It Needed Doing: Levon Helm’s Life in Music

Levon Helm passed away April 19, at the age of 71. The outpouring of grief following his passing was massive, and deserved — Helm’s music touched many lives through his long career. But in a way, it felt incongruous with his life: Helm’s life in music was a purer thing — it never felt like he was chasing celebrity or fame, it was just something that needed doing.

The best parts of Helm’s biography read like the stuff of legend: he famously quit touring with his Band bandmates on Bob Dylan’s electric jaunt in 1966 to go work on an oil rig, the kind of move that’s practically a Bruce Springsteen album in and of itself. But the beautiful thing about Helm’s life is that he carried it out without conceit, without a sense of self. Unlike Robbie Robertson, who likely would have actually written an album about quitting a touring group to work on an oil rig, Helm just did it, and then went back to playing music.

The temptation in writing about Helm’s life is to mythologize him, to turn him into a character like Virgil Caine (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) or “The Weight”‘s unnamed narrator. That said, it’s hard not to: few singers have been able to inhabit a song in the way he did, and in doing so, disappear completely into a character while maintaining their own voice. But that was what was so interesting about hearing him sing: though his voice was in turns lascivious (“Up on Cripple Creek”), wounded (“Dixie”), and overwrought (“Yazoo Street Scandal”), Helm never ended up sounding theatrical or overbearing — not an easy trick in a decade surrounded by peers both theatrical and overbearing (Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, et al)

Helm was the Band’s anchor in more than just a rhythmic sense. He dialed down Robertson’s other, more grandiose leanings, and with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel increasingly lost to substance abuse or drink as the group’s career went on, (and Garth Hudson out in the ether as always), he was able to keep the Band firmly grounded in its roots as a rock ‘n’ roll outfit first and foremost — something elemental and primal. His influence is thrown into sharper relief when you compare their careers after the Band: Robertson chose to dedicate himself to over-labored concept albums and working in film scoring, while Helm (who, it must be said, did stray a bit, trying his hand at acting) simply continued to play, as he always did.

Helm’s no-nonsense approach was reflected in both his playing and singing — while a powerful drummer, he never overplayed, and as a singer, rarely sounded like he was struggling (not even on his heroic “Like my brother above me” line in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Other drummers might have had more chops, or done more complex things with a set, but no one could touch Levon’s pocket, his way of creating a rhythmic feel that was at once relaxed and driving (listen to him back Muddy Waters on The Last Waltz‘s “Mannish Boy”). That kind of playing can’t be taught: I’m barely explaining it adequately. But Levon could play like that in his sleep.

Helm’s love of music was evident every time he opened his mouth. Watch the Classic Albums episode about the making of the Band’s second, self-titled album. Levon is practically ecstatic at the mixing board, isolating Richard Manuel’s vocals to wax poetic over his friend’s falsetto, or grinning at hearing Garth Hudson’s unhinged piano soloing at the end of “Rag Mama Rag”. (“Brother Garth”, he says affectionately. “The master.”) Or just see the glee creep into his voice as he talks about the midnight rambles of his youth in The Last Waltz — suddenly he’s a kid again, wide-eyed at the power of music, fun, and a late night.

It was that spirit that led him to hold his own Midnight Rambles at his farm in Woodstock, NY, year after year, even after being diagnosed with throat cancer. Weakened but undeterred following the initial diagnosis, Helm worked at altering his drum technique and tailoring his singing voice around his shortcomings. He continued playing and singing until he was no longer able to — when the news that he was losing his battle with cancer broke, he was still scheduled for a performance, on May 25.

Helm fit so perfectly in the Band, and was such an outsize character in his own life that it’s very easy to want to describe him in reduced, caricaturist terms. And I worry that that’s what I’m doing — taking a complex individual and removing dimensions of his personality. That’s a dangerous thing to do; it’s condescending in a way. But there’s a larger truth at hand: Levon Helm was the kind of musician that we’re rapidly losing — unpretentious, hard-working, and “in it” only for love. In an industry less willing to work on love alone, and a culture that values exposure over all, Helm seems like a leftover, a holdout from some bygone era. I hesitate to say that we need to build him up more, because he wouldn’t have wanted that, but we can certainly hold him up as an example. In his drumming and singing, he seemed to suggest a way of life that was natural and grounded, an approach honed by devotion, not aspiration. That’s a legacy worth leaving.