Levon Helm died five years ago. He was 71. Two days before he passed his family had announced that he was in the final stages with the cancer that he would succumb to. Levon Helm was my favourite singing drummer.
That makes him sound like a circus act, a novelty musician who could rub his tummy while patting his head. Drumming and singing is a bit like that, sure. But Levon Helm would have been one of my favourite drummers if he never sang a note. And if he only stood at the microphone to pour from his heart and soul, to earnestly phrase a range of country, folk and blues tunes without ever driving the beat of a band then he would have been one of my favourite singers.
It’s worth mentioning that Helm was a multi-instrumentalist, his mandolin, particularly, rang out through several of the songs with The Band.
That band’s name, the most generic band-name there’s ever been – the ultimate backing-band name was renamed after first being The Hawks, a backing band for Ronnie Hawkins.
When I first heard about The Band – and when I first heard The Band – I thought the name was dumb. As time went on, as I fell under the spell of the music, I’ve come to see it as the ultimate (non)-statement. This is a group that served the music. This is a group that delivered – and that knew how to make other people sound good, both as guest-stars and in their interpretations of the work of other songwriters.
Driving this band – The Band – was Levon Helm.
The first thing I heard was The Weight. That loping drum groove is key, Ryan Adams used it a bunch of times on his breakthrough album, Gold. I’ve played a version of The Weight many times over the years, in a couple of bands. As I struggle to ever get close to Levon’s feel I sit there happily doing my best thinking of how effortless he made it seem. But it wasn’t really effortless. And that’s what I love about Levon. You watch this guy play, study the clips, he was working hard. He was happy to show that. The feel comes across as effortless because of the work he was putting in.
Music From Big Pink was The Band’s debut album and it was the first album I heard from The Band too. I got there via Bob Dylan. I went there for the Dylan covers. I stayed because of Levon.
Their eponymous follow-up, The Band by The Band is one of my all-time favourite records by anyone ever. Probably the album I’ve played the most across the last two or three years too. (If it had a rival, and we’ll get to that soon, it would be Levon Helm’s final studio record, 2009’s Electric Dirt).
The music on The Band’s second album, this is where Levon really fires – for me. And it’s where The Band really fires (I think that’s partly because of how I heard Levon but of course The Band was a group of amazing musicians. It’s now for another time to sing all of their praises).
Rag Mama Rag, King Harvest (Has Surely Come), Shape I’m In, Across The Great Divide – all great songs (and yes, I know that Richard Manuel plays the drums on Rag Mama Rag – what a great “second drummer” to have standing by).
But the songs that take my breath away – still – every single time I hear them: Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Both songs are just so huge. And both could not have worked, could not have existed in any shape or form without Levon.
Cripple Creek with its funky clavinet that pre-dates Stevie Wonder. That’s a groove to master right there. If it sounds too easy you’re not playing it right. I don’t think anyone ever played it right. Apart from Levon.
And Dixie. Well this song deserves the Greil Marcus treatment surely – an entire book is waiting to be written to break down just some of the enormity of this song.
The vocal performance is astounding, the drumming outstanding. Put it together – watch as the same person nails both parts.
There’s a moment inside The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, well moments, as it happens more than once, Helm delivers a press-roll, while singing, to tidy up at the end of the verse and leading into the chorus. That moment, that press-roll, it’s 50+ years of drumming history rolled up, as it were, in one flurry of strokes. It’s marching band and big-band jazz, it’s rock’n’roll, it’s fife and drum-band and then that country-croon/bluesy-croak over the top.
I can sit and play this song over and over and still marvel. Hairs stick up on my arms, they bristle. I get a lump in my throat. If I think about it too much, too closely, listen too carefully, I might, now and then feel a tear trickle. This might sound absurd to you but it’s how it is for me. I’ve felt this way about this song, this song’s performance and in particular this tiny moment I described above (it lasts just a couple of seconds) for about 15 years now. The feeling grows stronger with time.
Helm released Electric Dirt in 2009. His voice gnarled, so passionate. Here’s Tennessee Jed and When I Go Away. I love this album. He’s still got that wonderful feel behind the drums, he’s still across the instruments, guitar and mandolin. But he was weakening.
Across the last two decades I’ve collected up everything that featured Levon Helm – well, everything I could get my hands on. The music of The Band is some of my favourite to get lost inside, to just spend a whole day playing nothing but albums by The Band. And Helm’s solo records seemed to exist mostly to express the joy and commitment he had to music, to serving the song.
The Last Waltz is my favourite concert film of all time – and the concert film that I have watched more than any other. It feels like a clinic as well as a party. And through it all I always come away amazed by Levon Helm. So calm, so capable, so compelling.
He was the only American-born member of the quintessential Americana band. He was still working hard to serve the music – in as much as he could – right up to his dying days. I love so much of the work this man has offered the world.
His screwed up face as he hit those drums, deep in the pocket always, just a perfect image. And a perfect sound.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page