I’ve been trying to piece together some words about Levon Helm for a couple hours now, and it’s been difficult. His death has hit me pretty hard. I never met the man. I only know what the rest of the world knows about him. And yet it was still a real punch in the gut to hear he died this afternoon. The Band is one of my favourite groups, and Levon was always my favourite member. I remember growing up and hearing my father talk about the genius of Rick Danko, but Levon’s always been my guy. It was that voice. That southern, raspy, growl that kicked you in the ass and compelled you to boogie. And he played the drums on top of that. As a kid, I remember being blown away by that fact. You mean the guy sings AND plays the drums? At the same time!? That was fucking cool, man. Levon was fucking cool.
Articles are already popping up about Helm—this one by Charles P. Pierce is pitch-perfect—and they will continue to appear in the days to come. Levon Helm was many things. A member of Ronnie Hawkins’ band “The Hawks.” The drummer for Bob Dylan when he went electric. The only American member in a Canadian band. Multi-instrumentalist. Actor. Writer. Poet. Host. Travelling minstrel. Singer and drummer in one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands to ever grace God’s green earth. A front man in the back row. Stories will definitely be told.
I saw Helm perform once, in 2010, at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. For years, several friends and I had talked about our desire to travel to Woodstock to witness first-hand one of Helm’s legendary Midnight Rambles. We never got the chance, and now we never will. But I did get to see him here, in my hometown, at my favourite festival in the world. He played the Saturday night, the first act on the main stage. It was a silly time to have him perform. It was early, just after suppertime, and the sun was still up. People were having dinner and conversing. He should have closed the night down. The story goes that this wasn’t possible because of Helm’s travel itinerary.
My friend Martin and I got to main stage early. Very early. Most people were still enjoying shows at the many side stages throughout the festival site. We were the first people in the dance area to the side of the main stage, and we spent at least an hour talking about Helm, The Band, and Dylan. We guessed what songs we would hear, and in what order they would be played. We were giddy, like children on Christmas Eve.
If my memory serves me correctly, the first song the Levon Helm Band played that night was “The Shape I’m In.” I believe “Ophelia” came right after. I could have that order mixed up, but I know both songs were played early. Many songs from The Band’s extensive catalogue followed, as well as some folk and blues classics, such as Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” My wife, sister and mother-in-law had joined us, and we were all dancing and singing along. It was an amazing time. Then, about three quarters of the way through the set, the band began to play Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Recorded in 1983 for the Infidels album, the song didn’t appear on a Dylan record until 1991, when it was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, 1961-1991. Many Dylan fanatics, such as my friend Martin, will tell you that “McTell” is regarded as one of Dylan’s greatest tracks.
I can’t find a copy of the performance the Levon Helm Band gave that night in Edmonton. But there is a pretty good version from the Ottawa Blues Festival in 2010 on YouTube.
Helm is singing more in the Ottawa version than he did in Edmonton. He was picking his spots throughout the night. I don’t remember him jumping into the Edmonton version of “McTell” until about the third or fourth verse. It’s a dark ominous song, and Larry Campbell’s singing is reminiscent of former Band member Rick Danko’s. Soft and smooth. Then out of nowhere came Helm:
“I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
But I know one thing
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell”
Jesus Fucking Christ. Imagine a storm building. Dark clouds are on the horizon. They are approaching, but right now all you can hear is the quiet sound of rolling thunder. Trouble is still off in the distance. Then comes a crack above you so loud, so strong, so powerful, that it knocks you to your knees. That was Helm’s voice that day. Angry. Furious. Vengeful. The voice of an American God. I’ll never forget it.
I have many other thoughts on Levon, but I’ll end off with just a few. I got the idea to name our puppy Muddy Waters after I saw that’s what Helm had named his dog. I figured if Helm had played with the man, and felt it was ok to name his dog after him, I could, too. “Up On Cripple Creek” features my favourite drum riff ever (Levon explains it at the end of this clip). I’ve watched The Last Waltz more times than any other movies besides the Star Wars Trilogy, and I’ve never heard a better description of rock n’ roll than the one Helm gives to Martin Scorsese (you can see it at about the 5:42 mark in this YouTube clip):
Helm: Near Memphis, cotton country, rice country, the most interesting thing is probably the music.
Scorsese: Levon, who came from around there?
Helm: Carl Perkins.
Scorsese: Carl Perkins, sure.
Helm: Muddy Waters, the king of country music.
Robertson: Elvis Presley. Johnny Cash. Bo Diddley.
Helm: That’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, back there. So bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, blues music.
Robertson: The melting pot.
Helm: Show music.
Scorsese: And what’s it called?
Helm: Rock and roll.
Fucking cool. Just like Levon Helm. Rest in peace, Levon.