This Day in Death

4.19.12: The Band’s Levon Helm – DEAD!

Filed under: Dead —James @ 4:30 am April 20, 2012

Fun fact: Helm grew up in a place called Turkey Scratch, Arkansas and remains the town’s only citizen not to have formed a militia predicated on domestic terrorism. Truly, the heart of the heartland.


Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band, has died today as the result of a prolonged battle with cancer. Helm’s best known work to most people was his vocal performance on The Band’s hit The Weight, but he also enjoyed a lengthy solo career in addition to acting in films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff. Helm was a fantastic musician and his death is undeniably sad, but at least it means I don’t have to go with the story about a seemingly-dead hamster returning to life that I had originally figured I’d be resorting to. Ugh. Wallace and Cronkite are gonna take turns beating me with pillowcases full of soap bars when I die.

In Mr. Helm’s drumming, muscle, swing, economy and finesse were inseparably merged. His voice held the bluesy, weathered and resilient essence of his Arkansas upbringing in the Mississippi Delta.

Mr. Helm was the American linchpin of the otherwise Canadian group that became Bob Dylan’s backup band and then the Band. Its own songs, largely written by the Band’s guitarist, Jaime Robbie Robertson, and pianist, Richard Manuel, spring from roadhouse, church, backwoods, river and farm; they are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.

The Band also holds the distinction of having the second least Googleable band name in existence, right behind The The. Come on, guys, get it together. Every band I’ve ever played in has hired an SEO expert before even thinking about things like drummers or songs or buying instruments. That kind of business acumen is what got my group, The Natalie Portman Upskirt Pics (featuring The Dark Knight Bit Torrents), top billing at the Chuck E. Cheese in Grand Rapids, MI in 2009. Did we each get two comped slices of pizza that night? I think you can guess the answer to that.

Bob Dylan had famously brought an electric band to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and after its members had made other commitments, he hired Mr. Robertson and Mr. Helm for a summer tour.

At their first rehearsals, Mr. Helm recalled, his reaction to Mr. Dylan was, “I couldn’t believe how many words this guy had in his music, or how he remembered them all.” Before playing their first show, at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, Mr. Dylan told the band, “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.”

I can’t tell you how many games of strip poker I’ve hosted that have ended in shame and confusion because of that very same phrase. Next time I’m inviting girls.

Alright, can I just say something that’s not exactly relevant but nonetheless feels like it deserves a mention? I really wish The Band would’ve toured on a triple bill with The Who and Yes at some point. Primarily because my support of any idea is directly proportional to how quickly it would devolve into a “Who’s On First?” routine. Hell, you wouldn’t even need to change the name of the bit.


Source: The New York Times

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