Levon Helm – a conversation

Two of our contributing editors link up for a dialogue on the recent passing of Levon Helm, the legendary drummer/singer/songwriter for The Band:

Phledge: Though my memory is foggy, I did see Levon and The Band backing Dylan on the Basement Tapes tour at the old Spectrum in South Philly during college. It’s ironic that many of us got to know Levon through a venture that he came to despise, the Scorcese documentary ” The Last Waltz”, chronicling The Band’s farewell show at Bill Graham’s joint in San Fran. Great movie that Levon never got paid a dime for, as chronicled in his book, ” This Wheel’s On Fire”.  According to Levon, Robbie Robertson and Scorcese controlled everything, and Robbie gave away the band’s performance without cutting them in.

But Levon spread a lot of love the rest of his days, beating cancer twice and making a couple great records at the very end. I saw him at the Times Union Center a year or so ago, and it was such a joy just to see him walk out and wave to the crowd. He always seemed humbled and inspired by the music he played.  His friends are doing a huge  “Love for Levon” show in East Rutherford, NJ on October 3, and the lineup is star-studded. If you’re in the area, check it out!

Always loved Levon’s voice. On the “Dirty South” DVD, you can hear Mike Cooley say,       ” Let me introduce you to the voices in my head… Paul Rogers, Levon Helm, and David Barbe..”  Levon’s version of Randy Newman’s ” Kingfish” on that last CD is just perfect!

Gebippe:  I can’t claim to have seen Levon with The Band, back in the day, but I was thrilled to see him a couple of times in recent years with his big band.  I think it gave him a great deal of joy to be able to tour with his daughter, Amy, and it was evident when they played & sang together in the smaller ensembles that the joy was mutual.  Has there ever been a more fun horn section than the bunch of guys that played in that band?  I loved seeing Howard Johnson; it brought to mind his tuba playing on another early 70’s classic live recording, Taj Mahal’s “The Real Thing,” especially the track Ain’t Gwine to Whistle Dixie (No Mo).”  These guys are real treasures and their music was an integral part of our formative years.  We owe it to them to see them, cheer for them, and enjoy their music every chance we get.

Phledge:   He seems to have touched many lives; it’s like he had a whole new career after beating cancer. Joe Walsh stopped his show to say, ” I lost a great friend… I’m not okay with his passing, but it helps me to play this..”, prior to a sweet version of ” Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”. Mavis Staples insisted on leading the crowd in chanting his name during her Red Rocks show.

I fondly remember the look on Levon’s face when he walked onstage at the Times Union Center and waved to the crowd. He seemed happier to see us!

Gebippe:  I saw Nick Lowe the night before Levon’s death, when it was clear that the end was coming.  He, too, dedicated a song to Levon (wish I could remember which one), with a “Good on ya, Mate!”  I’m looking forward to the close of the Americana Music Festival awards program in Nashville on Sept. 12, where an “all-star cast” will offer a full-on tribute to the late Band member.  How fitting!  A pretty good argument could be made that The Band was the ORIGINAL Americana band!

Phledge: I struggle with these genres all the time; what does it mean to say ” this is an Americana band” ?

( Gebippe’s espistles from Americana should answer that question. See the next post!- Ed.)

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