Rock and rollers don't get any more singular than Levon Helm, who after a long fight with throat cancer died Thursday. Everything about the guy was badass: his slack-hand swing, nimble yet muscular; the way that patient Arkansas drawl exploded into a train roar then back again; and, most magically, his ability to succeed at anything he tackled, from musician to Hollywood actor to storyteller/writer.
Helm first impressed himself upon the American consciousness as the drummer and one of three lead singers for The Band. In the late '60s -- after having traveled a long road from roadhouse soundtrack (as the The Hawks) to Dylan's controversial backing outfit (without Helm for the most part) to independent entity (hanging in "Big Pink") -- the group impacted the evolution of rock and roll in ways that can still be felt today. At psychedelia's peak, these four Canadians and their drummer from Arkansas injected the music with gloriously earthy doses of blues, soul and country. In the process, they re-connected rock music with its essential Americanness (its Southernness, really).
No one member of The Band seemed to be any more or less vital than any other -- that said, Helm was awfully pivotal. To begin with, he was their only Southerner, and you can hear that in his rippling grooves, which more often that not served as the music's anchor and power source. Then there's that distinctive voice of his. It took lead on what are The Band's most cherished numbers: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek" and (with a key assist from bassist Rick Danko in the fourth verse) "The Weight."
The Band's classic lineup called it quits in 1976 with the concert (and later film) The Last Waltz. Adjusting to life outside the group appeared to come fairly easy to Helm (the same cannot be said of either Danko or pianist-singer Richard Manuel). He churned out some fine music over the decades, including the studio albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, both of which he released after his battle with cancer had begun in 1999. Helm also toured extensively, made countless guest appearances and oversaw The Midnight Ramble, a series of concerts at his home and barn in Woodstock, New York, reviving the uniquely familial vibe of The Band.
Through all this, Helm underwent a striking transformation from classic rocker to a kind of archetypal father figure of American roots music -- an archaic soul who had always been and (the cancer notwithstanding) would always be around. It's now odd to say, obviously, but he seemed to exist beyond death, a Southern gentleman who would forever be just up the road a piece, in his barn making music with family and friends. You could count on that.
In the 2008 edition of his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus described Helm as sounding a "hundred years old" when he saw him in 2001. That gig occurred not long after his initial radiation treatments, yet it's a description that also speaks to the weathered timelessness Helm possessed. Even as far back as the '60s he sounded a "hundred years old." On "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," he's a frayed daguerreotype from the 19th century come to life ( Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train...). Equally evocative is the cover of the group's eponymously titled second album. Helm isn't even 30 in the sepia-toned image. But with that thick, unruly beard and well-worn coat he looks decades older, from a bygone era that dissolved long before the Atomic Age.
This uncanny quality is surely reason why Helm was casted as Loretta Lynn's father in the country singer's 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter. The role of Melvin "Ted" Webb was meant for him: a hardscrabble coal miner, himself born at the turn of the century, raising his family in the hills of eastern Kentucky is exactly the kind of character The Band would've sung about. One of the film's most poignant scenes arrives when Lynn (exquisitely portrayed by Sissy Spacek) receives an emergency phone call. It's her family in Butcher Holler. Ted has died. The grief Lynn expresses isn't just for the loss of her father, but for the connection to her roots he embodied as well.
The passing of Levon Helm represents something similar for rock and roll, as well as America in general. He wasn't just an icon; he was a direct link to sounds, traditions and customs that are feeling only more and more distant with each passing year. That's truly sad.
Rest in peace, Levon.