With the endless plethora of articles, remembrances, concert showings and demonstrations of love in the days since the loss of Levon Helm, the question one must ask is: why? Still playing music as hard as ever at 71, Mr. Helm was not a fallen icon on the plane of a Garcia; he wasn’t universally known like Michael Jackson; never had a bonafide world renowned hit like Buddy Holly or the mass appeal of any in the “27 club” (Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Morrison); never reached chart success with any released single; yet his position in musical history demands a high-level of respect. For those enthusiastic in their love of music, its history and influences, who can recognize passion and talent, the answer is as clear as Paul Newman’s blue eyes. To many, Levon Helm epitomized the heart of Americana and represented an important faction of American music; not bad for a man born without privilege in Arkansas.Having frequented Woodstock, New York in recent years, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the importance he brought to a town already rich in musical history. One was immediately welcomed upon crossing the bucolic enclave’s town line on Rt. 17, to a huge banner depicting an artistic advert for Levon’s album, ‘Electric Dirt.’ Clearly, Woodstockians relished the chance to have him be the face of the town, just as most inhabitants rejoiced in the very limited time Bob Dylan lived and wrote there. However, his decision to invite his opening act, The Band, up for a temporary move that ultimately proved permanent, is a decision that would change its landscape indefinitely. Levon continued to live and work in his studio until his death, forever unwittingly playing the role of beloved favorite son to the old-timers, and a mentor to a myriad of both resident and visiting musicians.Levon played music passionately and could never get his fill. Despite being diagnosed with throat cancer over 20 years ago, he simply charged-on with more vehemence, performing even more gigs and with deeper passion and effort. Having created a recurring jam session at his barn, the midnight ‘Ramble’ would soon become something of legend. The list of visionaries and musical legends who would sit-in with the Arkansas bred maestro read like a Who’s Who of a ‘Music Class 101′ syllabus. Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (who also resides in Woodstock and is currently married to the mother of Levon’s daughter), Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Hot Tuna, and Grace Potter were some included in the list of collaborators. One can only imagine the jam at the Ramble in the woods. I fondly recall such a memorable evening when Norah Jones shared the stage with his band.Levon is also appreciated for his versatility. Not only an accomplished drummer, he played a solid mandolin on a variety of tracks. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #91 in the top 100 singers of all time. However, The Band’s lead singer duties often alternated between all the players, sometimes even within the same song, leaving one consistently chomping at the bit in anticipation to be served another taste of Levon’s distinctive and soulful southern-accented words. One minute one can be belting in unison, while Levon provides the thumping back-beat on the effervescent “Up on Cripple Creek”, only to immediately become lost later in the passionate Southern anthem, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, which best captured his trademark vocal style. The most well-known song associated with Levon is The Bands’ 1968 release of ‘The Weight” which provided unprecedented exposure for the group, and even further commercial success when it was included in the finale of the film ‘Easy Rider.’Although not a recognizable rock star, undeniably part of the attraction to Helm is that he always effortlessly epitomized ‘cool.’ The tough machismo of the stalwart southern man with a cowboy hat is an impressionable image of Levon from the early days that lingers. The short list of impressionable drummers who simultaneously sing remains a short one including Peter Chris, Ringo Starr, Karen Carpenter, Don Henley and Phil Collins – but Levon exudes an air of coolness that consistently placed him in a most special category all his own. I simply can’t recall anyone who sings with the style and manner of delivery that he does.Levon remained modestly successful throughout his career. His memorable role as Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek’s father in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980) garnered attention which led to numerous film roles including the recent Mark Wahlberg thriller, ‘Shooter’ (2007). A Hall of Fame inductee in 1994, his recent solo works earned him Grammy Awards and he was widely respected by his musician peers. Elton John’s Top 40 hit in 1971, “Levon”, was titled for his admiration of Mr. Helm. Americans admire and root for a survivor and Mr. Helm was just that: one unwilling to be displaced by a disease, but rather forged ahead with life the same way he attacked a lyric or manipulated a drum kit.
In the wake of a death, especially someone duly perched atop a pedestal, one often loses sight of reality and deifies the individual out of respect. Levon was indeed one of my favorites. When I was 14, the older hip boys on my bus handed me a cassette of ‘The Last Waltz.’ Wow, my musical tastes and affection were fortuitously changed forever. Packing a powerful punch, I ran to buy the VHS and later the Laser Disc of the landmark concert film and it remains a mainstay of my collection. However, one should know Levon publicly expressed his hatred with vehemence, and his take on it was, “Do it, puke and get out.” He claimed that every other member of the group re-dubbed their parts in the studio, except him. Helm hated how director Martin Scorsese, (best friend of Robbie Robertson) edited the celluloid. Helm stated in his autobiography, “For two hours…the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie, long and loving close-ups and his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut.” After decades on the road, his eventual disdain for band mate Robbie Robertson was well-known and negated any chance of reconciliation for more music collaboration.
Ultimately Levon Helm represented what we love best about the art form of music and its metaphor for life. He was a talented innovator, survivor, writer, singer, drummer, mandolin player, promoter, and actor, one with humble beginnings from a small town in the deep south of Arkansas to create memorable tracks with men from Canada. Without question, for a lot of music lovers, Levon’s passing represents more than just a man, but a symbol of a past era, one of the last moguls of the old guard, the idealistic time of the Woodstock Music Festival and folk music when it was more significant to the common man. In the end, Levon cordially invited us to feel part of a deep-rooted Southern family rich in tradition and he left us just as we found him the first time we heard his voice or saw his face – cool.