Levon Helm, singing "Up on Cripple Creek" during The Last Waltz.


To Levon Helm, goodbye and thanks




Subconciously, many of us in our transitional years attempt to mold ourselves after far reaching role models, not just the ones in our lives at home, but the ones on screen and in records, those that ply their trade on stages or in stadiums.

For me, the period from ages 18 to 22, there existed a number of those outside influences. Neil Young, Eddie Vedder and others all had turns helping as I tried to find myself.

But we can also aspire to moments. One pivotal snatch of time was a November night in 1976, when the Band performed their farewell concert, captured for the film The Last Waltz. In it, there are more than a dozen characters who get their share of the screen. Rick Danko switches from goofy to tender. Robbie Robertson bounces up and down, the most cheerful music director I’ve ever seen. Richard Manuel detailed the best way to shoplift from a grocery store.

And Levon Helm, all rolled sleeves and gravelly voice, hangs in the back, smacking the drums, pushing that engine and stealing the show without ever demanding the spotlight.

Helm, the heart and soul of the Band, is dying.

I cannot overstate how important the Band and The Last Waltz were to me in college. Starting to play in bands, everything that took place in that film represented the pinnacle of what could be accomplished as a group. The Band could shift from roadhouse rockers to unbelievably heartfelt ballads effortlessly. Nearly everyone in the Band could sing, and sing with emotion and power. They had incredible friends, and they could play with them or anyone.

And in the Band, those songs were king. Band members got spotlights, whether it was Danko on “It Makes No Difference,” Manuel on “The Shape I’m In” or Helm on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Robertson, the prodigy guitarist from Canada, steered the ship with cutting playing and sharp songwriting. Garth Hudson was a mad scientist, adding magnificent sounds behind walls of keyboards and organs.

The way they moved that focus around the group was a testament to teamwork and efficiency. Everything was done in service of the song. Some have written that the entire production was a testament to excess and the bloated nature of rock and roll in the mid 1970s. I never saw that. I saw a band who, in front of the packed Winterland in San Francisco and before Martin Scorsese’s cameras, wanted to bring in friends like Young to sing “Helpless” or Paul Butterfield to blow his harp and sing “Mystery Train” with Helm, a final acknowledgement of the tremendous talent in the scene.

I don’t know how many times my friends and I played that DVD. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of times in our tenure at UMass Darmtouth alone. We all had a copy, its soundtrack followed us as we navigated classes and papers alone, and it was standard on Friday and Saturday nights while we laughed, had beers and taught ourselves how to play music together.

They were a profound influence. And Helm, perhaps their most recognizable voice, is entering his final days among us.

I heard the news on Tuesday afternoon. Shortly after, I put on my copy of The Last Waltz and began to think of what I could write in this space. When “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” came on, I was on the verge of tears.

I never met the man. I was never too familiar with his work outside of the Band. But that song punctuates what a tremendous soul Helm possesses. He sings that song with conviction and power and just enough fear to keep the song in check.

His family is requesting that fans and loved ones send their thoughts and prayers with him, “as he makes his way through this part of his journey.” He’s had an incredible journey, indeed.

These words are my thoughts to him. They’re a collection of well wishes, and my own acknowledgement of how much his music meant to me, and will continue to mean to me.

Good luck, Levon.

April 17, 2012

E-mail Nick Tavares at nick@staticandfeedback.com