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RIP Levon Helm

Ironic that The Band have always been considered the quintessential American group. Like nobody before them they merged gut-bucket rock and roll, country, rag-time, soul, bluegrass, folk, and the blues….into a stew that sounded both rustic and entirely new at the same time. Their best music was so shocking not because it covered unknown ground, but because it came as close as possible to perfecting what was already there.

I say ironic because, The Band were all Canadians. Except for Levon Helm. From Arkansas.

Levon was the band’s spiritual and musical leader. Armed with 2 astounding songwriters, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, Helm’s voice somehow encompassed something as huge as the American Civil War. To listen to him as Virgil Kane in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is more than just pure musical bliss. It’s a master class. It explains, more than any weighty tome I know, what divides us and why. Then, and now. It’s both majestically triumphant, and unbearably sad. And it rocks like hell, as Levon also just happened to be one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Not bad for a modest southern country boy.

If there is ever a musical Mount Rushmore, Helm deserves to have his face carved into it. Bearded preferably. He made me want to grow one. At 45 I’m still trying.

I’m just gutted right now. I want to cry but I can’t. I wish I could but there’s nothing there. Dry. So I listen to the music instead. There’s always the music. It will live forever.

There’s a great story about Levon that some may know. It’s worth re-telling.

The Band’s concert film “The Last Waltz”, directed by Martin Scorcese, is probably the best known concert film of all time. It featured a who’s who of mid 70s names….Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison…plus the titanic blues legend Muddy Waters. Quite a party really. So much so that when Neil Young took the stage he had a gob of cocaine hanging from his nose, a shot that Scorcese had to airbrush out of the film. Anyway….the sound was a bit ragged due to various backstage stimulants and what not…and every single performer was brought in after the fact to re-record his or her live vocals (Robertson’s vocal mic wasn’t even turned on)…which is one of the reasons ”The Last Waltz” sounds so glorious.

Levon refused to re-do anything. His performance was perfect because….well…..his performance was perfect. He was that good. And when the show was running a bit long….and there was talk of cutting Muddy Waters from the show, Levon Helm told Scorcese and Robbie Robertson to….essentially….f- off.

Muddy played. Levon backing him up on the drums with one of them smiles that says….”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

It never would again. Robertson left the Band….and they carried on without him with dwindling returns. They went from Stadiums to hick bars. But where Robbie went to Hollywood for the glamour, Helm drove the van and unloaded his own gear at the back door of seemingly every dive club in the country. Not because he had to. But because he wanted to. He was a rock and roller.

These are such strange times. For a while Helm couldn’t afford to pay his own mounting medical bills (cancer has no pity). He nearly lost his house in Woodstock, New York. Only the frequent “midnight rambles” he hosted on his property, musical picnics featuring some huge names, kept him in the black. But through it all he never stopped playing. Even when the cancer and 28 chemo treatments ravaged his vocal cords, he kept at it, drafting his daughter into his band. Music came from Levon Helm the way sweat comes from the rest of us.

Just yesterday it was announced that the end was near for Levon Helm. Cancer had eaten him up and it was only a matter of hours. The announcement was all but obliterated in the press by the insane ramblings of Ted Nugent, which says more about the country we live in than I really care to get into. You take a look at the grace and dignity of a Levon Helm….and then a fool like Ted Nugent comes swinging into the picture on a vine….and it’s no wonder we’re still as fractured now as we were back in 1861.

Levon Helm never divided anyone. By force is personality and sheer talent he turned four Canadians into the most graceful of American rock and roll bands. He never compromised. He just played. And smiled. And when he smiled, at least I would always think…”boys, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

And it probably never will again.

I may be able to cry now. Finally.

But I’ll wait until this song is over….

In a bit..


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