R.I.P. Levon Helm

A fine drummer, an excellent singer, a founding member of a pivotal band in rock history, a fantastically warm and generous spirit who fought through years of cancer treatments to play gigs right up until the moment he could play no more—Levon Helm of The Band passed across the great divide today. Helm died in Manhattan, about two hours from his home in Woodstock, just over one month shy of his 72nd birthday. The news came two days after his family announced that Helm was nearing the end of a lengthy bout with cancer. According to a statement from Vanguard Records, Helm “was surrounded by family, friends and band mates” when he passed; for much of his life, these things were one and the same.

Arguing about who was the most important member of The Band has long been a parlor game played by music fans. It’s a pointless debate, as The Band at its best was a uniquely egalitarian enterprise. It was by design that no member stood out from the rest; everybody sang, traded instruments, and watched each others’ backs. Emerging at a time when hotshot guitarists fought with flashy drummers and preening lead singers for the audience’s attention, The Band deliberately eschewed show-offy theatrics in favor of the spiritual power of the collective. This was the most “’60s” thing about The Band, but it’s also made them timeless in a way that their more stridently flower-power contemporaries aren’t. The Band always had a no-nonsense quality; its singular mix of humility, humor, grace, and cut-the-shit honesty inspires legions of artists to this day.

That said, if you want to make a case for Levon Helm being The Band’s true leader, let the record show that from the beginning he was the anchor, both of the music and of the line-up that over the course of several years in the late ’50s and early ’60s became The Band. Born on May 26, 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas, Helm started touring with a wild Arkansas rockabilly singer named Ronnie Hawkins in 1957, when he was in the 11th grade. He was already a veteran musician, picking up the guitar at age 9 and playing in a rock band, the Jungle Bush Beaters, with his sister Linda.

Helm moved with Hawkins to Canada in search of better-paying gigs. Work was grueling, with six shows a week in various dives and roadhouses, but the circuit soon brought Helm to the group of Canadians with whom he’d make some of the most distinctly American-sounding rock music ever. By 1963, Helm was tired of backing Hawkins, so he took Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson away from his former boss and formed his own group, Levon And The Hawks. Also known as The Canadian Squires and later simply The Hawks, it became a popular bar band in parts of Canada and the southern and eastern United States.

Blues singer John Hammond, Jr. heard them play in Toronto, and invited Helm along with Robertson and Hudson to back him on the landmark 1964 album, So Many Roads. But an even bigger break was right around the corner: Bob Dylan needed a backing back for his first “rock” tour in 1965, and after initially hiring Robertson and Helm, he brought on the whole band. Before the year was out, however, Helm begged off, quitting the band after the electric half of Dylan’s shows were received so poorly.

As The Hawks went on to tour the world with Dylan, enduring endless booing and making history in the process, Helm worked on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf Of Mexico. Helm wouldn’t rejoin his bandmates until early 1967, when they invited him to Woodstock to jam with Dylan on what became known as The Basement Tapes. By the following year, The Hawks got the chance to make their own record: Music From Big Pink ended up being one of the most beloved records of its time, a soulfully direct statement whose earthy appeal was the byproduct of so much time spent out of the spotlight, slugging it out night after night in thankless bar-band gigs. The simplicity of the music was reflected in the group’s new name: Now known simply as The Band, Helm’s little rock combo retained its regular-guy identity while indulging a certain swagger and confidence (especially if you pronounced it The Band.)

As good as Music From Big Pink is, 1969’s The Band was even better. Robertson was entrenched as the group’s principal writer, and Manuel’s poignant quiver was the main voice, but Helm’s presence—felt in the snap of his rock-steady beats and the full-throated bark of his voice—coursed through future classics like “Up On Cripple Creek” and the elegant “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Add in “The Weight,” The Band’s most famous song, and it was obvious Helm took a backseat to no one in The Band.

The issue of credit became more of a problem in The Band as drug abuse and ego destroyed the group’s unity in the early ’70s. The Band made great music during this period—especially 1970’s Stage Fright, which isn’t quite as good as the first two albums but is still one of the better albums of the era—but the group was limping on tired legs by the time of 1976’s legendary Thanksgiving-day Last Waltz concert. In the concert film directed by Martin Scorsese that arrived in theaters two years later, an inordinate amount of screen time was granted to Robertson, who was featured prominently in the performance and interview footage. This upset some fans, especially since The Last Waltz has become The Band’s defining document, which might explain why Manuel (who committed suicide in 1986) and Helm don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Critic Dave Marsh made a strong case for Helm’s lead role in The Band in 1978:

When The Band speaks best, most clearly, it almost always uses Levon Helm’s voice. In “The Weight,” Rick Danko sings just one verse and Levon takes that away from him with a yowled “yeah!” that’s among the three or four greatest interjections in rock … It is Helm’s voice, dripping with southern-bred bitterness, that makes “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” genuinely tragic. It could be argued that in Helm, Robertson found his perfect vehicle. But maybe it was Helm who found in the more glib and articulate Robertson a marvelous mouthpiece. Who whispered the secrets of the American Dream in Robertson’s young ear as he drifted through the Ozark wilderness? Who pointed him toward that wilderness in the first place? Levon Helm. And if all this is true, whose vision is this that we’re hearing?

After The Band broke up, Helm became an actor, turning in a memorable performance in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter. He also returned to the road, touring as a solo artist and—against Robertson’s wishes and without his involvement—The Band. Then, in the late ’90s, came cancer: He went underwent surgery for a tumor on his vocal cords, which along with radiation treatments crippled the brickhouse brawniness of his voice. But he rebounded, and in order to pay off his medical bills he started hosting regular Midnight Ramble concerts at his home. He also returned once again to touring, and, in later years, released two well-regarded albums, 2007’s Dirt Farmer and ’09’s Electric Dirt.

This week has been filled with many tributes to Helm, which no doubt pleased his family, who asked that fans send their thoughts and prayers as he lived out his final days. The impression you get is that for a lot of people—not just hardcore followers of The Band, but also those who casually listened to his music or have just a cursory knowledge of his career—Levon Helm embodied a decency that can only come from a life lived a certain kind of way. Helm’s life had its share of mistakes, but there was never a question about his commitment. This was a man who clung to life, and to his music, until he wrung ever last drop of joy and vitality out of it. He leaves us with no unfinished business.