"Levon Helm is the only drummer who can make you cry.” — Jon Carroll
After a long and valiant fight with cancer, Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, has died at age 71. He passed away yesterday at 1:30 p.m. surrounded by loved ones in New York, according to his website.
Helm was known as one of the greatest “pocket” drummers in rock history, and his authoritative, deeply Southern vocals led The Band through some of their best-loved tunes. These included rock classics such as “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down.”
The way he played drums was soulful, often slowing down the beat “to give the music more space to breathe,” as he once said.
He also had a side career as a salty character actor, delivering memorable performances in films such as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father, and “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” playing an old blind man.
In recent years, he was known for his famous Midnight Rambles—all-star barn jams at his home studio in Woodstock, NY, that were more like late night family get-togethers for fans, who were treated like welcome neighbors.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998 and underwent radiation, instead of a laryngectomy, which damaged his vocal chords. He faced financial ruin with mounting medical bills, but the Midnight Ramble shows, or “rent parties” as Helm called them, plus a little help from his famous friends, allowed him to keep his home.
The Levon Helm Band began staging a comeback in recent years that netted Grammys for its two most recent solo releases, “Dirt Farmer” (2007) and “Electric Dirt” (2009). Most important for Helm, he kept up regular live performances at the Rambles, as well as select touring dates with his veteran band that included his daughter, Amy.
Helm played Charlottesville twice in the past five years, indoors at The Paramount Theater in 2008 and outdoors at the Charlottesville Pavilion, now nTelos Wireless Pavilion, in 2010. Both times I was right down front—basking in the smiles of a still sharp drummer who lived and breathed such deep-rooted American music that drew from the blues, Dixieland jazz, and the earliest roots of rock. My ticket for the Pavilion show said simply, seat one, row one, orchestra pit. Guess I was the first person to buy a ticket (the photo used here is from the encore of that show).
Both performances were amazing for different reasons. At the first concert, Levon could still sing in full-voice — his voice came and went unpredictably in recent years — and he opened with a jubilant rendition of The Band classic “Ophelia” that transported many back to “The Last Waltz.” He also had great new tunes, songs that hearkened back to the early rock that inspired him, and special guests, like elderly bluesman Little Sammy Davis, who joined him blowing harp and singing. The horn arrangements were always impressive, and there were several memorable changes of pace, like when Helm would sit center stage and play mandolin on crowd favorites such as “Rag Mama Rag.”
Two years later, at the Pavilion show, Levon’s voice was too weak to sing — but he kept trying. You could see on his face that he was frustrated, probably in pain, and yet he still wanted to give the crowd what it so desperately wanted—another song sung in his wizened Arkansan drawl, while his hands kept the backbeat loose and the hi-hat dancing. It felt like a huge cathartic release, at the end of the night, when Helm somehow managed to summon the strength during the familiar encore closer, “The Weight” to sing: “I pulled into Nazareth, was a-feelin ‘bout a half-past dead . . . “
Helm was raised the son of a poor cotton farmer in a hamlet called Turkey Scratch, west of Helena, Arkansas. He was heavily influenced by the firsttraveling shows he saw, such as F.S. Walcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrels that featured top African-American artists of the time period. In the late ‘50s, Helm joined Ronnie Hawkins band, The Hawks, where he would soon meet the Canadian band members who would form The Band. After a famous stint as Bob Dylan’s backing group during his groundbreaking first electric tours, Helm dropped off the tour because the audience boos got to be too much for him (he was replaced by Mickey Jones).
In the late ‘60s, The Band released their classic records, including “Music From Big Pink,” its most legendary and beloved album—as well as playing one of the best sets at Woodstock. Other musicians instantly recognized their shared musical genius and innate ability to mine classic American traditions. Fans included Miles Davis, George Harrison, and guitarist Eric Clapton, who left Cream partly because he wanted to join The Band (Blind Faith was his attempt at that sound).
But The Band’s career gave out relatively quickly, under the pressure of drugs and fame and communal living, and they decided to shut it down instead of faking it. They gave one of the most memorable farewell performances in rock history, captured for posterity in the classic 1976 concert film, “The Last Waltz” directed by Martin Scorsese. The film, regardless of Helm’s dislike of it, remains arguably the greatest concert film of all-time.
When Helm reached the final stages of his cancer a few days ago, his immediate family informed fans on Facebook and asked for love and prayers "as he makes his way on this stage of his journey.” Fans and friends responded with an overwhelming outpouring of love and gratitude that was touching to read. His daughter followed up by saying she would read each and every comment to him.
Just last week, I pulled out a dog-eared paperback copy of Greil Marcus’ book, “Mystery Train” — considered by many to be one of the greatest books about rock’n’roll ever written — and re-read the chapter on The Band. Marcus described Helm’s drumming as holding the group together and that his vocals “sounded like a man calling a town meeting, with a gavel in each hand.”
Among Marcus’ interesting observations of The Band and their unique place in American music history: “Against a cult of youth, they felt for a continuity of generations; against the instant America of the sixties they looked for the traditions that not only made new things possible, but valuable; against a flight from roots they set a sense of place.” Now all three of The Band’s great voices are gone—but the music lives on.
This Saturday, the local band, The New Belgians “and many of Richmond’s finest” will be holding a tribute show for Levon at Cary Street Café, 2631 W. Cary, starting at 10 p.m. Russell Lacy opens.