-cassette as a high school senior and saw Marty Scorsese’s incredible concert film once I got to college, and while I was well familiar by that time with some of the artists on the album (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Dylan), it was my in to other people: Paul Butterfield, Dr. John and especially Muddy Waters. Musically, things started to make some sense — and The Band not only brought only these disparate artists together for that spectacular night, but this diversity of sounds as well.

And Levon, the man keeping the beat, was at the center of it.

And even as the cancer transformed him physically into a withered grandpa with a voice the shadow of its younger self, he kept the musical torch burning — through his biweekly Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock barn that brought together, like The Last Waltz, artists from a huge range of genres … and, miraculously, a couple of albums.

And I’ll leave the last words to him. As it should be. From his last album, 2009’s Electric Dirt. And now, he shall be released:

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6 Responses to “Take a load off (Levon Helm, 1940-2012)”

  1. maryam Says:

    i liked it

  2. Paul Stefano Says:

    God bless Levon Helm. Have his autograph on my copy of “This Wheel’s on Fire”. Very simply put it says “Don’t throw down. Levon Helm”. Will surely be missed. Clips of The Band should be shown to anyone thinking of being taken as a serious musician. Very sad.

  3. Five Songs, Part 76 « Franorama World Says:

    […] Franorama World What happens when someone goes through two humongous, unplanned life changes at once. Strap in … « Take a load off (Levon Helm, 1940-2012) […]

  4. Mark Zaretsky Says:

    Nice job of putting Levon in perspective, Fran…

  5. kate sylvester Says:

    Great salute Fran. Bill and I were very fortunate to attend his Ramble events at least twice and took the kids to a third one. He was genuinely very nice to them, very down to earth. A true musical talent and a gentleman.

  6. Life in Limboland, Part 1: ‘He’ — or what the hell AM I, really? « Franorama World Says:

    […] of my New Haven Register writing back when I was kinda somebody, and actually complimenting me on my Levon Helm tribute, but referring casually to me as “he” in his […]

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