Yesterday Levon Helm, the multi-instrumentalist best known as the singer and drummer for The Band, died after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 71.
Helm was a southern gentleman, owner of one of rock and roll’s all-time great beards, easily the genre’s best singing drummer and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce wrote, the “real voice of America”:
“I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we'd lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock.”
He’ll be sorely missed, but his drums will never fall silent. Here are just few of the things he’ll be remembered for.
“Up on Cripple Creek”
Helm and Band guitarist Robbie Robertson pick apart the little bits of genius that make up this song - from the half-time “danceable” beat and funky clavinet, to the “merry go round music” keyboards.
I don’t suppose I could get away with not including this. While Robertson wrote the song, it looms large in the legacy of every Band member as its made its way onto countless “best/most influential rock songs” lists and graduated from hit, to signature song to modern standard.
“Short Fat Fanny”
From the early, early days of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Helm performs Larry Williams’ s hit song with the Max Weinberg 7 and talks with Conan about his early career, his switch to drums, The Band and shooting guns with Willie Nelson.
“Poor Old Dirt Farmer”
Dirt Farmer was Helm’s first solo studio release in 25 years. It’s steeped in the flavors of America’s musical heartland and Cajun and Appalachian folk, country, blues and bluegrass all crop up, if you’ll excuse the pun. This lament for the men and women that feed America, with its high, lonesome fiddle and accordion, sounds like funeral zydeco.
“Got Me A Woman”
Hands down, my favorite Helm song. It’s a quirky little country-fried love song about the woman who keeps his tractor clean.
There are not many situations where I’ll admit my beloved Bruce Springsteen has been outdone, but Helm’s renditions of “Atlantic City,” either with the The Band or his solo-era backing bands, are my favorite versions of the tune. I especially love the horns and Garth Hudson’s accordion.
Two other members of The Band are also gone, but not forgotten. Bassist Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999 and pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. Below are the two men’s best known turns at the mic on Band tunes and two songs inspired by them.
“The Shape I’m In”
The Counting Crows - “Richard Manuel is Dead”
The Drive-By Truckers - Danko/Manuel