RIP Levon Helm

21 Apr

This past Tuesday Helm’s wife and daughter asked fans to pray for Levon as he had end-stage cancer.  At 1:30pm on Thursday, Levon Helm passed away at age 72.

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A lot of young music enthusiasts go through a classic rock phase when they are younger.  You come home from school one day and ask your parents “What did you guys listen to when you were my age?”  I got The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Who, Jethro Tull, Traffic and Frank Zappa from my father.  My mother gave me The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac.  My parents weren’t squares after all.

As it turned out, other friends of mine had cool parents too.  I was introduced to The Band by a buddy of mine in high school whose parents had shown him Martin Scorcese’s iconic rock n’ roll documentary of their farewell concert: The Last Waltz.  Looking at the guest-laden cover I thought, “I know these people!  But who are The Band?”  The Band was Rich Danko (bass, trombone, vocals), Garth Hudson (keys and horns), Richard Manuel (piano, sax, vocals), Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals) and Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, vocals).  They originally began as the touring band for Bob Dylan when he went electric.  After watching the film I thought, “No wonder all of these great musicians showed up to wish these guys a fond farewell.”

Two performances in the concert, which have since become two of my favorite Band songs, were sung by drummer Levon Helm:

“Up on Cripple Creek”

and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

It wasn’t long after that I owned copies of Music From Big Pink and The Band which were played throughout college.

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Levon’s life after The Band saw the release of some critically acclaimed solo work including 1980’s American Son.  In the 90’s, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He subsequently underwent radiation treatments which weakened his vocals significantly but successfully put him into remission.  Without a singing voice, Levon reintroduced America to the midnight ramble, the after-show after-party of early traveling “medicine shows” and guest artists would carry the vocal weight.  Most of these Midnight Rambles were hosted at Helm’s home and studio in Woodstock, NY and had impressive lists of guest artists both young and old.  Helm’s voice began to improve and he started singing again in the late 2000’s recording a handful of albums, his last being 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman recorded live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Aside: I was offered discounted tickets to a Ramblers show in Poughkeepsie about a year and a half ago but had to decline because it was midweek and I had my job (which was already in jeopardy) to think about.  I’m still kicking myself for not going.

Helm and The Band have influenced countless musicians.  Helm, the only American in The Band (the rest of the guys were Canadian), was also a living piece of Americana.  Though Levon has passed, I know that friends and fellow musicians will continue to ramble on in sorrowful remembrance.

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