“….but that don’t mean the dance is over.”
The beginning of The Last Waltz advises in ‘all ye who enter here’ fashion: “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!”1 Replace “film” with ‘life’ and you have Levon Helm.
Raised on the outskirts of an Arkansan town nicknamed “Helltown”, Helm began publicly performing music with his younger sister Linda when he was 12 years old. His love of music came from two distinctly Southern but also sincerely disparate sources: Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, and Willie “Sonny Boy” Williamson, a legendary harmonica and Delta blues player.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFRMBWgyH-M
Early performances by Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins also left an impression on him.
At 17 Helm began playing bars and clubs where he came into contact with bandleader Ronnie Hawkins (who Sun Records declined to give a recording contract the year before). Hawkins invited Helm to join his band, the Hawks, after Helm graduated high school. He would follow Hawkins on the road across the South and later to Canada, where the Hawks, with the exception of Helm, quit, presumably because it was cold, they were Southern, and Hawkins was probably a bit of a prick at the time2.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyR4YMEEfRQ
Hawkins promptly hired local Canadian musicians. That these turned out to be Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson is a measure of Hawkins’ fantastic eye for talent. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks went on to minor success, selling about 750,000 records. That he worked them notoriously hard, as he did all his bands, proved serendipitous in two ways: first, it probably helped them fully develop as musicians, and secondly it pushed them to strike out their own because the hours Hawkins reportedly put them through were batshit crazy: he would make them practice until four in the morning after playing full sets, six nights a week, to midnight.
In the memories of most who know them, myself included, The Band went on to back Bob Dylan immediately after leaving Hawkins’ stead. That wasn’t the case. Rather, they spent a couple unfruitful years as Levon and the Hawks. Circumstance brought them together with Bob Dylan, who needed a backing band for his first electric recordings and subsequent controversial tour: the negative reception to which, captured on numerous live recordings from the era, caused Levon Helm to temporarily leave music altogether and become the world’s most talented offshore oil rig worker.
Thankfully this did not last. Helm rejoined his bandmates after they had moved to Woodstock, N.Y. and began writing material that would go on to form the backbone of their debut album Music from Big Pink. The album sold poorly until friend, record producer, and founding Blood, Sweat, & Tears guitarist Al Kooper wrote a glowing review of the album for Rolling Stone, which included the following:
”There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.”
The Band possessed its own classic Americana style while being able to flow from ballad to blue-rock to country to folk and then straight up rock and roll without missing a beat. Their catalogue could be considered an aural history of American music for most of the 20th century, and each member contributed a great deal to their direction without anyone truly dominating. Helm, though he wouldn’t want to admit it, was probably the closest they had to a singular voice, given that his outsized and distinctly Southern lead vocals appeared on most of their songs. In a 1998 interview Helm said,
“We were a band of brothers, and like I said, we were all rhythm section guys, and none of us were afflicted with that frontman fever. Guitar-itis, I’ve heard it called, where it’s just you, you’re the most important one, and everybody else is in support of you, and ain’t you just somethin’? (laughs). I thought we had pretty much beat that damn thing. None of us were goofy enough to want to be that way, I thought. And all of a sudden here’s Robertson, goddamn if he ain’t joined up with ’em.”
They toured as The Band from 1967-1976, a nine-year golden era that saw them record and perform timeless classics like “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek” while also putting their own stamp on others’, like Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” and several Dylan tracks.
As alluded to in the quote above, road-weary Robertson and band manager Albert Grossman hatched the idea for The Last Waltz, unwittingly catapulting The Band and several contemporary stars into the hearts and minds of future generations of college students and music fans. This “beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning” was a Thanksgiving Day concert, including dinner and a smorgasbord of 70’s music superstars, including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Dylan, Hawkins, Muddy Waters (whom Helm pushed his bandmates to include after they overbooked, threatening not to play the concert unless he did), Eric Clapton, a full velour suit-clad Van Morrison, and others. Despite his distaste for the film and concert it included record of some of his best performances. In particular “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, a song that gives voice to generations of Southern angst as effectively as Faulkner, yet ironically written by Robertson reflecting Helm, might be the best he ever did.
There was an observant but no-nonsense nature to The Band. They loved music and the many traditions that came with it, but grounded that love in an often world-weary tone that kept them from being overly romantic. Scorsese’s opening to The Last Waltz, above, does a beautiful job of conveying this in my opinion: a longing yet regal turn of the century waltz, composed by The Band specifically for the opening and close of that movie, played over scenes of the somewhat burnt out section of San Francisco that surrounded the Winterland Ballroom. It was this attitude too, one of a band of “sidemen” as Helm would put it, that allowed them to take or share the spotlight with great ease. They truly embodied a group that was greater than the sum of its significantly talented parts.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqJJdiG61jo
Like many others I first experienced The Band through The Last Waltz, whose greatness was considered an objective truth by virtually everyone I knew in college, many of whom fellow recent converts to the cult of Big Pink. As such Levon Helm, The Band, and their music link intrinsically in my memory to my undergraduate years. An annual theme party at which the movie was projected on repeat, and everyone dressed as their favorite member, was one of the most popular of the school year. A Facebook group, one of the better zeitgeist measures of any college campus in the mid-to-late-aughts, was created to document the effect The Band, and The Last Waltz in particular had on people. Its title: “The Last Waltz Changed My Life”. Hundreds joined.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvR4GKyETHg
Personally I try not to get sentimental about musicians or celebrities in general. I’ve generally written off the feelings of folks who feel this about fans who cried when Michael Jackson or Elvis died as irrational nonsense. But the Helm family’s statement Tuesday about Levon’s battle with cancer tugged at feelings I didn’t know I had. His terminal sickness had close to an emotional impact on me as losing a family member would. That’s a testament to his inhabiting the heart of music that I will cherish the rest of my life, and perhaps the highest compliment I can give him.
