Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Levon Helm (1940-2012): Tribute to a Peerless Singing Drummer

Levon Helm, former drummer and vocalist for the Band, has died at the age of 71. This news has been greeted in various quarters as "impossibly sad" and "hard to even read," and it is easy to see why. Though the Band quit the game decades ago, and not a lot of new rock groups these days cite them as an influence, Levon Helm is still fairly well-considered one of the last true good guys in rock. Anyone who has ever seen Martin Scorsese's documentary The Last Waltz will automatically attest to his preternatural musicianship, his powerful voice, his handsome-yet-grizzly mug, and yet those were but a handful of his virtues. Many people, including myself, were first introduced to Lev and the Band through The Last Waltz, and even though I played guitar, I found myself drawn more to Levon's playing than Robbie Robertson's (not that it was a contest). Unique even among that rarefied sub-class of musician, the Singing Drummer, Levon Helm had a ragged, easygoing lope to his playing style that kids today would probably identify as "swag."

Prior to their split, the Band was notable for their unique approach to songwriting and performing. Each of the group's five members had his own particular skill set, either as a songwriter, singer or multi-instrumentalist, and when their talents combined every contribution was given equal weight--their distinctive styles paid dividends in the form of incredibly ambitious, authentically virtuoso rock tunes. For a brief while, they were one of those rare groups with no frontman. After splitting from Bob Dylan in 1968 (following a decade honing their skills on the road with Ronnie Hawkins), the Band carved a niche, first with Music From Big Pink in 1968 and then The Band in 1969, as one of the most democratic groups in rock history. Yes, Robbie Robertson was clearly the leader--he wrote the majority of the music and played guitar (magnificently, usually)--but onstage he played that instrument and nothing more. Garth Hudson, the group's organist and other non-singing member, was rarely credited as a songwriter, yet he more than made up for that as the group's amateur musicologist and instrumental savant (if you haven't heard Hudson ripping it at the beginning of "Chest Fever," do yourself a favor).

Meanwhile, the Band also had the greatest tripartite of vocalists in the history of rock, namely bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm. Generally, Robertson delineated singing duties in the following fashion: Danko sang the folksy, conversational tunes, Manuel claimed the multi-octave ballads, and Levon was the power-belter. All of them have their great moments, but Levon was an especially soulful presence on record. It's fitting that his first notable vocal performance on record is on a song where all three vocalists (plus maybe Robbie?) share harmonies: "The Weight." Lev opens the tune with the famous lines "I pulled into Nazareth/was feeling about half-past dead," probably cementing his status right there as the Band's most beloved vocalist. To my listening ears, the dopest part of the song is the final verse, which Lev and Rick Danko sing in tandem. Listen to how they reinforce each other's wistful exhortations at the part where they sing "To get back to Miss Annie/you know she's the only one." It's a devastating, ear-popping moment, which Danko and Helm somehow manage to top in The Last Waltz, with an assist from the Staples Singers.

Unfortunately, it's difficult to talk about Levon Helm in the context of the Band now without acknowledging how poorly he was treated, by Robbie Robertson and his various business handlers, in the three decades following The Last Waltz and the Band's dissolution. I don't see a reason to rehash the details, but you can read about some of it here and in the book This Wheel's On Fire (which, though far from balanced, paints an undeniably damning portrait of Robertson's rock star antics). On the Band's first four albums, Levon was a steady if occasional songwriting presence, cowriting the songs "Jemima Surrender," "Strawberry Wine" and "Life Is A Carnival." After 1971's Cahoots, Robertson started writing music without the other members' input, and tensions within the band escalated quickly--somehow, the greatest band democracy in history had devolved into yet another disappointingly petty clash of egos, and their music no longer had that same sense of telepathic connection. In Robertson's defense, it wasn't exactly fair of Levon to blame Robbie for refusing to reunite with the Band in the 80s, despite being shut out of songwriting royalties, either. Their mutual bad faith accumulated exponentially: By the time they appear together in The Last Waltz, you can tell that the Band's guitarist and drummer are hardly on speaking terms.

The Last Waltz is great for what it is, a well-directed documentary of an undoubtedly epic concert, but the Band stopped functioning as a band (lower case b) around the time of Cahoots, or maybe their covers album Moondog Matinee. The late 60s/early 70s albums are the Band at their most pure: for my money, no Levon performance will ever beat "The Rumor," from the Band's third album Stage Fright. I have a theory that the song is a sequel-of-sorts to "The Weight," not only regarding its similar rhythm and Danko-Helm tag-team vocal arrangements, but also because of parallel thematic undercurrents, especially in respect to what Greil Marcus calls the "rootless wanderer", a common Robertson protagonist:
Danko gets the first part of the first vocal, his good-natured bellow complementing the upbeat melody, and then, on a dime, the tune descends into a sadder register, and Helm responds to him in turn. The two continue trading lines in this fashion, alternating between jaunty and plaintive, coming together in time for the bridge, which Helm takes solo: "Close your eyes/hang down your head/until the fog rolls away." If you doubt rock music's capacity to take benign and/or meaningless statements and elevate them to the level of tearjerking, gobsmacking art, click above. And somehow, he's nailing the drum part at the same time.

In retrospect, it strikes me as more surprising than tragic that Robertson would so severely undervalue Levon's contributions to the Band's elemental dynamic. Simply as a drummer, he was one of the best. As a soulful white rock singer, he was basically without peer. And when it came to the greatest of human challenges, singing and drumming at the same time, no one made it look more effortless, or incidental to his skills as a performer.* Though a lifetime of cigarette smoking eventually took its toll on his vocal cords, he kept performing for grateful audiences up to the end--his laconic shuffle backbeat never waned in its power, even as it went out of fashion for succeeding generations of power drummers. Whether with the Band or with other groups of musicians, he played with a style that was redolent of his personal history: the lone Southerner in a group full of Canadians, a product of decades on the road as a traveling musician, mastering the trade. He lived the life, he honed his skills, he became one of the best through sheer principle, ambition and hard work. Nothing, not even death or Robbie Robertson, will diminish that accomplishment.

Levon Helm will always be the soul of the Band, but for a while he was part of something even greater: a group steeped as much in the communitarian, Emersonian ideal of transcendental American individualism as it was in the blues, gospel and rock music they fused so effortlessly. We probably won't see its like again.

*Also: a decent guitarist and mandolin player. Not a bad actor, either--check out Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.