Levon Helm Is A Badass

Levon Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, is finishing his battle with cancer.

I hate obituaries. I don't want to write an obituary for Levon Helm, who is, in the words of his family, entering the last stages of his battle with cancer. So I'll write about him now, before he's gone. That way this isn't an obituary. It's a celebration.

Levon has one of the greatest singing voices ever. Filled with an earthy southerness, Helm's voice anchors many of the best songs by The Band, one of the great musical groups to ever record. He also drummed on a lot of The Band's songs, so he was singing from the drum kit - not an easy proposition. 

He grew up in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, the son of cotton farmers. He played guitar at age 8. He was there, in person, during one of the great times in modern musical history. He listened to the Grand Ole Opry on one radio station and R&B on another. He saw Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys live as a boy, and as a teen saw Elvis and Bo Diddley and Conway Twitty. At 17 he was playing in local clubs, and then was recruited into Ronnie Hawkin's backing band, The Hawks.

The Hawks ended up being a seminal band, but not under that name. Ronnie and Levon (then known as Lavon, his real name, but he started going by Levon when it was apparent nobody could pronounce it right) got together a whole mess of Canadians - Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson - and they toured together for a while. Then the Hawks broke off and became Levon and the Hawks. 

Then history happened. The Hawks became Bob Dylan's backing band when he went electric. When Dylan's fans flipped out about the change Levon found himself worn down, and he quit for two years, going to work on oil rigs. But he came back, and he moved to Woodstock and recorded the legendary Basement Tapes.

By now they were known just as 'the band,' and that ended up being their official name when they signed to Capitol Records. Their first album, Music From Big Pink, is a stone cold classic. Levon only sings on one track, the immortal The Weight, but he took up more singing duties in the albums to come. Big Pink and their second album, The Band, are their best studio work, but they also left behind a ton of great live recordings that truly reveal their power. And of course their most famous moment for film fans is their final one: Martin Scorsese directed a documentary about their farewell concert, called The Last Waltz, that is probably the greatest concert film of all time.

After The Band Levon did plenty of solo work, and he also teamed up with many friends. But the surprising turn in his career is when he became an actor. He first acted in The Coal Miner's Daughter, playing Loretta Lynn's dad, and then lent his incredible voice to be the narrator of The Right Stuff. Later in life he was in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a criminally underappreciated film.

Levon never quit making music. He released albums in 2007 (winning a Grammy) and 2009 (winning a Grammy); last year he put out a live record which showed that, even at 70, he was a powerful performer with a great voice (and winning a Grammy). In fact he has the kind of voice that only deepens and darkens wonderfully with time.

In 1993 Levon released an autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, which is notable for spewing lots of bitterness at Robbie Robertson. I don't know what Levon's final relationship was with Robbie, but it's sad to see that these two had such hard feelings for so long.

Pretty soon his run on this earth will be over. Levon has been dealing with cancer, and it appears that he won't have to deal with it much longer. His family released a statement today:

Dear Friends,
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration... he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage...
We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

The song above is The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, performed in The Last Waltz. It's one of my favorite songs ever. This isn't an obituary. It's a celebration.