Levon Helm, R.I.P.

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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 re—birth, when he (briefly) played drums behind the wild, discordant, drug—driven 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 late—1969 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.


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109 comments
Jame
Jame

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MattL1
MattL1

As I sit here listening to "Music from Big Pink" for the umpteenth time this month, I have to say that this is the best tribute to Levon I've read. 

That record store employee who turned you on to The Band deserves a fucking award. 

Fantastic writing. 

Jacob Krug
Jacob Krug

I like the 80s solo records they aren't that bad, but yes the last couple are amazing 

Gerri Eller
Gerri Eller

Apologies for the spacing, it did not look like that when I pushed the button. Tech support?

Gerri Eller
Gerri Eller

Another journalist and songwriter (well, I try) from New Zealandcalling. Thank you for this lovely obituary.

 

On the sad business of writing credits ... won’t comment onlegal documents I’ve never seen.But your readers might be interested that inthe BBC doco Classic Albums–The Bandat 20:31 Robbie Robertson confesses outright that the melody and chord structureof The Night They Drove Old Dixie Downwas indeed profoundly influenced by another person.

 

Mr Robertson attributes the subtleties that made it work to his havingto compose at his piano very quietly so as not to get into trouble for waking oneAlexandra Robertson, his sleeping newborn. I’m sure he has since ponied up.  

 

When I was 14 I didn’t have any big brothers or sisters toput me straight, but I thought there had to more to music than what was on theradio. Then I saw The Last Waltz.  Thank you to everyone who made that music. Rest in Peace Mr Helm. Peace to Mr Robertson.  

PS. But it’s great to hear from some who post on this subject that filling anartist’s soul with inspiration entitles you to a cut. This means rock starsacross the decades owe a lot of money to a lot of women who may not like them any more. We’re all really looking forward to the class action. 

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

I loved this Gerri. And yes, the doc you mention (part of The Classic Album series) is required viewing for any Band fan. Also, I've never known a Band fan who ever deviated from the basic beliefs regarding who wrote those songs. I happen to those later claims were part of the growing psychosis of the "conspiracy theory" here in America. You ever noticed that no one here ever dies or gets killed or anything anymore without a bunch of professional paranoids saying it was a conspiracy? I believe in Robbie's authorship, just like I believe in Evolution. In other words? Some things are simply the settled law of the land. xxxPeter G

Gerri Eller
Gerri Eller

Yes, the trouble with the debate over The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is that the lynch mob from The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia has wandered in over the hill. If you are a third party to this debate, and you wish to string a man up by his character, you had better have a sharp recollection of your time in his studio, or note-by-note affidavits from those who were there. I wasn't, so while I may tend towards a view, I can know nothing for certain, except that this is not harmless fan fun any more. The vicious, sweeping and unsupported attack on Robbie Robertson's entire character that I've seen elsewhere on the net and on radio in the last 24 hours is hard to fathom. So thank you for putting the thing into perspective in a piece which does justice to Levon Helm's beautiful musical spirit. xxx Gerri E

happyspappy
happyspappy

Yes add Imus to that list of jerks. Apparently racist comments about women's basketball were not enough for him. Couldn't agree with you more. And I'm on Twitter. PG

happyspappy
happyspappy

If you find me on Twitter we can communicate in the future. Best PG

Jamerson Peter
Jamerson Peter

Levon's music post band just isn't that good. Nor did he actually write a song post-Band.  Take a hint folks. Did Ringo get writer credits on "Let It Be"? People are so worked up about this issue they can't see the truth anymore. And this is publishing 101 stuff. Every huge rock band in history has a primary writer. Why is this such an emotional issue? It's just basic. 

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Couldn't agree more sir. Robbie has a Voice, like any auteur. And you hear it on Broken Arrow and you hear it on Storyville and you really hear it on 'Clairvoyant.' Jimmy Stewart was magnificent in "Vertigo." But he didn't freakin' write or direct it!  Best PG

Alexandra Robertson
Alexandra Robertson

 It truly was heartbreaking that their story unfolded into bitterness...I wanted to compliment you on your article.  It was written with such effortless insight and humor.  It's always interesting to hear how someone's personal story intertwines with this slice of musical history, and yours is one of the most memorable ones I've read in honoring Levon.  Thank you for sharing it with all of us.Alexandra

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Thank you so much Alexandra. Your words made a bleak day a little brighter. That's one cute baby you have, too. Best Peter G

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

PS! Holy crap. Now I know why your name sounded familiar. Okay, now I am truly happy. xxPG

Bertisg
Bertisg

Nice work here mate - like yr tone on the Levon/Robbie feud ...good to hear after years of free floating online bilge ...and yes it is meaningful that they speak one more time...it gives hope to those left behind...

