Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm, May 26, 1940 – April 19, 2012
Today marks the first anniversary of the passing of one of the true giants of American music, Levon Helm. Levon is best known for his work in The Band as the drummer, vocalist, and mandolin player, but he had a remarkable career both preceding and following The Band, that included acting as well as music. Levon was a witness to and participant in the birth of rock and roll as some of its most defining events.
Levon's autobiography is the finest rock n' roll memoir I've read, documenting his upbringing on an Arkansas cotton farm, through his life on the road up until the 90's. This book should be required reading for any music fan, and really anyone interested in American history. Growing up on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas before integration, Levon paid witness to a rapidly changing world as he left home at a young age to hit the road with rock pioneer Ronnie Hawkins. He was there for the early Midnight Rambles, medicine shows, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and blues legends like Sonny Boy Williamson. Touring through roadhouses in Canada with Hawkins as a teenager, Levon grew up fast and helped him recruit all the future members of The Band. Leaving Hawkins and branching out on their own, they eventually were asked to join Bob Dylan for some of his first electric shows. They played at Woodstock, Watkins Glen, and many other festivals. They recorded some of the defining albums of the era that signaled a sea change not only in music but also in culture. They wrapped up the first chapter of The Band by playing their final concert, filmed by Martin Scorcese and released as The Last Waltz.
Levon never wanted The Band to end, rather felt forced into it by Robbie Robertson and management. Feeling screwed over by others in the music business is a theme that permeates throughout Levon's life, and hopefully his late career resurgence gave him the last word and last laugh. The Band reformed in the 80's without Robertson, touring regularly and releasing a few albums. Bandmates Richard Manuel killed himself while on the road, and Rick Danko died in the 90's, putting an end to The Band. Levon blamed Robertson and the music business for these deaths, as their financial situation forced them into constant touring and unhealthy lifestyles.
In 1998 Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer, losing his singing voice and sidelining him for a few years. His cancer went into remission, he began to physically recover, and facing a mountain of debt due to medical bills, Levon started playing again, and the Rambles at his barn were born. The Rambles started out as jam sessions for local Woodstock musicians and fans, but grew in notoriety with a who's who of legends joining the fun, and fans flying from all over the world to take in the experience.
Although frail, Levon remarkably managed to get his singing voice back, and after his performing chops returned with a strong ensemble of musicians around him, Levon headed back to the studio. The result was Dirt Farmer, which in my mind stands ahead of all The Band albums except for the second self-titled "Brown album" as Levon's finest work. Some may consider it sacrilege to say anything could be better than Big Pink, but this is timeless music that makes Big Pink sound dated in comparison.
It's just an album of classic songs, performed with the gravity of a lifetime's worth of experience and depth. Largely traditional tunes, the two standout tracks in my mind are actually newer numbers, Buddy and Julie Miller's Wide River to Cross, and Steve Earle's The Mountain. In particular, it seems as though The Mountain was written for Levon, a man looking back on his life, looking forward to his mortality, and feeling the eternal connection to the earth that Levon clearly experienced throughout his life.
I was born on this mountain a long time ago
Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal
When you rose in the mornin' before it was light
To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night
I was born on this mountain, this mountain's my home
She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe
Well, they took everything that she gave, now they're gone
But I'll die on this mountain, this mountain's my home
I was young on this mountain but now I am old
And I knew every holler, every cool swimmin' hole
‘Til one night I lay down and woke up to find
That my childhood was over and I went down in the mine
There's a hole in this mountain and it's dark and it's deep
And God only knows all the secrets it keeps
There's a chill in the air only miners can feel
There're ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed
After emailing Levon's management a few times begging them to tour out west, I finally got the chance to see a "Ramble on the Road" in August 2010 at the Greek Theatre in LA. When Levon took the stage, I could barely contain the excitement as I bounced in my seat, hootin' and hollerin'. It was remarkable how many other folks seemed to feel the same way that night. And Levon did not disappoint. If I were to have one gripe, it would be that while I was ecstatic to hear Levon perform possibly his only live rendition of The Mountain, he brought Steve Earle out to sing it. Other guests that night included the legendary Jim Keltner, and Harry Dean Motherfuckin Stanton to contribute vocals to a few tunes. With Keltner on drums, Levon strummed some mandolin, sang, and did a little dance that should be illegal on Deep Elm Blues.
Harry Dean and Levon are old friends, but he seemed about as confused as the rest of us as to what the hell he was doing up there, commenting "I've never sung this one before, but we'll give it a shot," before joining in on The Weight. It was an unforgettable night, and I think there was one fan who summed up the collective feeling in the audience. In between songs, he shouted clearly for all to hear:
"LEVON. YOU. ARE. MY. FAVORITE. DRUMMER. EVER!"
The applause was deafening. I'd like to think Levon got the same reception everywhere he went those last few years. The online response to his death certainly seemed to indicate he did, the outpouring of emotion from both fans and fellow musicians was overwhelming. Levon seemed to cross genres and generations like no other musician in recent memory, moving people with his music and spirit in ways that cannot be defined. Simply put, he was Levon Helm, and there is no one greater.
It's foolish to try and sum up a man whose life, work, and spirit is beyond definition. So I'll end this tale with a joke he told in his memoir not once, but twice:
What's the worst part about having sex with a goat?
When you have to stop and walk around to the front when you want to kiss it.