Helm of course hated The Last Waltz because he never wanted the music, or The Band, to stop. But the group and Robertson had a falling out over songwriting credits widely perceived to have been unfairly credited to Robertson and Grossman for monetary reasons. Helm took a break from music for a few years, beginning a side career as an actor. He first appeared as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter, his most acclaimed role and one which allowed him to meet Tommy Lee Jones, who he remained friends with the rest of his life. He also appeared took supporting roles in The Right Stuff as an offscreen narrator and onscreen minor character, and the 2007 action movie Shooter, in which he looked positively ancient, the result of a conspiracy between makeup, years of living hard, and the throat cancer he wrestled into remission in the late ‘90s (only to claim him later at age 71). Still his acting jobs never held a candle to his musical legacy.
Helm kept making music after The Last Waltz. For him it truly was the beginning of second and third acts. He and the rest of his Bandmates, minus Robertson, reunited to tour and record together intermittently through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Their poignant cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, with Helm’s mandolin supplanting the opening guitar, might be the highlight of those later years. As they did with many songs they made it their own. The second coming of The Band ended with Danko’s death in 1999 but its future had already been put into doubt by Helm’s throat cancer. He had been told he might never speak again, much less sing. As it turns out he recovered astonishingly well, and began a series of concerts in his Woodstock ‘barn’ (actually a large recording studio attached to his home) called rambles. These were his homage, and attempt at recreating,
the medicine shows he saw as a child. Those who came were encouraged to bring food to share with other attendees; while running the risk of sounding like a hippie, it wasn’t meant to be a concert as much as a gathering of people around music. The potluck may as well have served as a metaphor for The Band: everyone brings something and shares with everyone else. The success of these encouraged Helm to record three more albums, all Grammy winners, the last of which awarded just two months ago.
Helm’s career was as much a tribute to his talent as it was to those who came before him. He kept the flame for Americana, and passed it on to too many musicians to count. Bands like Wilco, My Morning Jacket, the Drive-By Truckers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled By Turtles, Dr. Dog, The Low Anthem, and numerous other folk, country, and Americana musicians contain a little bit of his and The Band’s spirit, amongst others.
The announcement last week that Helm was on his deathbed seemed to unchain the subconscious realizations of many, myself included, that this man and those he played with were amongst the best we will ever hear. Like the abandoned lover from “Ophelia”, thousands seemed to gain full appreciation of Helm with the beginning of his absence. Bob Dylan’s note on his friend’s passing speaks volumes about both Helm and our
own perception of him: “[Helm was] one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation”. His music conveyed not only beautiful skill but what was from all accounts a kind and lively soul. He lived a longer and fuller life than most, but it still feels as though the world’s a little lesser without him.
Ed. Note: Artisphere will show The Last Waltz Thursday, April 26 at 7:30 pm. It will be the 36th anniversary of the film’s release.
1. Martin Scorsese in his heavy cocaine use years did not utilize much subtlety
2. Before Cameron Crowe made generic movies, he wrote an unflattering review of Hawkins’ debut LP in Rolling Stone (ask your parents what that is) in which he touched a bit on the self-grandiosity of Ronnie Hawkins.
3. Yes, The Band started as non-union Canadian equivalents
4. Hawkins had a habit of finding and then polishing up other people’s future backing bands: he also discovered Janis Joplin’s Full Tillt Boogie Band, along with a host of musicians who had more success north of the border than in the U.S.
5. Times have changed.
6. A term nearly as broad as “indie” but one which The Band defined better than perhaps any other group, at least in its current iteration.
7. Part of his longtime feud with guitarist Robertson came from a perceived effort by Robertson and Scorsese to oversell his leadership in The Band, which Helm has always said he viewed as an egalitarian effort.
8. According to legend The Band also kept an open notebook out on a table at Big Pink, their Woodstock home, and encouraged visitors to add a line or two to an ongoing lyrical composition
9. Their closing of The Last Waltz with this song as an encore takes on greater meaning when you consider none except for Robertson really wanted to stop touring. They reformed and played gigs without him in the ‘80s and ‘90s, until the death of Rick Danko. However reports have Helm and Robertson reconciling just prior to his passing, which is heartwarming.
10. Diamond wins the “one of these things is not like the other” award. One of the many Waltz stories is that no one except Robertson, who had produced Diamond’s latest record and co-wrote “Dry Your Eyes”, the song he performed that night, wanted Diamond there. Supposedly he talked trash to Bob Dylan (of all people) saying, “Follow that” to him. Dylan responded: “What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”
11. The only time I dressed was my freshman year. I was Levon and wore one of those cheap, stupid “Dixie on My Mind” trucker hats. I had lost an argument with friends over who should be Robertson, but in hindsight I may have won.