Yesterday brought the disheartening news that Levon Helm is in the final stages of his decade-long battle with cancer. News of his condition was made public in a letter on Helm’s website:
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… 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! He did it every time he took the stage…
We appreciate all the love and support and concern,
From his daughter Amy, and his wife Sandy
The news is tragic for those that had come to know Levon’s distinctive southern drawl as an irreplaceable patch in the American quilt. Helm entered rarefied air as the backbone of The Band, rejoining his former band mates from The Hawks after their mid-sixties stint as Bob Dylan’s backing band. After conquering Woodstock, The Band went on to lay down some of the most significant recordings of the next decade. Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright, and The Basement Tapes (with Bob Dylan) are basic necessities, on par with food and water.
I can say, without hesitation, that few groups have meant as much to my relationship with music as The Band. Sure, I want to throw a brick through a window every time that a shitty cover band steals eight minutes of my life butchering “The Weight,” but that will never change the fact that The Band’s all encompassing brand of rock led directly to my exploration of blues, southern R&B, bluegrass and more. They were the gateway to the history of American popular music for a lot of listeners around my age.
The Band changed permanently following their participation in Martin Scorcese’s 1976 filming of the The Last Waltz. The project’s release and subsequent dispute over royalties led to an irreparable rift between lead guitarist Robbie Robertson and the other four members. The split left the quartet touring despondently on stale material throughout the 1980s. The bad blood forced fans to choose between The Band’s two most dominant personalities. I always considered myself a Levon man, not discounting Robbie’s contribution.
Helm along with bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson recorded three albums as The Band in the 1990s. However, these were recorded without Robertson or original member Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986. The Band broke up permanently following Danko’s 1999 death due to heart failure and Helm’s diagnosis with throat cancer around the same time. They are members of both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Helm chose to forego a doctor recommended laryngectomy in lieu of agonizing rounds of radiation therapy, leaving him unsure of whether he would ever sing again. Though the treatments left the singer’s voice weakened, they did not leave him silent. Helm would go on to enjoy a resurgence in the years to come, winning the GRAMMY for Traditional Folk Album in 2007. He toured extensively throughout the decade, and regularly hosted his famed “Midnight Ramble” sessions at his Woodstock barn. The limited seating events provided fans with an intimate look at Helm and his house band, along with whomever else decided to show up.
Helm released two more albums. 2009’s Electric Dirt featured a flavorful blend of cover songs and originals. The album closed with the foreboding “When I Go Away” featured above. In 2011, Levon released what will likely become his last album, the live performance Ramble at the Ryman. The album earned Helm another GRAMMY nod for Best Americana album. Watch a live clip of “Ophelia” from the performance below.
One could bicker until blue into the face about whether Helm or Robertson made a greater contribution to The Band. Only those fortunate enough to be hanging in “The Basement” when those tracks were laid down will know for sure. From my perspective, though, Helm’s career beyond The Band outshines Robertson’s by a long shot. By revitalizing the “Midnight Ramble” atmosphere that defined his native Arkansas’ music scene while growing up, Helm was able to remain relevant and reinsert his name into the fold of popular American music in a manner that his band mates were never able to accomplish.
Written by Rob Peoni