Levon Helm, key member of The Band, dead at age 71
NEW YORK (AP) — Much of the Band's innovative sound was born in the "Big Pink."
It was a house in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y., rented for $125 a week and nicknamed for its distinctive pink paint job. The group would gather for hours at a time to create songs. Musicians would walk by a typewriter on the kitchen table, dash off a verse or two to a song, and wander off. A microphone once was placed on top of the hot-water heater in the basement. Although they lived in other houses nearby, the Big Pink became the place for them to live communally and make music.
In an age of war, riots and assassinations, the Band lived out a dream of simpler times. They dressed plainly, played tightly and did not upstage each other. The tall, lanky Robbie Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group's best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Bob Dylan and by his travels through the American South. The baby-faced Rick Danko was a fluid bassist and accomplished singer. The bearish Garth Hudson was an ingenious keyboardist of uncommon wit and emotion, while the sad-eyed Richard Manuel's haunting falsetto on "Whispering Pines," ''Tears of Rage" and others led drummer Levon Helm to call him the group's lead singer.
But for many Band admirers, honors belonged to Helm, whose life spanned and helped tell the history of rock 'n' roll, whose voice called back to the earliest days of American song.
The short, scrappy Helm, who died Thursday at age 71, had a bold tenor once likened to a town crier calling a meeting to order. He not only sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," but inhabited it, becoming the Confederate Virgil Caine, "hungry, just barely alive"; his brother killed by the Yankees; the South itself in ruins. It was the kind of heartbreaking, complicated story and performance that had even Northerners rooting for the proud and desperate Virgil. Helm was also the musical leader on stage, and played drums loose-limbed and funky, shoulders hunched, head to the side when he sang.
In some ways, the Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. They were a quintessential American group, but only Helm came from the United States. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Mark Lavon (he later changed it "Levon"), Helm was born in Elaine, Ark., in 1940. He grew up around music and witnessed rock's early days, seeing Elvis Presley perform before he was famous. The Helm family enjoyed listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Helm saw his first live show at age 6 — bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. He would later say the experience "tattooed" his brain.
By age 9, Helm's father had bought him a guitar and soon Levon was hanging out at a local station, KFFA, watching bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson host his radio show. As a teenager, he performed with his sister, Linda, and saw Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and other founding rock stars in concert.
Watching Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer inspired Helm to play drums, too. He sat in occasionally with Conway Twitty's group and formed his own band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. When Hawkins came to town, looking for a drummer, Helms signed on, but only after promising his parents he would finish high school. Hawkins had a handful of hits, notably "Mary Lou" and "Forty Days," but his musicians tired of Hawkins' strict control and endless rehearsing and left in the early '60s.
With Levon in charge, they recorded a few singles as the Hawks or "Levon and the Hawks." They played gigs in virtually empty venues — most notably, they would allege, a show at the Dallas club run by Jack Ruby, the man who shot and killed President Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Their break came when they met Dylan, who was anxious to switch from folk to full-out rock and immediately clicked with the Hawks.
Playing behind Dylan around the United States and in Europe, they were unknown and unidentified. But their sound was so strong that critics and audience members wanted to learn more. Helm was along only part of the time. Frustrated by the boos from Dylan's folk admirers, who accused their hero of selling out, he stayed home while Dylan and company played in Europe, with Mickey Jones and Bobby Gregg filling in on drums.
All were reunited in 1967. Dylan had quit the road after a reported motorcycle accident and settled in the small community of Woodstock in upstate New York, two years before the celebrated concerts made it an international attraction. For much of 1967, he and the Hawks — who would soon rename themselves the Band in part because people kept referring to Dylan's backing musicians as "The Band" — recorded informally, for their own pleasure. While the Beatles and others were experimenting with backwards tape loops and psychedelic lyrics, Dylan and the Band were singing chain-gang songs, country standards, and ballads from Appalachia. Dylan, with Band members occasionally helping, also completed original numbers such as "I Shall be Released" and "Tears of Rage." Before "The Basement Tapes" came out officially, in 1975, they were bootlegged endlessly and also covered by the Byrds, Manfred Mann and others. Many tracks remain unreleased.
