In Praise of Levon Helm

It’s been, what, 2 whole days since we heard news of the apparent final struggle for life of a singer and bandmember who first gained fame in the 1960s (Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees), and now we have another–Levon Helm, ex-drummer of the band The Band.  He also acted (played the coal miner in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, for one) and did a lot of music on his own and with people that weren’t in The Band.  I saw The Band and Bob Dylan in concert in the mid-70s in St. Louis–don’t remember the exact year or playlist, but a dorm neighbor from Chicago-way knew that I was a big Dylan fan (at that time) so he supposedly wrangled a couple backstage passes from some girls.  We got there–no girls, no passes, no cell phones, of course, to find them (girls or tickets) with (I figure they gave ’em to a couple other young guys or it was a pipe dream–lots of pipe dreams in those days).  Anyway, we had to pay our way in, I guess, and sat in the nosebleed section.  Though I don’t recall much of it, I seem to remember being a lot more impressed with The Band than with Dylan.  They had a real stage presence about them which Bob Dylan (goddamn that man can NOT sing–thank goodness he could write some songs sometimes) certainly didn’t have; they would trade lead vocals between Levon, keyboardist Richard Manuel (who later committed suicide) and the always energetic bassist Rick Danko (also dead–drugs and heart failure).  Guitarist Robbie Robertson got the songwriting credits but there was supposedly some big row about that–I don’t really know all the details.

Levon has fought cancer for over a decade; I guess I thought he was in remission for quite a while.  He’s 71 and I guess it isn’t looking so good for him.  He hailed from Arkansas and was the only non-Canadian of The Band, drummed and did a lot of their singing, notably (from the movie “The Last Waltz”, with the Staples Singers helping out on “The Weight”):

and a song about the Civil War, made famous by Joan Baez, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”:

He gave The Band a uniquely Southern U.S. feel that they certainly wouldn’t have had, and will be missed.

Found this little gem on the “Tube”, too, where he explains the origins of the band’s name.  Is it just me, or is there a light in Richard Manuel’s eye that is both special and unhinged, or do I just think that because I know he was troubled and later committed suicide?:

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6 Responses to In Praise of Levon Helm

  1. Gosh, I have one of those irrational loves for Levon Helm. (Okay, maybe all love is irrational.) As a writer, I think it might be his name. As a music and film lover, I think it’s his voice and his stage presence. The first thing I thought when I saw your title was, “Oh god, please don’t let him be dead.” Now I remember, that’s not the worst thing.

    I bought his autobiography back in the nineties and it made me want to read one by everyone else in The Band, too. His was a hell of a story.

    • Well, Re, he went quickly after they publicly announced that he was nearing the end–just 2 days later, I believe. Love is most definitely irrational. The name, the way he looked left-handed even while drumming with both, the way he belted it out upwards to the mike, that distinct voice, yeah, he was cool. I’m going to have to read his book now.

  2. Linda Vernon says:

    Oh that’s too bad about Levon Helm. Why do such good talented people like him have to die at 71 and other obnoxious annoying wastes of space live on and on! I thought he was so good in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Now I want to watch everything he was in and read his autobiography. You’ve inspired me.

  3. H.E. ELLIS says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve never heard of this musician before and I’m always interested in hearing new music, even if it’s not new.

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