Levon Helm Was Perfect

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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.

He could sing a little, too. For all of his prowess at the drums, most of the world will remember Levon Helm as the voice of "Ophelia," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The Band boasted an embarrassment of vocal riches, and while Levon lacked the extraordinary expressive range of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, his may have been the most indelible sound of the three. Listening to that worn and cozy voice was like being told a story around a campfire, after the humidity has broken and the mosquitoes have gone to sleep. Come upon "The Weight" on the radio at the right moment, and the entire world stands still.

No discussion of the Band is complete without mention of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's documentary of their 1976 farewell concert, a movie that Levon loudly and publicly despised. It's probably the greatest concert film ever made--no film captures the act of music-making so vividly—and a quietly wrenching portrayal of beauty in decay. Levon long resented Robertson for engineering a star turn for himself at the expense of his bandmates, and on the most superficial of levels Robertson is the centerpiece of the film. But Levon is a singular on-screen presence: thoughtful, articulate, mischievously churlish, and when the lights are up he's just astounding. The vocal performance on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the best that he or nearly anyone else had ever sung.

The afterlife of the Band was marred by tragedy—five musicians who'd personified musical collectivity sometimes seeming utterly lost without each other. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986; Rick Danko died of a drug overdose in 1999. Levon Helm lived a full and contented life after that final concert, though the past decade found him in an ongoing battle with the throat cancer that would ultimately take his life. For a long while it appeared he'd never sing again, until the release of Dirt Farmer in 2007, an album whose sheer existence was a small miracle and a defiant declaration that the time hadn't yet come for the Band's last living voice to be silenced. It was great.

Levon Helm will be sorely missed, and never forgotten. He cuts an imposing figure in the history of rock and roll and leaves behind a body of work that that we're blessed to have, a lifetime of perfect tempos, perfect taste, perfect feel. It's music we describe with vague metaphors because we can't describe it with anything else, and because when we run out of those there's just nothing left to say.

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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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