Apr 21, 2012

Levon Helm (1940 - 2012)

Levon Helm, singer and drummer of the 60s group, The Band, has passed away. After backing up rocker Ronnie Hawkins (as the Hawks), and then Bob Dylan during his electric period, The Band became one of the most important groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Their music was a catalogue of Americana: folk, blues, Cajun, ragtime, country and rockabilly would be reverently paid homage in their sounds. The Band was an incredibly versatile group which featured three men trading lead vocals: Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel (all of whom have now passed). In Thanksgiving of 1976, the Band gave their final concert, and featured many musical guests. The subsequent film The Last Waltz (1978) and the album was a cross-section of American music, paying homage to the forms that inspired these five musicians. With such luminaries as Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and their former bosses Hawkins and Dylan, joining them onstage, The Last Waltz is second only to Woodstock in terms of capturing a monumental musical event on film. What sets these films apart from many concert documentaries is that they are also snapshots of the cultures that either inspired the musicians, or likewise studies of a culture that their sounds became an anthem to.

Because The Last Waltz was conceived between Scorsese and his good friend Robertson, one could understandably assume from the film that Robbie Robertson was the front man, but in truth, what made The Band so great was the sum of its parts. One would be remiss not to discuss The Band without a due nod to the great multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, whose arsenal of sounds (especially on the organ) was The Band's secret weapon. However, upon viewing the movie, it is clearly Levon Helm who steals the show. Literally and figuratively, he was the backbone- his intense vocals poured every ounce of emotion into the lyrics as though his life counted on it. Behind the scenes, the group was having internal tensions that led to their breakup, which can only be vaguely noticed in some of the post-concert interviews. In his autobiography, Levon Helm expressed disdain for the entire Last Waltz concept, however one wouldn't notice in the film, as he professionally kept his inner conflicts under wraps, and communicated nothing but joy. Whatever the misgivings between the players, The Last Waltz is an overwhelming experience in sound and vision. It was a chronicling of an event that itself became one: with multiple-camera set-ups it is not only pure cinema, but musically it is also a tremendous (and emotionally draining) journey. (In recent years, I had the opportunity to see the movie in a theater on a stereo 35mm print, and after two decades of only viewing it on television and DVD, it was like seeing it for the first time.)

The Band re-united for a few more albums in the 1990s, however not in all parts (especially since Richard Manuel died in 1988, but also because Helm and Robertson would never again share a stage due to irreconcilable differences). After The Last Waltz, each member carried on in music with varying degrees of success, yet Levon Helm was more successful than most in re-inventing himself. He would appear before the camera as an actor, playing Loretta Lynn's father in the 1980 film Coal Miner's Daughter, co-starring with Jane Fonda in the TV-movie The Dollmaker (1984), and in a bizarre supporting role in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), which was directed by Tommy Lee Jones (who played Loretta Lynn's ne'er-do-well husband, coincidentally or not). In recent times, Levon Helm was also enjoying a comeback with a string of solid albums (Electric Dirt; Dirt Farmer; Ramble at the Ryman), while privately waging an off-and-on battle with cancer, and still playing two weeks prior to his passing.

Right to the end, the man was doing what he loved. While his passing is the loss of a musical institution, his talent is immortalized on record and on film. Present and future generations can not only learn from the man a cross section of the musical history that inspired his own sounds, but his passion can also be an inspiration to us all: no matter what your creative pursuit, make it part of your life, use it to break through any hardship- that joy will remain.

The Last Waltz: (l-r) Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson

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