There are artists, and, let’s face it, there are Artists.
What divides the two? Talent, mostly. But great artists seem to have an innate integrity. I wouldn’t say dignity, because, some artists are, by nature, a little less than digified, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But there’s a sense that they comfortably inhabit their own skin, and they’re cool with who they are and what they can do. And they love their work. When they’re not doing it, they might get a little…ornery. Comes with the territory. When they’re doing what they live for, the passion shows through, and, just by watching them, you can taste a bit of what they’re feeling.
Which brings us to Mr. Levon Helm, who passed today. Normally, I’d say “who died today,” but I’ve noticed that in blues circles, the gents say “he passed.” And Levon was all about the blues.
He was, of course, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists (along with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko) of The Band, and he was set for history had he never done another thing. But he did. After The Band hung it up in 1976, he formed the Levon Helm RKO All-Stars, and later reunited much of The Band, though Richard Manuel’s heartbreaking suicide really put an end to all that. He also proved to be a fine actor, notably stealing the hell out of a pivotal scene in “The Right Stuff” when Sam Shepard, playing Chuck Yeager, asks him for a stick of Beeman’s gum.
In 1998, Levon developed a lump in his throat, and it turned out to be the worst kind. Not entirely surprising, given he could rip through a pack a cigs in a flash and kept a good stock of sipping whiskey on hand. He could have had his larynx removed, but he opted on having just the tumor excised, followed by radiation treatments. Why? So he could keep his vocal cords. His voice was a little weak for a spell, but it eventually came back, and he kept on drumming and singing his ass off for another 14 years. And he never seemed happier than when he was on stage.
Brass tacks, this was the guy who sang “The Weight.” He sang a lot of other songs too, most of them plain wonderful, and full of life and humor, freighted with a hard-won realism and livened with a Puckish wit. But if there was ever an indelible mark, it was his three-kick intro to “The Weight” followed by that wry, knowing, wily Southern voice, rich, worn, and weary, singing:
I pulled into Nazareth
Feelin’ ’bout half-past dead
(The Nazareth in the song, by the way, was supposedly not the Nazareth where Jesus and his pals hung out, but, rather, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of Martin guitars. Which, if Christ returns like they say, wouldn’t be a bad place to look for him.)
That and the song below, which, basically, is so full and powerful and goddamn tragic that it has become part of the canon. This the is last time all of the original Band played it, on Thanksgiving at San Francisco’s Winterland, at the legendary Last Waltz, and if you want to hear the magic that comes with a great artist connecting with his audience, listen for the crowd response to the wind-up for the final chorus.
So, you know, it hurts when the artists we love pass on. But Levon Helm and The Band seemed to keep one foot in this world, and one the other side, digging down into what Greil Marcus calls the “old, weird America,” and, though I’m sure he wasn’t happy about taking a final curtain call, Levon probably found his way through it with a heart and soul as big and brassy and strong as the songs he lived.
So…thank you, Mr. Helm: for many blurry nights, a few rough mornings, and all the spaces in between. Nobody’s ever going to forget you or your work. And I think that’s about all an artist can ask for, whether they start their title uppercase or not.