Dave asked me to post about Levon Helm knowing my love for his music. Dave actually got to play with him on the record Jericho. All of us at Greenleaf mourn the loss.
My heart sank a little bit earlier in the week when I heard that Levon Helm’s family issued a statement regarding his decline. After losing his voice a few years back from radiation treatments only to regain it and reinvigorate his career, I guess I hoped he’d pull through, again—he was only 71.
Get your musician friends together and ask the question: List the greatest singer/drummers of all time. Of course, Levon is on always mentioned on this list—along with the Phil Collins and the Don Henley. But Levon was so much more than just one of the top-tierers in this select-few category. And his work spans too much ground for him to be only on a list like that.
He was one of the greatest singers of all time in my mind. He’s the reason why a Canadian boy could write a song about The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and have it come off as authentic and honest. As my friend Tony says, you can hear that drawled silent “p” at the end of the word “Yankee” in that song. And later, after resting his lost voice for years, he came back and found a new one, one that only seemed frail because you knew where it had been. But soon after, you forgot about it and just listened.
His drumming was so closely tied to the vocal phrase, too, and it’s something that some people forget because his drumming stands on it’s own as amazing. I remember seeing the DVD that came along with A Musical History box set (which is required listening in my circle) and him talking about punching a word with a kick drum or leaving space before the backbeat for the vocals. It’s this reason why I think he’s one of the greatest rock drummers. There was an argument back in high school between whether it was cooler to groove or cooler to rock. Setting aside the ridiculousness of that question, Levon was one of those rare players that seemed to embody both of those concurrently, never overplaying and always feeling head-bobbingly urgent.
The Band was so much more to me than just a band. I have rocknroll friends that aren’t into them. But I always have to say, just like with other band like Big Star and Tom Petty: If you play rocknroll, you like them—you just don’t know it or won’t admit it. Ever wanted to go out to the woods and record your record with your best friends? You know, get away from the city to clear your head and write your roots record? Yeah, well The Band practically invented that with Big Pink. Plus, they got Scorsese to film their final all-night concert playing with Neil Young, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Joni, Clapton, Ringo, and so many other who’s-who names.
And while The Band may be what Levon is best remembered for, he did so much after all the Big Pink’s and all subsequent legal disputes among that group. Electric Dirt from 2009 is an incredible album for example. Take this opportunity to go back through his catalog. I guarantee you’ll find some gems.
I’ll miss Levon. I was already missing Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Levon might take me longer to heal from, though. I never made it to a Midnight Ramble and had planned to go last year, but the always regrettable something came up.
But ah well, it’s not about me. It’s about Levon.
“It’s time for you to dream away. Because what a big day you’ve been through. You’ve done all the things that you wanted to do.”