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Can't tell you how pleased I am to hear it Bertisg. May the sun never set on England! Cheers, Peter G

Spccowb
Spccowb

When I first heard about The Band I was into Led Zep heavy.  I hated Sabbath. How droll. But Led Zep and Steve Miller Jefferson Airplane. But in spite of being an Army Brat I grew up in the Mountains of upstate. That gestalt rubs off on ye. And my ancestors are from Arkansas. When I really heard them for the first time I was enthralled. It completed so many pictures in so many scenes in my head. This was like Roy Orbison's back story kinda. Anyway I got to see them more than once and was always thrilled. What great song writers and musicians. They added something really needed in the American Musical Lexicon. They represented a whole terrain of people America sometimes forgets. And they did it well.   I learned much from Levon. Most of all keep your own counsel. Don't listen to people telling you whose more important than who in a band. It's the whole band or it's nobody. Remain brothers..

Kristine Munroe
Kristine Munroe

What a lovely, touching tribute you wrote.

I currently live up in Boston.  On Thursday, I was sick to my stomach all morning knowing that Levon was going to pass soon.  After I finished work, I got in the car and heard "Don't Do It," "Rag Mama Rag," and "The Weight" - all in a row.  I realized that it meant that Levon must have died and I just sobbed.  My dad was a big fan of The Band and I grew up listening to it.  Levon and The Band were a huge part of my life since infancy.  I feel like I lost a friend and a piece of my childhood.  But now my little 2 1/2 year old is already learning the joys of The Band.  He begs me to put "Don't Do It" on in the car as he pleads along with Levon "pleeeeease don't do it, don't you break my heart."  Levon, Rick, and Richard will continue to live on and their music will never be lost.  Your article was a great comfort to me and I'm sure many other fans.  Thank you.

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Can't thank you enough Kristine. Your son is off to a great start. Shwo him The Last Waltz when you can. You're lucky they were at least playing The Band's music that day. Man, radio in NY didn't acknowledge Levon's death. What a nightmare. Anyway, your letter was lovely. xxPG

Treltub
Treltub

" his ridiculous claims (30 fucking years later!) that he and the other boys helped to write those dang songs, too.", interesting that the "other boys" backed Levon 100% on that "claim" of writing those dang songs.  The other guys were scared of lawsuits from Robertson, because he could afford to pay his lawyers for YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS, and bankrupt them much sooner than they actually did.  Not one credible person will back Robertson's claims, and everyone backs Levon's claims.Also, the only reason Robertson got in that hospital room was because Levon was in a coma!!  If he had been conscious, believe me, Robertson would NEVER have been allowed in that room.  NEVER!!! This was an ok article until you called Levon, Rick, Garth, and Richard, a bunch of liars. If you believe that shit, you never knew these guys....not one bit.  So, all I've got to say to you Peter, is a BIG FUCK YOU!!!  I hope you don't make a cent off this, and your editor, or even worse, your "brother" fucks you and your family out of your share of royalties on this piece of shit article.Very truly,Tom

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Where do you get these so-called facts? "Not one credible person"? Really!? Interviewed many, have you?. Robbie wrote Broken Arrow, Sign Of The Rainbow and those tunes on Clairvoyant. I may have been speaking as a musician, and giving an opinion (and one I've thought long and hard on), but there's no reason for the vitriol or foul language in your response to it. I did not call Rick, Garth, Richard or even Levon "Liars." What they did was help with arrangements and (in the early days) tell Robbie about characters they knew. And yes, Richard wrote-briefly and well. But I "believe" that was it. 

If it wasn't, when The Band broke up, one of them would've come up with their "All Things Must Pass." And clearly, not one of these suppressed "writers" did. Mostly covers and some nice ones at that. This is all emotion, my friend. And I don't like the phony intimacy. You knew what the other guys' motives and stories were, did you? Amazing. Inner circle stuff? Your writing is poor, your profanity unnecessary and your tone vaguely threatening. And the idea of prose writers getting "royalties" is just hysterical. What a fabulously stupid way to end to end a fabulously stupid response.

kwiis
kwiis like.author.displayName 1 Like

Whether or not  Levon ‘wrote’ the songs,  he surely made a huge contribution to them  with his stories, images, characters, language, along with his musicianship.   After Dylan’s tutelage,  Robbie was a step or two ahead of the others in recognizing the value of being listed as the songwriter. Though he was clearly the main lyricist, and he was likely the one to pull all the  elements together,  he could have spread the credit and the wealth around a bit more than he did. I always loved Robbie as a guitar player, and as a songwriter, but truth be told, without the contributions of Levon, Richard, Rick, & Garth bringing those songs alive...I doubt if many people who have ever heard of Robbie Robertson. Despite big production budgets, tons of PR and much fanfare...Robbie’s solo work was a pale shadow compared to the Band’s. The fact that he took advantage of the others by buying up their rights when the guys were down and out gives one some insight into Mr. Robertson. He may be listed as the songwriter, but Levon owns ‘The Weight’,  ‘Cripple Creek’, and Dixie, and many others.  

