Saturday, April 21, 2012
At the heart of the clapboard honesty that made the Band sound so revolutionary when it emerged on the rock scene in 1969 was the impossibly dusty voice of Levon Helm. Everything he sang was the truth - an unmistakable sound.
When "The Weight" burst onto underground radio in early 1969, the craggy harmonies and handmade feel sounded indescribably fresh and authentic after two years of unremitting electric rock and Marshall amplifiers. "Music From Big Pink," the Band's debut album, made leaders of this new electric rock field such as the Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton rethink their strategies.
Levon Helm died Thursday after battling throat cancer. He was 71.
For all its history in Woodstock, N.Y., the Band began and ended in San Francisco. The first concert appearance by the group took place in April 1969 at Winterland, where, seven years later, the ensemble ended its career at "The Last Waltz."
When the Band made its vaunted Winterland 1969 debut - guitarist Robbie Robertson so weak with flu and fever he had to be treated by a hypnotist before he could go onstage - San Francisco was the center of the pop music universe. By the time the Band returned on Thanksgiving 1976 for its final bow, rock had moved beyond San Francisco and the Band.
With Martin Scorsese directing the concert film and sets borrowed from a San Francisco Opera production of "La Traviata," no rock band ever staged a grander send-off. Following guests such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and even Bob Dylan - who transformed the Canadian bar band Levon and the Hawks into his historic accomplices as he stormed the music world with his electric rock - the Band led the entire ensemble, along with a few additional backstage guests like Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, into a finale of "I Shall Be Released," the Dylan song first recorded on "Music From Big Pink."
The audience still demanded one more encore and the Band obliged, by themselves, without any illustrious guests. It was around 3 in the morning and it took Levon Helm kicking his mates into high gear and whipping them through "Don't Do It" to put that baby to bed.
Two years ago at the New Orleans Jazz Fest a clearly weakened Helm, gaunt from cancer, nevertheless drove his band with the same rhythmic authority at the drum set, his tattered, shrunken voice still ringing with that unmistakable sound. He only canceled his appearance at this year's Jazz Fest last month. To the end, he was a working musician.
Even as a youth, he sang like an old man. His voice summoned the ages and invoked the ancients. The Band was a group of musicians with many voices, but it always fell to Helm to bring back the past in songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Rag Mama Rag" and "Ophelia."
No singing drummer was ever better. He drove the song, pushing the words, prodding the melody, underscoring a line or announcing a chorus with just a tap of his foot or flick of his wrist. If his singing was the heart of the music, his drumming pumped the life into it. He sat at the middle of this great, sprawling mess of sound that coalesced around his storytelling and his rhythmic drive.
He was a backwoods farm boy from Turkey Scratch, Ark., who never really changed. He was unvarnished timber, a plainspoken, honest man who, when asked how to pronounce his name, said, "Any way you want."
The Band was not a commercially successful venture. The records were never big hits and the group was only modestly successful as a concert attraction, but the music they made changed the face of rock and the contribution will never be forgotten.
Like Ray Charles, Levon Helm sang with a voice that was all America. He told our history, forecast our dreams and urged us to be our best. He never told us anything but the truth.
Joel Selvin is the co-author of the Sammy Hagar memoir "Red" and the San Francisco Chronicle's senior pop music correspondent. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Topic - Levon Helm: an appreciation by Joel Selvin - LWR 06:15:32 04/21/12 (8)
- Not commercially successful? - mwhitmore 18:51:38 04/25/12 (0)
- CBS Sunday Morning... - rwiley 08:36:21 04/23/12 (2)
- RE: CBS Sunday Morning... - 1973shovel 20:15:32 04/23/12 (1)
- URW...nt - rwiley 17:11:04 04/24/12 (0)
- Yeah, and he's only off by a year... - musetap 10:24:27 04/21/12 (3)