R.I.P. Levon Helm: An Important Part of a Greater Whole

Levon Helm, 1975, from "The Last Waltz"

Levon Helm, 1975, from “The Last Waltz”

Levon Helm, the only drummer whose playing could make you cry, died April 19 at age 71, of complications from throat cancer.

WC has written an appreciation of Levon Helm already, and won’t repeat it here. But the loss is no smaller for having been coming on for a long time.

At a concert in 1971, WC watched Helm play with The Band. Helm played extended sets on the drums, on the mandolin, on electric guitar, on electric bass and on saxophone. His drumming and mandolin work, in particular, were outstanding. On several songs, including “The Weight” and “This Wheel’s on Fire,” the band members handed the lyric lead around between stanzas, with Helm’s singing as a wonderful part of an flawless whole.

His voice on “The Weight” carries all of his influences: the South, country and western, folk and rock. Rachel Maddow said of his singing, “That’s Levon singing ‘The Weight’ with the rest of The Band and the Staple Singers in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. That’s what it sounds like when it’s good, and it’s deep and it matters.” His biography, This Wheel’s on Fire, is one of the best of the rock music genre.

After The Band broke up in 1976, he continued to make music and his later albums won three Grammys. His Midnight Rambles at his home in upstate New York were a 21st Century hootenanny.

Helm won Grammys, won Junos and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He survived a long time in a profession that kills its young, and was making wonderful music up until the cancer took him out. He helped invent a musical genre, and the passion he had for making music inspired every song he performed.

R.I.P., Levon, 1940-2012. We’ll miss you.