Hollywood Reporter
Hollywood Reporter

Peter: Treltub has a point, but I agree with you about the language. I think the model Levon and the rest of the Band were working on was The Doors. Morrison, unlike Robertson (funny about their names, huh?) insisted on shared publishing. Can you explain that? Did all The Doors contribute? Of course, they did. Just like the Band members. FYI: Danko was a heroin addict and Manuel was an alcoholic. Robbie is a normie (in terms of drugs and probably the sanest of the bunch). But he and Grossman did pull a fast one on the rest of the group. A sad fact that cannot be denied. In addition, Levon was a heroin addict. Please don't take it as an insult to him or you or a moral thing. People from Music Cares attempted interventions on him that failed. Just thought you should know. I'm sure it affected his health and immune system.

DC
DC

I find your comment offensive "Hollywood Reporter".  Mr. Helm was forthcoming about his past drug use in his autobiography.  However, your "inside" information about Music Cares and an intervention is digusting.  If this indeed did happen, you or whoever told you that should be ashamed for sharing.  That is a highly confidential organization and should remain as such. 

Michael Clark
Michael Clark

An outstanding obituary to an outstanding musician. Peter you should be delighted to know that Levon and the Band's influence didn't just begin and end with the psyche and soul of the USA. They had something deeper and more broadly embracing.

In NZ we adored/adore the music and the feeling/soul behind it too.  Levon and all the Band members have been its guardians and ambassadors. Robbie, Levon, the whole crew. They stand for timeless heartfelt reality that mere mortals such as I rely on to live our lives with.

RIP Levon - you music is as fresh today as it was the day you wrote it and first played it.  

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

This is cool to know, Michael. Obviously these guys were truly universal. Band fans we began, Band fans we end. Best Peter G

wiley
wiley

This attempt to write a tribute to Levon Helm falls short IMO.  It's delusional to believe Levon (and Rick and Richard) didn't write or co-write many/most of The Band's best songs. As Levon said "they got pencil whipped" by Robertson.  Robertson's work since The Band is pretty forgettable IMO and will be quickly forgotten...it's well on it's way

Jeff
Jeff

His book came out in 1993, not 2000. Also, Garth Hudson is not dead.

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

I never said or implied Hudson was dead, if you check carefully.

randolphr
randolphr

Peter, while I and most many others know that Garth is still alive, your sentence was poorly constructed and gave at least 1/2 the impression that perhaps you were misinformed on the matter.

Also, to echo a previously given post or 2, if Robbie wrote all those songs then where are his top drawer contributions of the past  30+ years ?

To my sensibilities they are few and lacking in richness. 

Jack
Jack

Well done, Pater! Like you and countless others, I am grieving the loss of Levon. I had the great fortune to be at The Last Waltz, and to see Levon in his own configurations, e.g., The Barn Burners. At unexpected moments, tears of joy come to my eyes. I may be listening to Ophelia or any song he is singing, and my soul is bare. I feel as though I have lost someone I could always count on - that voice and that smile. My God. That is a rare thing in today's hellbound culture. I know I can still count on his music and legacy, and Amy to carry his torch. Briefly, on Robertson - we will never know who wrote what, and the comment here calling him a 'dirtbag,' is not specific. I think arrogant, self-serving, starstruck drama queen paints a more clear image. Howsoever, Godspeed Levon, you done Good, man. Your backbeat, is always in the Pocket. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

James Proffitt
James Proffitt

You really did do a very thoughtful piece. I've absorbed many over the last few days and some stick with you...Bernie Taupin..Elvis Costello...Larry Campbell. However, after you read some of them you become a little more numb to the loss because of the mere repetition of biography. I was eight years old when "Dixie" hit the airways and knew it first from the Joan Baez hit. As a child I was obsessed with Civil War history so I loved that song. Years later I became similarly obsessed with Dylan and the Band and read how songs such as Tears Of Rage worked as commentary on what was going on in the country. It wasn't til I read your piece that I understood the same about "Dixie" RIP Levon

Kiloh Smith
Kiloh Smith

 I grew up in the Mid-Hudson Valley and The Band all lived in Woodstock. I saw then dozens of times in small bars and clubs like The Chance or the Joyus Lake. What was cool was that they could all play each others' instruments on the songs. To get a different sound they would switch out the instruments among themselves. This was impressive and cool. Danko, that guy had a voice from Heaven. Levon would bring it all back home with his Southern drawl. Richard Manuel sounded frail and tragic. His version of I Shall Be Released sends shivers.

