News came on Tuesday that Levon Helm’s cancer has returned, leading us to marvel all over again on his towering achievements in music.
The loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, Helm re-emerged in the last decade after an initial diagnosis to reclaim his mantle as yearning storyteller and timeless soul singer. Three straight Grammy awards followed, starting in 2008. Unfortunately, Helm’s third-act triumphs in the studio were matched pace for pace by his illness. Helm, 71, is now said to be in the final stages of his cancer battle. The Arkansas native leaves behind, however, a series of lasting musical statements.
He sang with the bone-deep confidence of someone who has eyeballed our biggest fears and lived to tell the tale: Band singer and keyboardist Richard Manuel hanged himself in 1986; singer and bassist Rick Danko died of a drug-related heart condition in 1999. Over that same period, Helm struggled through nearly 30 radiation treatments trying to beat the cancer growing near the very yowl that defined his career. (One doctor actually suggested removing his voice box in 1998; luckily for us, Helm got a second opinion.)
Those Grammys helped to underscore Helm’s importance, within the Band and within the broader landscape of American roots music – but it is here, within the songs, that it becomes manifest. Even after all of that, Helm’s signature style remained. His playing was an involving mixture of rhythm and emotion – someone once said he was the only drummer who can make you cry – while his singing remained a wonder of ribald bewilderment, old-time religion and shotgun shack-rattling joy.
With the 2007 release Dirt Farmer, Helm mined the sounds and storylines that always provided an emotional underpinning to the Band’s most important work. Helm, who grew up country poor outside of Turkey Scratch, Ark., then later helped refocus rock music in the age of psychedelia with Music from the Big Pink and The Band in the late 1960s, had again uncovered something elemental, dangerous and yet inviting in the old ways.
Whereas Dirt Farmer was primal, spiritual and, with its bare-knuckled tales of work and struggle and loss, joltingly frank – like a first-draft version of the Band’s more broadly romantic music, stripped bare to two-by-fours and a hard concrete foundation – 2009’s Electric Dirt was far more invitingly pastoral. Helm’s funky growl of a follow up is the completed home, picket fence and all — an absurdly beautiful rural evocation, hard-eyed at times but rollicking and vulnerable in the way that the very best Southern R&B always is.
He followed that up with a live document called Ramble at the Ryman that tied all of the loose ends together, blending traditional music with his best Band stuff in a way that made clear how immense his legacy really is: Helm will be remembered as inventive interpreter, country proselytizer – and always, always one of a kind.
With the Band, Helm appeared as part of a chorus that often performed as if they were brothers. The records shared a similar sense of community, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences. That sometimes made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph. Still, certain moments stand out as clearly belonging to Helm.
The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to guitarist Robbie Robertson, but these songs were completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl …
“ATLANTIC CITY,” with THE BAND (JERICHO, 1993): Reassembling without Robertson (or the late Manuel), the Band relies on a series of outside writers, including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon – with a high point arriving on this perfectly suited cover, originally part of Bruce Springsteen’s harrowing solo effort Nebraska. The song shares a sense of mythical undertow with all of the classic Band sides – especially in these lines: “everything die; baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back” – and that’s only deepened by Helm’s presence on the remake. Switching now to mandolin, Helm traces a broke and desperate couple’s decision to turn to the local mafia boss for help with the same sense of resigned aspiration that inhabited classic Band sides like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest.” The trio of Helm, Danko and Garth Hudson showed they could not only survive on their own, they could thrive.
“THE WEIGHT,” with THE BAND (MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, 1968): Of course, just what burden Miss Fanny has delivered to the main character here remains unknown, as was often the case within the elliptical songwriting of the Band. In a moment straight out of the apocolyptic imagination of Robert Johnson, Helm’s character, having been tasked with this unknowable burden, comes across a friend and the devil – walking and talking together. “I said: ‘Hey Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown.’ She said: ‘I gotta go, but my friend can stick around.’” There’s no denying the song’s tangled complexity, as Helm interweaves beats and verses with the late Rick Danko: You get a sense of love and responsibility shot through with guilt and fear, an unmapped commitment that must be made good on – no matter the consequences. Helm’s drumming, as much as his singing, carry the song’s awful message of fated doom: There’s little room for doubt in this rough, sometimes deeply immoral world.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With “Electric Dirt,’ we saw that nothing would drive old Levon Helm down — not the messy dissolution of the Band, subsequent financial ruin or a terrifying bout with throat cancer.]
“TENNESSEE JED,” solo (ELECTRIC DIRT, 2009): Here, Helm brilliantly moves beyond the spacious, reserved instrumentation that marked his ’07 comeback to craft something that sounded as much like a Band record, in all of its authentic verve and galloping eclecticism, as anything its collective members have issued since The Last Waltz in 1978. Recording again with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (like Helm, an alumnus of the Dylan band) as producer at Levon’s personal studio, this album couldn’t have opened with any more appropriate moment than this rumbling Grateful Dead remake. Listen closely, though, and all of the complexity of his best work is still there: This dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of, and quiet mourning for, the old times, the old ways, the old friends — that fans of every classic Helm-sung tune will recognize as uniquely his own.
“DON’T DO IT,” with THE BAND (ROCK OF AGES, 1972): So complete is Helm’s mastery of the quietly emotional ballad, the darkly dangerous lament, the note-perfect historical recollection, that it’s easy to forget what a tough and randy R&B singer he could be. There may be more important songs in Helm’s catalog – certainly, “Up on Cripple Creek,” the Band’s lone Top 40 hit – but there are few that move with more muscular, chaotic, lip-smackingly sexual grit. Bolstered with a thumping brass section charted by New Orleans’ soul Svengali Allen Toussaint, “Don’t Do It” was a throwback to the early days for Helm – who had initially made a name for himself in an early edition of the Band that backed Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. In fact, the first song Helm ever recorded was a cool-rocking take on Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further On Up The Road.” Back then, as Robertson memorably recalled, the Band “had one thing on our minds: Stomp.” This is the sound of that foot coming down.
“THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN,” with THE BAND (THE BAND, 1969): Perhaps the capstone in the Band’s quest to animate America’s mythical past – but, and this is what makes this song so special, without the artifice of over-heated opinion. This Civil War song doesn’t pick sides; instead, Helm’s delicately poignant vocal completely animates the Robertson lyric — stripping bare the awful costs of these kind of conflicts. Virgil Kane, another version of the itinerate grower Helm would more fully explore in 2007’s Dirt Farmer, survived a battle to defend the Danville railway in Tennessee, but can’t get past the things that were lost along the way: A brother, a sense of purpose. All of that is heard, is felt, in Helm’s vocal – as devastating a moment as has ever been played on rock radio … and all the more moving in light of this week’s awful news.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “UP ON CRIPPLE CREEK” and “RAG MAMA RAG” from 1969’s The Band; “OPHELIA,” from 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross; “WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE,” from 1971’s Cahoots; “THE MOUNTAIN,” from 2007’s Dirt Farmer; “W.S. WALCOTT MEDICINE SHOW,” from 1970’s Stage Fright; and “AIN’T GOT NO HOME,” from 1973’s Moondog Matinee.