The first time I heard Levon Helm’s voice was in a small record shop on Berwick Street in Soho London sometime around 1969. What was it like? Paul on the road to Damascus!
Oh, I guess I just want to say all these things about the earth and granite of his being, the raw Appalachian timber of his voice and the powerful sway of his backbeat. The throb of his tom-toms the first time I heard “Tears Of Rage” and that wicked, knowing smile recounting tales of Carney barkers and backwater medicine shows. I’m thinking about him behind that economical kit, the way he hunched his shoulders and turned into the mike like a coiled spring when he sang.
He was one of three great singers in The Band, three of the greatest singers in any band, and the last of those three to leave us. What other band under God’s great Heaven gave us a trio of such eloquent and awesome sonic tools? Richard Manuel had an otherworldly voice, ethereal and legitimately spooky in the best way possible. Rick Danko, with whom I spent some questionably manic moments and cerebral hours and whom I loved dearly, sang like an unfettered young buck, all tremulous beauty and with poignant longing. Anyone doubting this just listen to his vocal on “It Makes No Difference” from the “The Last Waltz” soundtrack, one of the best live vocal performances I’ve ever heard.
Then there was Levon: a voice that seemed as it was birthed from the land from which he sprung. Rich as Arkansas soil and raw as a plug of tobacco, gnarly as knotted pine and so expressive it seemed like he was chewing on the words before they left his mouth. Now he’s gone and our anemic musical horizon has one less icon to cling to and one more legacy to embrace.
We’re blessed that he battled his illness and conquered it for a spell, pushed back the inevitable, stuck up his hand and like some hard scrabble farmer in a gothic Southern novel said “Whoa boy, I ain’t done ploughin’.”
He participated in some of the greatest music I’ve ever heard and because of him and the boys in The Band, my soul is clearer of musical debris and tuned into the lyrical soul of the American heartland and the soul of Appalachia.
If I’m any good at what I do, it’s because he inspired me to be better.
Sleep with angels, Levon. Say hi to the boys, and see you in church.