Levon Helm, R.I.P.
Levon Helm died yesterday, at 71, from cancer. You didn't have to know him (as I did, faintly, fondly), to know that along with possessing one of the most moving voices and wickedest backbeats American music will ever know, that he had one of the most incredible, most surprising lives imaginable. Born into sharecropper poverty in Arkansas, he not only witnessed the birth of rock and roll, but helped to preside over its rebirth, when he (briefly) played drums behind the wild, discordant, drugdriven rawk created by one of his bosses, Bob Dylan. That group, his group, The Hawks, went from five years of godawful, you-need-speed-to-get-through-'em gigs at every roadhouse and bar in the U.S., to being The Band, the biggest, most fawned-over Musical Ensemble this country had ever seen. By 1969, there were elegant concert halls, stadiums, tons of dough, more ink than any rock and roll band had gotten since The Beatles. Then, for Levon and several of the others, came near-poverty and very hard times. Forget Faulkner or Steinbeck; his life could've been scripted by Fitzgerald.
Like a lot of people, the first time I heard him sing, I had no idea how much I needed to. It was late1969 and I couldn't decide what was troubling me more. The fact that I was the "new kid" at a boarding school packed, seemingly, with a cadre of rich, feckless jerks, or this ever-increasing nightmare that America was investing in called Vietnam. Actually, the two things, in my paranoid nature, seemed somehow intertwined. For music, during those troubled times, we had, essentially, two choices: Snarling or jokey protest songs about the War (courtesy of Steppenwolf and Country Joe), or simpleminded, whip-stupid paeans to how great the USA was like "The Ballad Of The Green Berets."
The first weekend I was allowed off campus, I took the bus to the local record store. After checking out anything whose cover had pillowy letters, or was daglo pink or psychedelic (very important when you're 13), the longhair behind the counter said, conspiratorially: "Kid, you don't need that. This is what you want." And handed me an ugly brown album, sporting a cover photo of a bunch of ornery, bearded guys who looked like they'd refused to surrender at Appomattox. I gave him four dollars and split.
The Band, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (from The Last Waltz)
I liked the Fats Domino-inspired groove of the first song and the kick-off-your-dancing-shoes ragtime of the second, but I was fated to hear the third song, sung by Mr. Helm. As this guy with the bottomless southern drawl began to sing, in the sad, outraged voice of railroad man turned farmer (no, forced to become a farmer), about what the Civil War had cost him personally, I sat down. And I started to shake. As this rich, twangy voice mournfully totaled up the cost of this tragic fight between North and South. And just knew I couldn't be the only one who suddenly thought about how America was in the same kind of fight now, which was tearing Her right down the middle (which was cool to think). And how much it hurt because I loved Her so (which was totally uncool). But it was Levon Helm singing this song which made me realize our country's situation was not new. This painful, bloody struggle for Her soul had always been going on. After three years of "Hell No, We Won't Go" or "Love It Or Leave It," there were actually deeper, more complicated ways of thinking about our country.