That year in the country changed Dylan, changed the Band and changed the music. Dylan's next album was the spare and mysterious "John Wesley Harding" and the Band soon followed with "Music From Big Pink." They had always been virtuosos, but now they were archivists and alchemists who revived the roots of American music as the rock scene otherwise veered into psychedelic sound effects and endless jams. "Music From the Big Pink" and their second album, "The Band," remain landmarks of the era and songs such as "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" standard rock numbers. Before that, they backed Dylan on his sensational and controversial "electric" tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary "Basement Tapes."
Critics still regard their eponymous second album, released in 1969, as their best. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was written by Robertson for Helm, and the record also featured the playful "Up On Cripple Creek," the rascally "Rag Mama Rag" and other songs that anchored the group's stage act. They were on the cover of Time magazine in early 1970 and Elton John's hit "Levon" was named after the Band's drummer. When they did pair up with Dylan, notably for a 1974 tour, they were no longer anonymous. Critic Greil Marcus devoted a chapter to them in his landmark book on American music and culture, "Mystery Train."
Once they played in dives; now they were in stadiums. But attention weighed on them. The group, especially Manuel, struggled with drugs and alcohol. While Danko and Manuel shared songwriting credits in the early years, Robertson was essentially the lone writer for their last few albums. By the middle of the decade, Robertson especially was burned out and wanted to get off the road. They said farewell with a bang with the "Last Waltz" concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played at the show in San Francisco that was filmed by Martin Scorsese for a movie of the same name, released in 1978.
"The Last Waltz" is praised by many as the greatest of concert films, but it also helped lead to a bitter split between Robertson and Helm, formerly the best of friends. Robertson became close to Scorsese during the production and Helm believed the movie was structured to make Robertson the leader and advance his own movie career. They were estranged long after, despite efforts by Hawkins and others to intervene. While Helm would accuse Robertson of being on a star trip, Helm, ironically, was the more successful actor, with acclaimed roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter," ''The Right Stuff" and other films. And no one who watched "The Last Waltz" could forget Helm's performance of "Dixie Down," shot mostly in close-up, his face squeezed with emotion.
In his memoir, "This Wheel's on Fire," Helm said some hard feelings about Robertson also included his getting songwriting credits on Band songs that other members considered group efforts. Robertson would deny the allegations. On his Facebook page this week, he revealed that he had been devastated to learn of Helm's illness and had visited him in the hospital.
"I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together," wrote Robertson, who added that Helm was "very much like an older brother" to him.
Helm released several solo albums and toured with Ringo Starr's "All-Starrs." Without Robertson, the Band reunited in the 1980s, but never approached its previous success. Manuel hanged himself in 1986. Danko died in 1999, a day after his 56th birthday. The Band did play at a Dylan anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992 and Helm, Danko and Keith Richards collaborated on the rocker "Deuce and a Quarter." Original members of The Band were inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
To the end, Helm was a rock 'n' roller, as determined in his own way as Virgil Caine. Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, his voice was shredded and he was badly in debt. He saw no choice but to get back on stage. In 2004, he began a series of free-wheeling late night shows in his barn in Woodstock that were patterned after medicine shows from his youth. Any night of the bi-weekly Midnight Rambles could feature Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello or his daughter Amy on vocals and violin. Meanwhile, he recorded "Dirt Farmer" in 2007, followed by "Electric Dirt" in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for "Ramble at the Ryman."
An undisclosed medical procedure forced Helm to cancel a three Midnight Ramble concerts in February. By April, family members posted a note on Helm's website saying "Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer."
"(He) has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance!" read the note from his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy. "He did it every time he took the stage..."
AP Writer Michael Hill contributed to this report from Albany, N.Y.
Hillel Italie is a national writer for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/hitalie