Ianmanderson1
Ianmanderson1

Levon was the only American born member of The Band which in its beginnings had been the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins. Their Saturday afternoon matinee shows for teens had a seminal influence on Rock music in Toronto. After they left The Hawk and went on the road as Levon and the Hawksn and the Squiers and The Crackersn we tried to follow their progress. We somehow knew that world would soon become aware of their greatness. Then came Music From Big Pink, and their first step into the next step of legend. The Americanicentric subject matter of the majority of their material did not remove it from having emotional impact on listeners world wide. There was also, along the way an Acadian Driftwood to rtemind us we share a border which is man-made. Likewise the heart rending sense of loss at the passing of Levon is not dependant on what passport you happen to be carrying. To Levon's family, you know you are not alone in your grief. I hope in some. Small way that is helpful.Ian Anderson

Jessie B
Jessie B

My husband (55) and my daughter (19) share a great love for The Band and Levon Helm, as do I. They were always going to go to a Ramble, but either couldn't come up with the $, or find a date that worked. So sad. Wish we had moved that one up on our bucket list. But we'll always have the music. Thanks, Levon.

Mvieregg
Mvieregg

I was 14 or 15 the first time I saw The Last Waltz.  I sat through three showings that afternoon. The next weekend, I was back again, over and over.  The greatest concert movie; the greatest band movie, EVER.Had a chance to see Mr. Helms play down here in Tejas last summer but  something unimportant came up.  Missed Dylan about the same time for the same stupid reason. Never again!   When the important artist come near, people go see them; applaud them and appreciate them.  Music is me, you, us, art, love,etc.  Enjoy and pay the ticket price (unless it is a free show) and give  thank those to  those who can do what most of us can't and wish we could. 

God Bless, Levon, hope you write some more beautiful music henceforth.  

Greymoon
Greymoon

They may not have given Levon airtime on the mainstream rock'n'roll stations but public broadcasting gave him a nice send-off. I was happy to hear someone actually giving him his due.

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

That's good to know. But you can just feel how much and how hard this hit everybody. So, we know the score, Greymoon. Best, PG

B.D. Ylan
B.D. Ylan

Levon made us Canadians proud to be Southern men.

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

I'm half Canadian myself, BD. So, I hear you. Yonge Street, my friend. That's where it all started for them, right?  Best PG

Sena
Sena

Well said Peter, thank you!

Riggsy61
Riggsy61

I 'm a UK-based journalist and a longtime Levon devotee. This is the finest obit/tribute to Levon that I've read - and I've just about read them all - on either side of The Pond. Respect, Pater. Levon is totally irreplaceable.

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Jeez. Riggsy. You honor me. That's all I can say. Find me on Twitter and we'll send stuff to each other. Best Peter Gerstenzang

Leslie
Leslie

Well said. I'll miss Levon forever. But remember you don't have to put down other singers to make Levon look good. He needs no help. All of the music was good at that time and give someone somewhere some great memories. ThanksLeslie

Levon Fan
Levon Fan

For all of his own health and financial problems, Levon Helm never forgot charity.  I got to meet him in 2009, when Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward was engaged in the final days of his own struggle with cancer.  Levon raffled off one of his drum sets to help defray the cost of Richie's medical bills.  The ticket was a few hundred bucks.  But since my favorite drummer was helping my second favorite, I bought a ticket without hesitation.  To my amazement, I won.  I bought a ticket to the upcoming ramble and headed up to Woodstock.  Although it was not part of the package, Levon wanted to meet me after the show!  I spent 5 glorious minutes with him during which time he was thanking me for helping his friend Richie!

Peter Gerstenzang
Peter Gerstenzang

Not surprised LF. He had the biggest heart!

Joshua Sanders
Joshua Sanders

Indeed he did. Much has been written here and elsewhere regarding fights over royalties, but you can bet that happens pretty much anywhere that money is involved, even when your band is trying to divvy up $24.50 you made that night. But Levon, from all I have read, is a guy who truly enjoyed helping anyone whenever he had the opportunity, and did so out of generosity and not because it meant something for him down the line.

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