In its daily turning, life is a mystery. As listeners, many of us turn to music to explain that mystery. And at times, the music itself presents its own mysteries, exposing a deeper resonance in the art itself.
“Music From Big Pink” was a cipher when I first encountered it in 1968. I’d read about it in Rolling Stone – then about the only place a “serious” listener could read about contemporary music – and bought a copy at Discount Records on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was going to school.
I knew that the Chagall-like cover had been painted by Bob Dylan, and that the members of the Band, as they called themselves with such elegant (and proud!) simplicity, had backed up Dylan a couple of years before on his first electric sortie. But just about everything else about the record defied easy apprehension. The group’s sound was earthy, but swathed in some kind of sonic haze. At times, you couldn’t even tell what instruments were being played. Those first guitar chords on the album’s lead-off track “Tears of Rage” – fed through a Leslie amplifier, I would learn later – were a flummoxing shock to the system, and nearly everything that followed was similarly spectral. And the songs! Taking an apparent cue from Dylan, they weren’t conventional narratives – they were parables, homespun myths, sidelong epiphanies torn from a splintered American grain, full of effluences both backwoods and Biblical.
It sounded like there were three vocalists on the album. (There were four, actually – Robbie Robertson took a rare lead on “To Kingdom Come.”) One was dreamily ethereal, one wobbly and sometimes pleading, a third gritty and distinctly Southern in origin. It was that third singer who took most of the lead on “The Weight,” the song that became the first single off “Music From Big Pink” and a sing-along jukebox hit in Madtown. I couldn’t put names to faces or voices yet – it would be more than a year before I saw the Band in concert – but, gazing at Elliott Landy’s black-and-white photo of the group in the gatefold LP jacket, standing in a line before upstate New York hills as lush and rolling as an inviting woman’s hips, I decided that the bearded guy in the bowler and vest, second from the left, had to be the guy who sang “The Weight.” It just looked like that voice came out of that man’s mouth.
And I proved to be right. The guy was Levon Helm.
It was his Band: Levon had assembled the quintet, originally known as the Hawks, for his Arkansas homeboy Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer who had relocated himself and Helm to Toronto, where they enlisted the Canucks who would later comprise the rest of the group. Later I also learned that Helm had also once quit his Band, which had taken him for a namesake on a few singles recorded after they left Hawkins. Weary of being booed at Dylan’s tumultuous first electric dates, he’d packed it in and gone oil wildcatting in the Gulf of Mexico. Like someone in a Dylan song, working on a fishing boat right outside Delacroix.
But the prodigal son returned in 1967, and became their rhythmic turbine and their bawling, blue-shouting, sometimes diabolical co-lead singer. His drumming was punchy, unornamented, never showy, masterful in its authoritative swing. He could whack across a shuffle as solid as anyone from Chicago’s South Side. In the Band’s vocal ensemble, his brawny Razorback yawp supplied the group’s bottom, meshing sublimely with Richard Manuel’s tenor reveries and Rick Danko’s baritone parabolas; as a lead singer, he conveyed a rush of emotion – weariness, confusion, rage, priapic delight – with directness and unerring honesty.
And, befitting the man who sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” he actually did look -- as someone once wrote of the group as a whole -- like a man who had stepped off a Matthew Brady glass plate. When I saw him on stage for the first time in 1969 at Madison’s Dane County Coliseum, he was the visual center of the band. Anchored behind the drums, he cocked his head into the microphone and howled with goat-like glee, a sort of bushy satyr set alight with rock electricity. Although he was only 29 or so at that point, he’d been playing for more than a decade, and the heft – the Weight -- of that experience emanated from him. He was already…ancient.
I bought each succeeding Band album as it came out. I swiftly wore through my first copy of “The Band,” with its two indelible Helm showcases, the lusty “Up On Cripple Creek” and the heart-rending “Dixie,” which the drummer sang from the depths of his Southern soul. (It’s fitting that the last of his several film performances, which began just as appropriately with his role as Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” was as John Bell Hood, the Confederate hero of Gettysburg and Chickamauga.) Other outstanding performances followed: “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” from “Stage Fright,” the raunchy oldies “Ain’t Got No Home,” “I’m Ready,” and “The Promised Land” (plus the luscious outtake “Going Back to Memphis”) from “Moondog Matinee,” a knowing rendering of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from “Cahoots,” and the lubricious, suitably Shakespearean “Ophelia” from “Northern Lights, Southern Cross.” Only with the belated official release of “The Basement Tapes” would I encounter one of my favorite Helm opuses: the howling, fear-filled “Yazoo Street Scandal” (actually recorded in '68 during the "Big Pink" sessions).
I witnessed Helm with the Band at a couple of memorable ‘70s shows. The first was at the Chicago Amphitheatre in 1974, on the second night of the group’s joint tour with Dylan. My friend Marc was one of the lucky few to win tickets to the gig through a mail-in lottery, and that evening he handed me my gifts: one ducat and an extremely powerful hit of windowpane acid that pinioned me to my seat. Helm, who hadn’t played a full set behind Dylan since 1965, was splendid that night. At the end of the show, as they had the night before, audience members signaled their adoration by lighting matches, and thousands of small pinpoints erupted in the crowd; to my LSD-intensified senses, it seemed that the temperature in the arena rose 100 degrees.
In 1976, I drove to Milwaukee to see the group, then on what proved to be their final tour before the “Last Waltz” show in San Francisco, at a huge outdoor gig at a now-forgotten venue. Levon drove them like a tub-thumping taskmaster that day. At the set’s end, the reticent Band refused to return for an encore until the assembled multitude stood on their chairs and screamed for 10 minutes. If I recall correctly, they sated the fans with a pungent version of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” with Helm’s shared lead leaping out of the mix. Hundreds danced in the aisles.
Much transpired – the breakup of the Band and its attendant acrimony between Robertson and Helm, acting, solo work, the act’s regrouping without their guitarist, Richard Manuel’s tragic suicide, the publication of Helm’s fire-spitting memoir “This Wheel’s On Fire” – before I got a chance to interview the drummer for Billboard in 1994. His book was then still new, and my story was to be a run-up to the Band’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
On the phone, Levon Helm proved to be everything I could have asked for – straightforward, candid (sometimes bluntly so), warm, funny. Human. The wounds inflicted by Robertson’s decision to wrap up the Band in ’76 were still gaping. When I asked him if he would appear at the Hall of Fame ceremony to claim his statuette, he said, “They can just mail me mine,” and he added a dark, husky chuckle. It was like the infernal flip side of his lascivious “hee hee!” in “Up On Cripple Creek.”
Sadly, I never availed myself of the chance to see Levon after he returned to touring in the mid-2000s, after his initial battle with cancer stole his voice and kept him away from the mic. But his studio albums “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt” were the worthiest of latter-day efforts: soulful, roots-conscious, and, despite an instrument that had lost much to throat surgery, deftly sung. Possibly undervalued as a group member, given the ensemble nature of the Band’s achievements, he stepped out as a lion in winter.
The Band was greater than the sum of its gifted parts, but Levon Helm was the one who opened the door for many to its at first enigmatic heart, supplying the group’s pulse and its most spirited, extroverted vocal aspect. He was its elemental presence, and his voice tugged at the places within us that Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, whom he now joins, did not reach.
Now he’s embarked on his own great mystery. Wish he’d stuck around even longer. But, as they say down on the midway, at least we got to hear the Band.