To eulogize Levon Helm is to eulogize The Band.
The ‘key man on drums’ lost his decade-long battle with cancer, thus extinguishing the torch of one of North America’s most unique and distinguished rock ‘n’ roll bands that Levon forever fought to preserve.
Eight years in bars. Eight years in arenas. Rocka-backing Ronnie Hawkins. Taking Bob Dylan electric. Deep South white soul, broken soul. A bone-rattling tale of rural sprawl. Cotton country. Rice country. The tortured, resolute spirit of Americana, that of traveling medicine shows and bruised postbellum pride. Schools should teach elementary lessons on how a quintet of musician’s musicians overcame a four-fifths Canadian handicap to churn out one of the finest Southern love letters ever written.
It was Levon who fought to keep The Band on the road. On his disapproval of the justifiably celebrated Scorsese-directed superstar-studded sendoff, The Last Waltz, Levon said: “Do it, puke, and get out.”
He had no desire to allow this band to go from “productivity to retirement” in the blink of an eye. He acquiesced, but he led partial reunion tours and recording sessions, raising Caine back up when he’s in defeat. After his initial throat cancer diagnosis, it was Levon who kept The Band alive at his Woodstock home in the form of the Midnight Ramble. In death, in a sense, Old Dixie goes down with Levon.
On July 28, 1973, about 600,000 people showed up to see The Band, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead at Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, a racetrack in upstate New York (some perspective on that: 1 out of every 351 people in America at that time was in attendance). Legendary rock promoter Bill Graham took the stage to introduce The Band to the double-Woodstock crowd, and in a last-but-not-least moment, concluded the lineup with: “The key man on drums, Mr. Levon Helm.” Levon wasn’t the key man on drums. He was the key man, who happened to play drums.
After Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 and Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999, The Band may have lost its heart and its soul. But in Levon it maintained its integrity, its composition.
Levon was a good man, a proud man, a music man. But in a way we don’t just say goodbye to that man; we bid farewell to the stories and yarns long-told by The Band as a collective, and eventually Levon alone. Even though he is survived by Robbie Robertson, the face, and Garth Hudson, the teacher, with Levon’s death we close the final chapter on a band of background players and outsiders who played the perfect American brand of rock ‘n’ roll, a fine, fresh blend of country, blues and bluegrass.
Somewhere, tonight, fittingly surrounded by harps, Richard, Rick and Levon are trading verses and building harmonies on the sweetest version of “We Can Talk” ever sung. Imagine that.
This post originally appeared on the Hidden Track music blog …
For more Levon love, check out Huey over on Weeping Elvis.