Friday, April 20, 2012

Levon Helm

The Puddles of Myself tribute to the late, and undeniably great, Levon Helm.

Good morning, my Puddlers.

As most of you know, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the singers and songwriters in The Band, died yesterday at the age of 71. He had battled and held off throat cancer for the past 10 years, but it eventually caught up to him in the end.

As you may also know, we here at Puddles of Myself are huge music fans and Levon was near and dear to our hearts in many different ways. So, in order to pay respects to Levon, I reached out to some of the Puddles contributors for their immediate thoughts in the wake of Levon Helm's death.

“Up On Cripple Creek” – at The Last Waltz (Winterland Ballroom, 11/25/1976)

Nick Mencia

I don't want to get into the fetishization of The Band or the “Robbiecentric” issues attached to The Last Waltz; nor do I want to get into my dubious feelings involving Robbie saying goodbye to Levon.  Although there are many, many darker and more eccentric Levon moments that I love (his strange and powerful vocal performance on “Strawberry Wine,” and his goodoldboy candor while fiddling with the board on that documentary chronicling the first two records come to mind immediately), I always go back to The Last Waltz as a memorable piece of lore, an unforgettable moment in American Rock n’ Roll history. 

Of the moments in that concert, my favorite is that ecstatic, ineffable little ad-libby feeling, "yeah, yeah, I sure wish I could yodel like her" scat that he throws in as he’s doing a Levonesque busy, but resolute, fill towards the end of “Cripple Creek.”  He is a definite "in the moment" kind of guy, born to perform.  He really lives in those moments for me, and reminds me, whenever I return, how powerful a sincere and straightforward performance can be, and how fucking good music was for a while there, way before I was born.

(Editor's Note: Embed was not allowed for this video, but please watch.)

Erik Lilleby

I can remember being very young and seeing parts of The Last Waltz with my dad and saying to myself,  “Wow that guy sings AND plays drums!” I must have been six or seven.  Now, around that time, I had also seen Don Henley with the Eagles and he sang and drummed too, so these memories kinda blurred together. However, they both showed me that a drummer didn't have to be just a background guy with little to no input in a band (aka Ringo). Levon showed me that drummers could be multi-instrumentalists and create songs just as well as a lead guitarist. Levon's mandolin playing was essential to a song like “The Last Waltz” and the Band's growth in popularity from the song “The Weight” was due in part also because of Levon’s voice (it definitely made his voice “The Voice of The Band” for some people—me). Other drummers like Jon Bonham or Mitch Mitchell of The Experience were just as good at creating a unique sound for a band and standing out because of style, but neither sang like Levon.

All of those drummers contributed to my need to play drums, but Levon Helm has a special place in my heart because, for me, he was The Band. The leader, the coolest one. Robertson was kind of a twat (or so i first thought from The Last Waltz interviews). Danko was a goofy meatball. And the piano player—still can’t remember his name (Editor’s Note: Erik is talking about the transcendent Richard Manuel.)—he was too serious. I think I always confused him with the Dead's piano guy and maybe thought they were the same person. Either way: Levon, still cooler. Check out The Last Waltz interview when he describes burlesque shows and dirty comedians from the vaudeville days. Man, he was fucked up on something. Still cool as hell though.

P.S. “Mooney” above them all.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - at The Last Waltz (Winterland Ballroom, 11/25/1976)

Alex Ramsdell

Levon Helm, The Drummer from The Band, is a Master

There is no shortage of him on the web.  He is a master of total spirit. He is a master drum instructor.  Levon Helm is the author of some recent music that reminds me of Breaking Bad.

The personality he has, singing lead while on drums, always chopping the beat in half, is a rare thing.  To Levon Helm.

"Opus 40" - From the Mercury Rev album Deserter's Song (1999)

David Stern

Before my older brother’s college friends were turning me on to 101 bands like the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth, teen-targeted trends and virtuosic drumming molded my tastes.  As a young drummer my listening priorities sided with those who stood out on my instrument.  I never liked the Dave Matthews Band but I loved hearing Carter Beauford; I never liked Dream Theater but Mike Portnoy’s extreme playing represented something to which I could aspire. While these players could pull off clean 16th-note triplets at 160BPM with their legs, my drum teacher assured me that what really mattered was feel. 

“Check this out,” he said as he cued a mysterious fifth track and “bap-bap-unh” resonated from the stereo. “Up On Cripple Creek” became my official introduction to the Band.  “Nobody cracks a snare like this guy. You hear him and you know it’s him.  That’s what a drummer should want to become.” 

As I studied the Band’s music and—with more attention—Levon’s drumming, I learned that he was untouchable.  You could always play what he played but you couldn’t play it like him. His drumming voice was as unique and distinct as his singing voice. 

It was several years later that the seeds my brother’s friends planted were really sprouting and that I started listening to the band Mercury Rev. I loved their earlier albums and as I made my way through their discography was very excited when I first popped Deserter’s Songs into my CD player.  Supposedly the band’s history, stylistically speaking, paralleled the Lips’: that they abandoned their careless brand of noise-pop but carried that attitude over to a more majestic, symphonic sound.  Since I heard The Soft Bulletin before any of this, my interest was naturally piqued.  The first three tracks off of Deserter’s delivered more than I could have ever expected and the fourth, an early album interlude called “I Collect Coins,” gave me a minute and a half to wonder what else I was in for. 

