And He Shall Be Levon
A couple of days after Levon Helm, drummer, singer and key member of The Band, the legendary rock group of the 1960s and 70s (and then again the 80s and the 90s), died in the middle of last month, I got to hear a podcast that excerpted two radio interviews with Helm—one from 1993 and the other 2007. There was a distinct difference in Helm’s voice between the two interviews. In the 1993 interview he sounded exactly like he did on The Weight. Remember The Weight? I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ about half past dead;/ I just need some place where I can lay my head. “Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”/ He just grinned and shook my hand, and “No!”, was all he said. What a gorgeous song that is. The vocals were shared by three of The Band’s singers. Besides Helm, there was Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. The song itself was written by guitarist Robbie Robertson who, I read somewhere, was inspired by the films of Luis Bunuel to write The Weight.
I heard the The Weight on The Band’s first studio album, Music from Big Pink (1968), some eight or 10 years after that record came out, and was instantly hooked to the group, soon realising that even before recording their own album, The Band were actually Bob Dylan’s initially much-maligned electric backing band. But I am digressing and should get back to what I was mentioning about Helm’s voice. Compared with 1993, in the 2007 interview, Helm’s voice had become a rasp. True, he was no longer 53 but 67 (he was 71 when he died last month) but his voice had withered. That was because of cancer. There is nothing perhaps sadder than a great singer being afflicted by cancer of the throat, which Helm was diagnosed with in 1998. But the man fought back. Instead of laryngectomy, Helm opted for radiation and by the 2000s, he was singing again. Those early post-cancer recording included the Midnight Ramble sessions, which began featuring Helm’s daughter Amy and a bunch of other musicians.
The doughty Helm released two new solo albums in the late 2000s—Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009), on both of which his voice, ravaged as it was by the disease, still sounds remarkably good. The second album, Electric Dirt, is the one I’d recommend (although Dirt Farmer won a Grammy) for it features a great tracklist: there’s Tennessee Jed (by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter), Stuff You Gotta Watch (Muddy Waters), When I Go Away (Larry Campbell) and Kingfish (Randy Newman) among others.
Helm’s inning with The Band, of course, stands out. And if you’ve seen Martin Scorcese’s film, The Last Waltz, based on The Band’s last show in San Francisco in 1976, you will know what I mean. The Last Waltz is probably the best rock concert film ever made and I’ve watched it in many incarnations—in a raggedy cinema theatre in Calcutta; on a badly recorded VHS cassette; and, now, periodically, on well-mastered DVD. The Last Waltz begins with a slogan: “This film should be played loud”. And it features The Band, of course, but also many others, including Dylan whom the group backed, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton and Dr. John.
The Band broke up, as I have gathered, chiefly because of differences between Robbie Robertson and the rest of the band. Scorcese’s film has also been criticised for its over-focus on Robertson and not the rest of the band. And, the break led to some bad blood between Helm and Robertson. The Band reformed in 1983 but without Robertson but the run wasn’t nearly as good as it had been in the 1960s and 70s. Besides Music from Big Pink, I like their album, Stage Fright (1970) and Rock Of Ages (a live concert album from 1972). I also like, mainly because of the oddity, their two albums with Bob Dylan—Self Portrait (1970), which has a self-portrait by Dylan on the cover but is, otherwise, a very, very bad album; and, Before the Flood (1974), which a live double album that is very, very good. Then, of course, there is Dylan’s brilliant Basement Tapes album on which The Band are his band.
On most discussions about The Band, it is Robbie Robertson, who hogs the show, and perhaps it is Scorcese’s film that is to blame a little for that, but for me, it is always Helm, who actually hired Robertson and most of the other musicians for his band, who stands out. Levon Helm. RIP.