2/11/2013 2:47 AM
There are those people in music who will forever occupy the most important places in its history. They are responsible for timeless creations in our craft, but also have been pilots steering the courses that others have taken in their own writing, recording and producing. These visionaries have led music as vital art form, one that is arguably the most accessible to all, the most immediately emotional and expressive. In broad terms, one can think of Mozart in the 18th century and Elvis or The Beatles in the 20th century. These are examples of those whose compositions and performances will be forever held dear in the hearts of a majority of fans. For many of us who are close to music’s historical scope, one of the most talented curators of the amalgam of influences that make up rock and roll would be far and away the singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist we knew as Levon Helm.
As live performers, we know about the extraordinary talent it takes merely to be a great drummer and singer at the same time. David Crosby likened it to dialing two different telephone numbers on two different phones with each of your hands simultaneously. This level of talent is forever documented in the one of the most important music tributes on film, The Last Waltz, the superb documentary of the history of The Band and their farewell concert. About eight minutes in, the cameras zoom in for the first time on Levon, and you’ll hear his superb voice singing “Up On Cripple Creek.” In perfect sync with his beautiful, earthy country-blues vocal, his marvelous drum technique has him tapping the ride symbol, crackling and rolling the snare, all while pounding the bass drum in perfect time and timbre, with intensity, talent and originality that was his personal aural signature. He seemed to love to do many things at once and did them all with an easy down home passion that made it look so comfortable.
It was in the same way that he approached his place in life, as not only one of our most profound musicians, but also a marvelous movie character actor (The Right Stuff and Coal Miner’s Daughter are short list), and a student of American music through the 19th and 20th centuries. From his own personal triumphs with The Band’s inspiring albums and tours, to overcoming serious health challenges that doctors said he wouldn’t, to his creation of his home-based Midnight Ramble concerts and recordings, he will always be an inspiration to all, inspiring us when we are faced with anything that seems insurmountable.
Although he has left us now in physical form; his talent, charm and influence will always be present. This year at the 55th annual Grammys, a zenith performance of the night was the much-anticipated tribute to Levon, musically directed by T-Bone Burnett and featuring Zac Brown (who won a Grammy tonight), Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Mumford & Sons and Mavis Staples. I’m sure in this age of information overload, there will be many who still don’t understand what a key place Levon occupied in music. His life was a devotion to his craft; he created new songs and carried on songs from those who went before him who never had the opportunity to be remembered as he was. If you are one of those who are just discovering Levon, use this tribute as a starting point and dive in to his legacy.
Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were his true musical lifemates. The Band’s success was all of theirs. It was unique, vibrant, and both beautifully reverent to the past and freshly original. Just like there can never be another Beatles, there will never be another act as eclectic as The Band. They combined blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass, country and even classical music, but tapped much of their work directly from its original Americana sources. Their sound was both raw and elegant, steeped in the creativity that comes from the pure joy of creation. Rock and roll itself came from so many diverse influences, and in one of Martin Scorcese’s interviews with Levon in The Last Waltz
, Levon so elegantly explains where that fusion came from, from minstrels and sideshows, jazz swing bands and delta blues bar performers, merging and birthing its own child called “rock and roll” that, to paraphrase a famous hit “is here to stay.” Today, we see so much imitation in musical acts, referencing whatever is currently popular, rather than looking back and taking something forward. Levon knew better that to do that. He knew the starting points, where to access the gems that were buried in our rich heritage, why he shouldn't to polish them up too much, but to instead use that raw, natural brilliance to make great music with his collaborators.
Zac, Elton, Brittany, Mavis, T-Bone and the entire backing band tonight not only paid tribute to Levon, but presented a joyful performance of one of the best rock-country-blues songs ever written, surely to some music lovers who may not have realized how important Levon Helm will always be. If you are one of those people, buy a copy of The Last Waltz
on DVD, and the album Music From Big Pink
. Spend some time with Levon Helm’s unique style, and you’ll join those of us who miss him already.—Craig Dalton