“Opus 40” starts off in a completely normal way, especially by Mercury Rev’s standards.  Jonathan Donahue sings a beautiful melody over a symphony of instruments real and fake and leaves you waiting, no, expecting, the inevitable backbeat to take the second verse and rest of the song to the next level.  So there I was, expecting those drums to kick in and as the dust of the first chorus settled and they finally did, I felt confused and drunkenly bewildered.  “It can’t be,” I thought.  “But it’s got to be.  Nobody else plays like that.”  I rushed the album’s booklet out of its jewel case and sure enough—as if I didn’t already know—it was Levon. 

What was my drummer doing on Rev’s album?  I was elated.  This moment in time, this single example of listening to some song on some album represented the convergence of two paths that my musical exploration had been taking.  The me who sought a drummer’s canon and the me who sought musical respectability had finally met.  It was a revelatory experience as a drummer and—more importantly—a musician because Levon passed the ultimate test.  He was placed in a situation that was utterly disparate from the context in which we are used to hearing him and his voice was as clear and true as ever. 

Oh yeah, the Midnight Ramble that I went to was probably the best show that I’ve ever seen.

“Slippin’ and Slidin” – From The Festival Express (Toronto 1970)

Matt Domino

I picked the above clip of the Band in action during the Festival Express for a variety of reasons. For one, like John Lennon, I am an advocate of the earliest and simplest rock n’ roll and “Slippin’ and Slidin’” is one of the best songs ever written. The Band is obsolutely operating at the top of  their powers in this clip and who is at the center of it all, keeping that thumping, ticking, about to bust low-end going, while at the same time roaring at the top of his lungs? Of course, that’s Levon Helm. But there’s also the piano entrance of the song, which is shuffling, bluesy, driving—it makes me think of only the best kind of bar with worn wood floors and open windows and perspiring beers and of Levon helm sauntering in through the front door with a faint tint of fluorescent light and summer pouring through the open spaces. It makes me think of roots and it makes me imagine what kind of essence I want to carry through my life as a man. It’s not Levon playing the keys, but those keys, those sounds are what the man meant to me. Also, seeing as the Band was playing as part of the Festival Express I can only state my outright love of that series of concerts, of different bands and rock stars with different musical styles bunking together on a train car that sped across Canada, stopping here and there to play a show for adoring fans. If I ever make it rich, the first thing I’m looking into is charterting a train, then finding bands I love, and then finding the best damn wholesale liquor distributor in the United States.

But there are other Levon moments:

1. David Stern and I went to one of Levon’s Midnight Rambles at his house in Saugerties, New York in September of 2006. I had just emerged from a long period of self-hatred and was ready to embrace the world again, ready to actually love someone and was on the verge of doing that. So David and I drove in my old Pathfinder from Saratoga to Saugerties as the twlight folded the late summer night. We talked about girls, jokes, and whatever else you talk with your former freshman year roommate about. When we got to Levon’s house, I was directed to park my car on the large back lawn with all the other attendees of the concert. David and I walked into Levon’s barn where there were tables set up with all different kinds of hors douvers and cakes and snacks that everyone had brought to share. I think we brought some cookies and beer. We caught the end of the first band (David might remember better who was in that band) from the rafters of the barn. I went to the bathroom before Levon came on and was pleasantly surprised to find all kinds of Band related herilooms around the commode, including a framed “collage” of some kind that had a bear’s head as the centerpiece, only the face of the bear was cut out and Garth Hudson’s, smiling bearded face had been put in its place. When I came back, David had befriend some middle aged women who were locals. They gave us organic wine, then we watched as Levon came out, fresh from throat cancer surgery and proceeded to belt through “Ophelia,” and then “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and finally through “Rag, Mama, Rag.” David and I left the Ramble blown away. We walked out to my car in the damp September night, stepping on the soft grass. I pulled my car out of Levon’s driveway and noticed that my engine was smoking, so I slowly drove us a few more miles into downtown Saugerties where I tried to apply coolant to the radiator, but as I opened the valve, hot fluid shot up and flung the radiator cap god knows where. David and I sat in weird, late night Saugerties for a few hours passing the time until a tow truck came. Then, we sat in the front seat for an hour and a half with the tow truck driver, who hated us, and watched him smoke a half a pack of cigarettes.

2. In 2005, I drove across the country with my friends Jeff and Dan. Jeff is married now and Dan has a serious girlfriend. We are doing different things with our lives but we still try to see each other as much as we can and love each other despite the differences between us and in our lives. That was already starting to happen then, but we didn't know it—high school and childhood were still so close in hand.

Dan had brought a tape of the Bands’ Greatest Hits on the trip and we played it from his little radio wherever we set up camp. One night we set up camp in South Dakota on a beautiful flat campground. We started a fire as the last red of the sunset disappeared over the middle of America. “Twilight” was playing and I was in love with South Dakota and happy about being out on the road and being free. And I know that if I ever feel the world receding and feel myself being left in the twilight like some kind of Gabriel Conroy, that those memories will never be dusty or static—they live on and that will always pull me back.

I don’t know if Levon ever felt something like that; I’m sure he did. His name was almost Levin, and if you know what that name means, then you know what I’m talking about.

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