Saturday, April 21, 2012

Levon Helm: The Heartbeat of The Band

Some time in the very early 80s, my brother brought home Bob Dylan's first greatest hits collection. I'd seen the psychedelic poster before, hanging up on the wall of a farm house in upstate New York we rented for a week once. (Perhaps the least exciting vacation ever.) I'm pretty sure when I first played the record I skipped all the way to the last track on the first side: "Like a Rolling Stone." I knew his voice was going to be weird, and it was. I knew the song was important, and sure, I could hear why that was. But what I didn't expect was for the song to be as great as it was. 

I mean, by that point, I'd been reading what I'd been told were great novels and watching what I'd been told were great movies and most of them were...well...to a kid my age, really dense and boring. So I guess I was expecting the same thing with early Dylan, and was therefore very pleasantly surprised by just how asskicking and plain enjoyable it was. Great and fun? Sign me up. 

Oddly, I think my next Dylan might have been Blood on the Tracks and, again, it was one of those relatively rare (for me) experiences of clicking with a piece of music from virtually the very first second. Usually it takes me a while to warm up to something, or at least figure out how I feel about it. But with Dylan, the connection was instantaneous.

The rest of his 60s studio albums followed, from the debut up to and including John Wesley Harding. After that, I skipped ahead to Desire and then Infidels, leaving (obviously) some big caps in my collection.

One of those gaps was Dylan live. Back in those days, he only had a few live collections out—this being well before his official Bootleg series release was even a twinkle in the record company's eye—and I had none of them. Instead, my first time hearing Bob Dylan live was The Last Waltz.

We were still years away from getting cable TV, so I spent what still seems an insane amount of money—something like twenty-five bucks, I think—and ordered the VHS tape from J&R Music. I was so excited, in no small part because of the guest stars, being already an admirer of Martin Scorsese and a huge Eric Clapton fan. And sure enough, the movie was mostly enjoyable, even if Neil Young played what was then one of my least favorite of his best known songs and I'd not yet developed an appreciation for Joni Mitchell and most of all what the hell was Neil Diamond doing on that stage and how did he manage to warp the space-time continuum so that his one song lasted four decades and counting? (I'm pretty sure it's still going, even as I type.)

But my boy EC tore up his song—even if Robbie Robertson upstaged Slowhand by leaping into the breach when Clapton's strap come off and ripping a solo which at least equaled, if not bettered, anything Eric himself played that night—Van the Man was brilliant and Muddy Waters was just about the hippest, most elegant and suave damn thing I'd ever seen. And The Band themselves were simply on fire, playing their hits so energetically they very nearly ruined their more stately studio versions for me for some time.

And then came the night's final guest, Bob Dylan, wisely and unsurprisingly kept for last. The young me was disappointed that he played "Forever Young," a song I didn't know at the time and which, if I now love it and obviously get the choice, held little relevance for the not even quite a teenager yet me.

But then the song starts to wind down. The Band gets a bit quieter and maybe a bit slower. Dylan leans in and has a brief conversation with Robbie. He looks back at Levon. And then he slams into "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" in total rock and roll mode. And The Band follows perfectly, as though they'd rehearsed copiously, even as it's crystal clear they very much have not (the way Rick Danko turns away the moment the song starts is just so smooth and assured).

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I had never heard Dylan play this sort of rock and roll before. Sure, his trio of rock and roll albums from the 60s were called rock and roll, and they were—the label "rock and roll" is a big one and an awful lot of things fit under it comfortably. But to a kid who'd ingested Led Zeppelin's entire oeuvre by that point, not to mention a heaping dose of Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith, those Dylan albums were wonderful...but seemed tame, sonically, by comparison. I loved them, don't get me wrong—I even loved his earliest, folk albums, including his original recording of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." But they weren't rock and roll, not the way I categorized it at the time, not the way Bruce Springsteen screaming "Adam Raised a Cain" and hammering away at his guitar solo was rock and roll.

