Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm 1940-2012

I heard from my friend Blue Heron that Levon Helm had passed, which just broke my heart.

I adored his raspy Arkansas voice. I also loved him in Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff, which he narrated wonderfully in his trademark twang.

We will miss him so much.

Levon Helm, Drummer in the Band, Dies at 71
New York Times

Levon Helm, who helped forge a deep-rooted American music as the drummer and singer for the Band, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 71 and lived in Woodstock, N.Y.

His death, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, was from complications of cancer, a spokeswoman for Vanguard Records said. He had recorded several albums for the label.

In Mr. Helm’s drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged. His voice held the bluesy, weathered and resilient essence of his Arkansas upbringing in the Mississippi Delta.

Mr. Helm was the American linchpin of the otherwise Canadian group that became Bob Dylan’s backup band and then the Band. Its own songs, largely written by the Band’s guitarist, Jaime Robbie Robertson, and pianist, Richard Manuel, spring from roadhouse, church, backwoods, river and farm; they are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.

After the Band broke up in 1976, Mr. Helm continued to perform at every opportunity, working with a partly reunited Band and leading his own groups. He also acted in films, notably “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980). In the 2000s he became a roots-music patriarch, turning his barn in Woodstock — which had been a recording studio since 1975 — into the home of down-home, eclectic concerts called Midnight Rambles, which led to tours and Grammy-winning albums.

Mr. Helm gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. But his playing didn’t call attention to himself. Three bass-drum thumps at the beginning of one of the Band’s anthems, “The Weight,“ were all that he needed to establish the song’s gravity. His playing served the song. In “The Shape I’m In," he juxtaposed Memphis soul, New Orleans rumba and military tattoo. But though it was tersely responsive to the music, the drumming also had an improvisational feel.

In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.
Indeed it could.


And here is one of those amazing songs that you tend to hear at apocalyptic moments. Not for nothing has it become an ongoing cinema-staple, usually played as the protagonists are figuring out something important.

I remember a fight with my mother as a teenager, and going out on the stoop to pout. Hearing the song at that moment (coming from somewhere across the street) was a spiritual lesson I needed, one of my first tutorials in The First Noble Truth.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And Levon was my teacher, in those few moments.

The Weight - The Band

Requiescat in pace.


JoJo said...

:*( RIP Levon. I had no idea he was in Coal Miner's Daughter! I was first introduced to their music when I saw "The Last Waltz" at a funky theatre, when I was in high school in the early 80s. So sad that he's passed away.

YogaforCynics said...

When I get off of this mountain, you know where I wanna go...RIP Levon...