|Levon Helm |
May 26, 1940- April 19, 2012
I also remember thinking, "Wow... great band!"
|Dylan With The Band|
By 1968, the music magazines I read, like Hit Parader or the nascent Rolling Stone, were touting the Band's debut record Big Pink, a seeming offshoot of the so- called Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan's that, believe it or not, I still have yet to hear.
At first we all thought the group's name was Big Pink, but we soon found out they called themselves The Band, which, at the time, I thought was sort of pretentious.
|In Danko's Basement ©Elliott Landy|
By the time the second album came out, I was a senior in high school. It was, if anything, better than the first. Here was the Band's sound: Levon's hardscrabble, Woody Guthrie tones, a deep Steinbeckian appreciation of the hard working man. It was like a vision of America sometime during the depression, evocative in the same way that R Crumb's comics were evocative of a time gone by when cartoons had cars with fat tires and men with big, big feet. In other words, a time that only seemed to have been.
|Recording the second record in Hollywood © Elliott Landy|
This was the impression the Band made on me at the time and this is the impression I carry with me now.
Like, say, Booker T and the MG's, their's was virtuosity in service to a sound or even a way of life. And, of course, it was all done by Canadians. The only real American was Levon Helm.
If you had to have an American in your band, then have someone who had listened to Sonny Boy Williamson II on KFFA everyday when he was a kid, someone who played drums by watching drum-mer/ dancer/ eccentric Peck Curtis in his hometown of West Helena, someone who played the mandolin and the drums (and anything else) who better than Levon?
|Levon in the Ronnie Hawkins Days|
|The WS Walcott Medicine Show © Elliott Landy|
After the Band broke up, having completed The Last Waltz, Levon worked as constantly as he could as an actor, session drummer, band leader and entrepreneur. His lack of writing credits on the group's records and a terrible bout with throat cancer that rendered him practically speechless also left him impoverished. He toured with a band of blues musicians from around Woodstock, playing drums and leaving the singing chores to others, sometimes his daughter Amy.
As a blues drummer, he was nonpariel. I heard him do four kinds of shuffles within one song, and he did them like breathing. What I wouldn't have given for a chance to sit in with "the old man" as my friend Pete Kanaras calls him.
Then two miracles happened: he regained about 85% of his singing voice and started a weekly gig at his Woodstock home called the Midnight Rambles, his version of a medicine show he had seen in Arkansas as a kid, back in the KFFA/ King Biscuit days. The Rambles took off, leading to sellout crowds every weekend. He released a great CD, Dirt Farmer, as if to prove his assertion that much of the Band's music came from him and not Robertson.
My daughter Charlotte went to a Midnight Ramble last year and loved every moment of it. I asked her if Levon sang and she said he just sang two songs.
"Which ones?" I asked.
"Ophelia and The Weight," she replied.
Well, of course! Good time, rollicking (yeah, I said rollicking) Ophelia- perfect! Back to the Ronnie Hawkins days of early Rock and Roll carousing. Then The Weight, the song that introduced Steve Graham and myself to the voice. That unique, incredible, unmistakeable voice.
The voice of America. That we hear singing. And will for years to come.