Levon Helm Was Perfect

The Band's drummer and vocalist, who died Thursday, made the complex seem effortless.

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The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band on Grooveshark
The Band / Ophelia by The Band on Grooveshark
The Weight by The Band on Grooveshark

Writing about music is a notoriously difficult task, but writing about drummers presents its own set of challenges. For starters, melody and harmony are off the table, and the physical entity of the drum kit is so daunting that it discourages description out of hand. I can rave about how exquisitely Al Jackson, Jr. lays back on two and four, wonder aloud how Charlie Watts can groove so hard when he doesn't actually keep time all that well, but what I'm really talking about is something vague and imprecise, something deeply metaphorical like feel. The best drummers have a mysticism that clings to them; when Yeats famously asked "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" this might have been what he was getting at. Yeats, it should be said, never heard Levon Helm.

Levon Helm, who died Thursday at age 71, might have been the greatest drummer to ever play rock and roll, a player of such boundless musicality and invention that his kit seemed to build and rebuild whole worlds. He was born in Marvell, Arkansas in 1940 and displayed astonishing talent from a young age. Upon graduating high school he joined the Hawks, a band fronted by rockabilly singer and fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins. In 1959 Helm and Hawkins moved to Canada, and by the early 1960s had reassembled the Hawks with a collection of youngsters from southern Ontario: bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, and guitarist Robbie Robertson.

These Hawks gained a reputation. In 1965 they parted ways with Hawkins to throw in their lot with a folksinger of some renown. Rechristened "the Band," in 1968 they released Music from Big Pink, an album that seismically altered the landscape of late 1960s music, and followed it up in '69 with a self-titled second album that was arguably even better. They wrote songs so great they sounded like they'd existed for centuries but played them in ways that no one had played songs before—Greil Marcus once wrote that "their music was fashioned as a way back into America." It was experimental art that paradoxically sounded like some timeless inheritance, four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas forging an avant-garde soundscape for some mythic nation.

Back to that drummer. Levon Helm wasn't a flashy player, merely a perfect one. The best musicians often give the impression that they make music conform to their own rules rather than the other way around, bending it to their will and converting the counterintuitive into the suddenly obvious. Watch this incredible performance of Van Morrison's "Caravan" and pay attention to what happens at around 0:17: The Band start the song just a bit too fast, and three bars in Levon slows the entire thing down, in the blink of an eye, like an expert jockey atop a world-class thoroughbred. By conventional rule, spontaneously slowing down or speeding up a song is a cliché of bad music-making, but here it works. And of course the tempo he slows it to is exquisitely, achingly right.

It wasn't all mysticism, of course. He was a technically monstrous player of unsurpassed versatility, one who could turn challenging music into something that sounded effortless. Other great bands have played difficult material, but on Steely Dan records the music sounds hard, wearing complexity on its sleeve with a sort of punk defiance. The Band's "Jawbone" goes through more meters than Con Edison but sounds utterly natural: The Carter Family at a cookout with mid-'60s Miles Davis, everyone getting along, Levon working the grill.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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