Except that this performance was rock and roll. It was so rock and roll. There was no other way to describe it. And then he started singing. Only it was closer to shouting, yet melodically and in tune. They way he screamed the final line of each verse was spine-tingling. There was no way you could imagine that this guy had started as the world's premier folk-singer—he was far closer to Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer than Peter Yarrow or Paul Stookey. 

(Not long after that, I acquired Before the Flood, the live Bob Dylan/The Band album, and it remains not only one of my favorite live albums ever, but one of my favorite releases from either Dylan or The Band. And even after The Last Waltz, I was flabbergasted by the way Dylan absolutely ripped into "Most Likely You Go Your Way." Just incendiary and bordering on abusive. Glorious.) 

Last night I turned on VH1-Classic, as I do towards the end of most nights, to see what's on and whether it's worth watching again. The 394th showing of Metal: A Headbanger's Journey was scheduled, but they'd wisely preempted it for the 23rd airing of The Last Waltz, obviously in honor of Levon Helm. I'd just happened to catch Clapton's song starting and, as usual, I watched almost the entire film from there, including Van Morrison's magnificent "Caravan" and Dylan's miniset. 

Which is when I noticed something I'd never caught before, no matter how many times I'd watched. Scorsese's close friendship with his one-time roommate Robbie Robertson is well known, and his preferential treatment of the songwriter, to the unfortunate neglect of the rest of The Band, much discussed. It's one of the film's few glaring flaws and something which has grated over the years. But maybe because Helm had just died, or maybe because he's fairly magnetic, I was watching him and Dylan, directorial decisions be damned. And what I noticed was that I wasn't the only one focusing on Levon. So was Bob Dylan. 

Check it out. As "Forever Young" winds down, Dylan and Robbie have their discussion, and then Dylan looks towards Levon to make sure he's in on the plan. And from then on until the end of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," Dylan keeps touching base with Levon. He looks at Robbie, he looks at Rick and Richard, he's checking with all The Band—or maybe just sharing the joy of making music—but it's Levon he looks at most. Even when he and Robbie switch positions, so Robbie's cagily between Dylan and Levon, Bob keeps looking past Robbie, behind him or over his shoulder, towards Levon. Again and again and again he looks back towards the drummer. 

This could mean that he's worried that the drummer's not on the same page. It could mean that the drummer's screwing up, or that he's afraid the drummer's about to screw up. Except that this is Levon Helm, who had music in his DNA, one hell of an instinctual drummer with an almost unsurpassed feel, a fine mandolin player, and every bit as great a singer as Robbie Robertson is a writer or guitarist. No one, no one, ever needed to worry about Levon on stage. It'd be like worrying that water wasn't going to be wet. 

So it wasn't that. It was just the opposite. It's clear that Dylan—often oddly underrated as a musician, for all he's lauded as an important and brilliant writer—knows exactly where the heart of The Band resides. Robbie may have been the intellectual guide, Richard the tormented soul, Rick the rock and Garth the most accomplished musician. But Levon was the heart of The Band. Of its three outstanding singers, he was the best. He was the one from the deep south, the one who'd been there at the birth of rock and roll, the one who'd absorbed the sounds of purest country and blues as he grew up—and as the drummer he had, as all drummers do, an outsized impact upon the sound and feel of the group. 

Dylan obviously knew all that. Which is why he glances at Robbie and Rick and Richard, but keeps looking past his closer friend Robbie, to touch base with Levon, to make sure they were on the same wavelength, to see how Levon's feeling, to see where he's going, to make sure he's following okay. 

Which he is. When the song winds up, somewhat sloppily, but not nearly as awkwardly as it might, you can see Bob once again look back towards Levon, having to bend forward to look past Robbie. Then he looks around at everyone else. And then Dylan moves, so he can look behind Robbie this time, in order to get a better view of the drummer. And as he and Levon wrap up the song, not quite together, Bob Dylan suddenly gives his one big genuine smile of the night. 

That's the effect Levon Helm and his music had on people. 

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