Love for Levon
It’s very difficult to believe that one year ago today we lost one of the world’s finest drummers, singers, and all around musicians, Levon Helm.
Many of us grew up with his straight-ahead drumming and his punchy, gravel-throated voice; that voice, that voice still resonates in our memories; it’s his voice that captures the ache and pain of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; it’s his shout that animates the lively warmth and humor of “Up on Cripple Creek”; it’s Levon–as much as the late, great Rick Danko and Richard Manuel make the song their own–that carries “The Weight” with his driving drums and with that unmistakable voice. Over the last few years before he died, it was his voice, which, because of his throat cancer, became as gravelly as the dirt on the farm about which he sang, that worked its way into our souls.
Even more, though, Levon loved all kinds of music, and he loved his friends. On his final two albums–“Dirt Farmer” (2007) and “Electric Dirt” (2009)–Helm celebrated not only the music he loved most but also the musical heritage out of which his own music grew. “Dirt Farmer” opens with the traditional “False Hearted Lover Blues” and covers a number of other traditional songs such as “Little Birds” and “The Girl I Left Behind”; Helm pays tribute to the Carter Family with his rendition of “Single Girl, Married Girl.” As much as he honors the past, he pays tribute to the present on both albums with his renditions of songs by Steve Earle (“The Mountain”), Buddy and Julie Miller (“Wide River to Cross”), Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter (“Tennessee Jed”), and Randy Newman (“Kingfish”).
As generous as Levon Helm was about sharing the music that formed his heart and soul, he was even more generous in sharing the stage with so many of his friends. He opened his barn to his famous rambles where folks like Emmylou Harris, Larry Campbell, Buddy and Julie Miller, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Phil Lesh, Norah Jones, Amy Helm, and many more. These Midnight Rambles were not only chances for musicians to get together and play the music they loved but also a way—since some tickets were sold to the Rambles—to help raise money for Helm and his family.
In October 2012, a number of Helm’s friends got together for a night at the Izod Performing Center in New Jersey to celebrate the life of their good friend and his lasting contributions to music as well as to try to raise money to help defray Helm’s medical expenses and the debt on his barn. Warren Haynes, Gregg Allman, Mavis Staples, Allan Toussaint, John Prine, David Bromberg, Jorma Kaukonan, Joe Walsh, Garth Hudson, Roger Waters, Jacob Dylan, Grace Potter, Ray LaMontagne, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, John Mayer, My Morning Jacket, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Hornsby, Mark Cohn, and Joan Osborne.
A newly available DVD/CD package, “Love for Levon,” captures the passion and beauty of that evening. Helm’s spirit can certainly be felt hovering in the arena and pervades every song that these artists lovingly craft in his image with their own special touches. Memorable moments include My Morning Jacket’s soaring covers of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” and “Ophelia,” Grace Potter’s and Matt Burr’s moving “I Shall Be Released,” and Mavis Staples’ wrenching “Move Along Train.”
I wrote a little tribute to Levon Helm last year that appeared originally on the blog, Rock and Theology, and I have pasted it in here. In the year since his death—and the tributes to him at the AMA Award ceremony and in other venues—we are more aware than ever that we have lost, in the words of one of his songs from “Electric Farmer,” one of “heaven’s pearls.”
One still May afternoon in Atlanta in 1978, not long before I headed off to seminary, my friend and I stepped into the cool, dark, and cavernous Rialto Theater. Knowing that this would likely be the last time we’d see each other for a while, Craig, my college friend up from West Palm Beach, and I were celebrating various joys and doing what we loved best—seeing movies and listening to rock and roll. On this afternoon, we got a chance to combine those loves as Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, and many of their best friends poured out their hearts and souls in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese’s affectionate film of The Band’s farewell concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.
We missed the beginning of the movie, though, and walked in just as The Band lit into “It Makes No Difference,” one of their later songs (from the album “Northern Lights-Southern Cross,” released in 1975), but one that showcases them at the height of their powers. In that moment, I felt myself lifted out of the room and transported to that night at Winterland almost two years earlier when for a few hours music created a powerful sense of community and the audience—which had eaten a Thanksgiving meal together before the concert—grew into a family. In that moment, the spiritual power of Rick Danko’s moaning vocals about loss and love were palpable, and for the rest of the concert/movie a throng of musicians—Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell—paraded across the stage, joining The Band in these moments of celebration and lifting the spiritual aura of the moment higher and higher.
Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer and consummate Americana musician, died today. When I heard the news, I played “It Makes No Difference” and “The Weight” and cried at my desk. Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, and he battled back against it so that he was able to perform live and to record several albums. He’d become famous for his midnight rambles at his home in upstate New York, where numerous close friends would gather for a night of music. He took those shows on the road, and he’d just played one in Nashville a couple of months ago.
I’ve been trying to figure out why Helm’s death has hit me so hard.
I recall well the day that I heard about Richard Manuel’s suicide in 1986 and talking about it in the religion and film class in which we had just watched The Last Waltz. In 1999, Rick Danko died, leaving Helm, Robertson, and Hudson as the three remaining members of The Band. I was sad to know Manuel and Danko were gone, but Helm’s death today really grabbed me. Maybe it’s because over the past month or so, we’ve had to say goodbye to so many of our culture’s great musicians—Earl Scruggs, Davy Jones, Dick Clark, Levon Helm—as well as writers like Harry Crews and Lewis Nordan, among others. Just after word of Helm’s death arrived, a friend posted that Chris Etheridge of the Flying Burrito Brothers, is seriously ill and not expected to live. Maybe it’s because the musicians that created the music that once held us together through war protests and political rallies are now really fading away out of our lives and that mortality arrives now too close for comfort. Maybe it’s simply because I can’t believe that kind, generous, loving, mischievous Levon Helm won’t be singing us any more songs.
I came straight home this evening, after listening to as many of The Band’s songs as I have recorded on my mobile phone, and grabbed The Last Waltz and popped it into the DVD player. Damn, look at those guys, I thought; look how young Scorcese is in those interviews; look at Robertson, Danko, and Neil Young gathered around the mike singing “Helpless”; look at Emmylou, with that gorgeous waist-length hair and her songbird voice, and with Levon playing mandolin on “Evangeline.” Then, the movie took me out of myself again to the place where I became one with the music and the moment, now so long gone but made alive again by film. I watched and listened to Levon shout it out on “Cripple Creek” and that wonderfully humorous moment at the end of the song where he shouts out “I really I wish I could yodel.” Although every member of The Band takes turns on “The Weight,” Levon starts it off. Scorcese doesn’t feature Levon much in the interviews that cut between the concert footage, but when he gets on camera, he’s a trickster, a jokester, and a music historian; in one scene, he tells us about the origins of the “midnight ramble” in the South; after midnight, when the families had gone home from the traveling music shows, the musicians would play their best songs and the prettiest girls would dance. For those two hours tonight, I cried a little more, sang along, and let the music and spirit of Levon Helm carry me away.
Watching The Last Waltz is a fitting tribute to Levon Helm, but watching the movie again tonight helped underscore its greatness—I’ve always said that it’s the greatest documentary made about rock music, though I’m sure others will contest that—and its firmly theological character. As I said, I’ve often used it my religion and film classes, usually not the entire film but certain scenes that capture themes of community and transcendence. There are very obvious ways that you can read this as a multi-layered religious film: the lines of “congregants” stretched around the block, waiting to get into the church (Winterland) for the worship service in which a number of priests, from The Band to Dylan, lead the assembled worshippers in celebration that takes them out of themselves and into the love of others and the world. Yet, this stretches images and symbols a good ways and is a little forced.
Still, I noticed tonight, though, that about halfway through the film, Garth Hudson talks about the real priests on 52nd Street in New York being the musicians; they’re the ones, he said, who had the power of healing and who had found a way to punch through the sufferings of everyday life to cure the soul. After this scene, the film cuts to Levon singing “Ophelia,” a song about lost love that ends with the singer waiting for the “second coming” of Ophelia. Not long after, Van Morrison performs a rousing call and response version of “Caravan,” a song about the power of music and the transcendence—the journey out of oneself that occurs when you “turn on the radio.” Finally, the concert ends with what has to be one of the most inspiring scenes in concert film history with all of the musicians joining The Band to sing along with Dylan’s song, best-known in The Band’s version, “I Shall Be Released.” In that moment, the spiritual power of the song about despair, loss, redemption, and release echoes loudly through the song’s lyrics but is also palpable in the love, closeness, and passion on the stage. It’s a moment of transcendence.
Yet, the most stunning moment in the movie—and I’d never noticed it before—occurs at the end of “The Weight.” The Band is joined onstage by The Staples Singers (it’s pretty cool that country singer Marty Stuart and Mavis Staples have recorded a version of “The Weight” now playing on some country stations) for a gospel-like version of the song. At the very end, after the guitars strings stop humming, Mavis softly utters the word “beautiful.” Her hushed reverence captures the mood of the entire movie, but it also describes the life and music of our friend, Levon Helm. We’ll miss him.
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.