Levon Helm RIP

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Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 9:59 pm

Levon Helm obituary

Drummer with the Band whose career stretched in many other directions has died of cancer aged 71

Adam Sweeting

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 19 April 2012 20.39 BST


Levon Helm performing in Canton, Massachusetts in September 2011. The drummer from the Band has died of cancer aged 71. Photograph: Douglas Mason/Getty Images

A shorthand way of describing Levon Helm, who has died of cancer aged 71, would be as the drummer with the Band. This would have made him eminent enough, but his career stretched in many other directions, as drummer with the rock'n'roller Ronnie Hawkins, solo artist, prolific film actor and, most recently, host of the all-star Midnight Ramble Sessions. He was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, and a fine and distinctive singer.

He was born Mark Lavon Helm in Elaine, Arkansas, the second of Nell and Diamond Helm's four children. His father was a cotton farmer but also a music lover, and the Grand Ole Opry and King Biscuit Time radio shows (the latter featuring the bluesman Sonny Boy Willamson) were favourites in the Helm household. His father bought him a guitar when he was nine, and he struck up his first musical partnership with his bass-playing sister Linda. The duo regularly won talent contests in local clubs.

Levon, as he would become known, formed his own high school rock'n'roll band, the Jungle Bush Beaters, and at 17 he was invited to perform onstage with Conway Twitty and his Rock Housers band. By now Levon had taken up the drums, having been inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis's sticksman Jimmy Van Eaton, and it was for his percussion skills that he was hired by Hawkins in 1957, to play with his band, the Hawks.

Though an Arkansas native like Helm, Hawkins found steady success in Canada, and in the early 60s Helm and Hawkins recruited a new batch of Canadian musicians who would later become the Band – the guitarist Robbie Robertson, the bass player Rick Danko, the pianist Richard Manuel and the organist Garth Hudson. In his autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band (1993), Helm wrote that his new bandmates could not pronounce "Lavon" and called him Levon instead.

Tiring of Hawkins's dictatorial leadership, the group broke away in 1963 to become Levon and the Hawks. They recorded a couple of singles and made a living playing regular gigs in Canada and the US, but their career suddenly surged into overdrive when they were hired by Bob Dylan as his backing band (by now called simply the Hawks) in 1965. But Dylan's move into amplified rock proved controversial, and Helm was so disturbed by the negative crowd reactions at some concerts that he quit and returned to Arkansas.

Dylan himself now retreated from the spotlight, and when he moved to the seclusion of upstate New York with the other Hawks, Helm rejoined them. During 1967, the group recorded the fabled Basement Tapes with Dylan, before commencing work on their own first album. The musicians shared a pink-painted house in West Saugerties, New York, dubbed Big Pink, whence came the title of their 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink. They called themselves the Band since they were known casually as "the band" to friends and neighbours.

The album was a restrained and mysterious mix of soul, country, rock, blues and gospel, distinguished by impeccable instrumental work and the harmony blend of Helm, Danko and Manuel. Helped by the single The Weight, it became a quiet sensation. Eric Clapton said of Big Pink that "it changed my life", and many other acts, from Fairport Convention to Elton John and even Led Zeppelin, felt its influence.

In 1969 they released The Band, often regarded as their pièce de résistance, for its masterly musicianship and songwriting, which seemed to reach back into the myths of American folklore and civil war history. The group's rustic, groaning harmonies lent huge emotional resonance to such pieces as The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rockin' Chair and King Harvest (Has Surely Come). Subsequent releases never recaptured the same magic, though Rock of Ages (1972) was an excellent live set and Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975) was a belated return to something like peak form. In 1974 they recorded Planet Waves with Dylan before backing him on a wildly acclaimed American tour.

In 1976, the Band staged a grandiose farewell concert in San Francisco, the Last Waltz, to mark what many felt was a premature end to their performing career. Internal politics, not least friction between Helm and the increasingly dominant Robertson, had hastened the group's demise. The concert featured a superstar guest list including Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and many more, and was memorialised as a triple LP and a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

Helm wasted little time in launching a solo career, releasing Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars in 1977, which was followed by Levon Helm (1978) and American Sonn (1980). He made his film debut, playing the father of the country music star Loretta Lynn, in Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), which was followed by appearances in The Right Stuff (1983), The Dollmaker (1984), Feeling Minnesota (1996), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) and Shooter (2007).

In 1983 he reunited with Danko for an acoustic tour, and the following year Hudson and Manuel came on board for an acclaimed Band reunion, with only Robertson missing. After Manuel's suicide in 1986, Richard Bell, who had played with Hawkins, joined on piano, and the rebuilt Band released three albums, Jericho (1993), High on the Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998).

In 1998 Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. Although he lost his singing voice, he continued to perform (playing the drums, mandolin and harmonica) with his daughter Amy. The following year, Danko died. The defiant Helm fought back to performing fitness, and in 2004 he inaugurated his Midnight Ramble Sessions, live performances at his own Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York. These get-togethers – attended by Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, John Sebastian, Donald Fagen, Billy Bob Thornton and many others – have been preserved on several live recordings.

In 2007 Helm released Dirt Farmer, a haunting set of old-time folk and country songs that won him a Grammy award for best traditional folk album. In 2008, he was awarded a Recording Academy lifetime achievement award as an original member of the Band, as well as an artist of the year award from the Americana Music Association. Electric Dirt (2009) brought another Grammy, for best Americana album, and Ramble at the Ryman (2011), recorded at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, earned a third.

