Levon Helm 1940-2012
While Dick Clark had the marquee name and way more fame and money, there is much more for musicians to learn from Levon.
Last week, while most of the media was busy covering the death of Dick Clark, the music world lost another great in Levon Helms.
Before I go any further, I have to address the obvious. Levon was not a kid. Our Live2Play demographic is pretty young, so in the videos linked to from the buttons to the left, in his most recent performance Levon probably looks like your grandfather. It may be easy to assume that someone of that age has nothing to show you—but hat would be a big mistake. I didn’t really gain an appreciation for his work until just a few years ago. It’s never to late for greatness.
Levon embodied the idea of someone for whom music was a “life sentence.” It was not about fame or money or influence or reality TV shows. Levon lived and breathed music until his dying day. OK, in the early years it was as much about meeting girls as playing (Any male musician who claims that was not true in his case is likely lying or gay. In which case it was about meeting boys). But once you have really felt the touch of the muse, it is not something you can turn your back on. She will reel you back in every time. Bitch.
For a time, The Band was the very embodiment of American music. Levon and Robbie Robertson were part of Bob Dylan’s band when he went electric. To put that in present day terms, imagine if Linkin Park decided to go pop and become a boy band. Or if Carrie Underwood made a grindcore record. The move enraged purists and Dylan an his band were loudly boo’ed at many shows. That reaction so traumatized Levon that for the first and only time in his life he tried to abandon making music.
He quit the tour and retreated back home to Arkansas. Spent some time over the next year working on an oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s the part that’s most important. Lot’s of us have been in similar places. It was 20 years ago in L.A. when I got tired of the BS in the music business and put it all away for about a year. It was not a successful experiment. I was miserable. Nothing mattered. I was married and had a young child and I cared deeply for my wife and daughter but nothing could fill the hole inside.
Finally my wife told me to go find a band to play with before we ended up divorced. And I never stopped after that. (BTW, Linda and I just celebrated 24 years married.) Not that I have been a success. I only do a few gigs here and there but I keep a band together as just an emotional and creative outlet. No fame. No fortune. But for me, music is not something I want to do, it is something I HAVE to do. It’s a life sentence.
And that is the lesson in Levon’s life and times. He got off that oil rig and went back to upstate New York and The Band became iconic. When they did their last gig, seemingly every musician of that time of any note clamored to take part in it. Martin Scorsese made a movie of it called “The Last Waltz.” You can get it on Amazon on DVD for less than 10 bucks.
After that “last gig”, The Band reformed minus Robbie in the ‘80s and toured and did new music. One of the videos to the left is from that time period. Piano player/singer Richard Manuel committed suicide. The Band played on. When Rick Danko (bass and vox) died a few years later, that was it for The Band. But Levon continued with his own band.
In the ‘90s he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He could not sing. He went through massive amounts of radiation treatment. And as soon as he was able, he picked up his sticks and got back behind the drum kit and started a series of semi-legendary shows from his barn/studio outside of Woodstock (NY). Against all odds, he got his voice back, and went back on the road. He recorded two albums that both won Grammys.
In interviews he did not talk about how hard his journey had been or how disappointed he was that The Band broke up in the first place. He talked about how grateful he was to be able to make music. “As long as I can breath and play, life is pretty good. He won awards and had some measure of fame. But never fortune. Those shows from his barn were put on largely to help him pay medical expenses and his mortgage.
Check out the linked videos. There is from “The Last Waltz,” from the ‘80s and one from just a couple years before he died. For Levon, music was a life sentence. It was something he HAD TO do.
What about you?