There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true. There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this. It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes. From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)
It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Bob Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as the Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in in the mid-1960s, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.
But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.
It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.
I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section): “Like my father before me, I will work the land / And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand / He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave / I swear by the mud below my feet / You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat . . .”
(The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive.)
And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your pulse does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:
Of course, you know a band has the goods when they sound even better live. Check them out in all their glory here (and yes, Helm is all over the place on that kit; good grief what an understated machine he was!):
It took me a while to come fully around to the Band. I always appreciated the group (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On the Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See the Sky About to Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks—coincidentally or not—tapped into during the early-to-mid ‘70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young—who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate, cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)
I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.