Helm is survived by his wife Sandy and daughter.

Levon Helm (Mark Lavon Helm), musician, born 26 May 1940; died 19 April 2012

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:01 pm


Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band pose for a group portrait in London in June 1971Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:03 pm


Levon Helm attends the 22nd annual WC Handy Awards show in Memphis in 2001Photograph: Jeff Mitchell/Reuters

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:06 pm


Alex Van Halen, Levon Helm, Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner pose in the studio in the early 1990sPhotograph: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:09 pm


Helm also had a successful sideline career as an actor starring. Here, with Sissy Spacek, Levon Helm, left, and Phyllis Boyen on the porch of their cabin with their kids in a scene from the film Coal Miner's Daughter in 1980Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:11 pm


Levon Helm performs with his daughter Amy and the Levon Helm Band during the Shelter From the Storm benefit concert at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston, NY Photograph: John DeSanto/AP

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:14 pm


Helm, who left The Band in 1976, continued on with a solo career. Here, he performs on stage in 2000Photograph: Andrew Lepley/Redferns

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:17 pm


The Band circa 1971. From left to right: Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:20 pm


Helm in London in 1971 Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:22 pm


The original members of the Southern-style rock combo, (from left) Canadians Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and American Levon Helm, greet variety show host Ed Sullivan Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:25 pm


Helm, who grew up working on an Arkansas farm, is known for a soulfully gravelled vocal delivery. Here he is pictured (far left) with The Band in the early 1970sPhotograph: Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:28 pm


Helm plays drums with the Levon Helm Band during a Ramble at Helm's barn in Woodstock, NY Photograph: John DeSanto/AP

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:32 pm


The Band performs with Bob Dylan in Long Island in January 1974Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:36 pm


Helm in 1976Photograph: Richard E Aaron/Redferns

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:39 pm


Helm on the Imus in the Morning programme in New YorkPhotograph: Richard Drew/AP

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:44 pm

Robbie Robertson seeks reconciliation at Levon Helm's sickbed

The former colleagues in the Band, enemies for 35 years, come together as Helm faces death

Sean Michaels

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 19 April 2012 11.24 BST


'I am so grateful I got to see him one last time' … Robbie Robertson on Levon Helm, pictured above. Photograph: Douglas Mason/Getty Images

As Levon Helm proceeds through the "final stages" of cancer, Robbie Robertson, his former colleague in the Band, has described setting aside years of acrimony to visit Helm in hospital. "I am so grateful I got to see him one last time," Robertson said, "and will miss him and love him forever."

The Band's Garth Hudson has also commented on Helm's illness, posting a video of Knocking on Heaven's Door. "I am too sad for words right now," he wrote on his website. "Please continue praying for Levon and family."

Robertson's dispute with Helm is one of music's longest-running feuds, dating back more than 35 years. They last played together at the Band's final concert, The Last Waltz, in 1976. Robertson didn't take that gig seriously, Helm wrote in his autobiography, describing his attitude as: "Do it, puke, and get out." They also clashed over royalties. "[Robbie] and [manager] Albert [Grossman] get all the money, and the rest of us get all the leftovers, and he was supposed to be one of us," Helm said in 1998.

In his statement on Facebook, Robertson said he learned of Helm's sickness last week. "It hit me really hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer and had no idea that he was this ill," he said. "I spoke with his family and made arrangements to go and see him. On Sunday I went to New York and visited him in the hospital. I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together … Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I've ever known and very much like an older brother to me." The night before they visited in New York, Robertson offered Helm "prayers and love" in a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Robertson was not the only one to be surprised by Helm's sudden turn for the worse. Although the drummer postponed several concerts in the past month, a statement on 6 April cited a slipped disk in his back as the cause of his cancellations. "Levon would like to assure everyone that his health otherwise has been excellent as of late," his representative said. "Levon and the band are eager to get back on the road and hope to see all the fans soon."

Now 71, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. At the time, the cost of paying for treatment threatened to leave him homeless. "You got to pick one – pay your medical bills or pay the mortgage," he said in a 2010 CNN interview. "Most people can't do both, and I'm not different." Helm recovered, and his home became the venue for a star-studded weekly concert series, the Midnight Rambles. These gigs led to a creative resurgence and two acclaimed albums, 2007's Dirt Farmer and 2009's Electric Dirt.

Robertson, 68, released his fifth solo album last year.

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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Fri Apr 20, 2012 10:48 pm

You'll find the whole grisly story of the R. Robertson Feud, the filming of The Last Waltz etc in Levon's autobiography:


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Re: Levon Helm RIP

Post  eddie on Wed Apr 25, 2012 2:58 am

Remembering Levon Helm – a classic interview with the Band

Following the death of Levon Helm, drummer and sometime lead vocalist with the Band, read an interview with the group by Al Aronowitz, first published in Rolling Stone magazine in August 1968, and made available now courtesy of Rock's Backpages – the world's leading archive of vintage music journalism


'We’d barely heard of Bob Dylan, but somehow he had heard of us' … The Band's Levon Helm in 1968. Photograph: Elliott Landy/Redferns

Big Pink is of those middle-class ranch houses of the type that you would expect to find in a development row in the heart of suburbia rather than on an isolated mountaintop high above the barn architecture of New York State's rustic Woodstock.

When The Band moved into Big Pink in the spring of 1967, the house looked as if it had been tenanted by little more than a housewife with a dustmop who only crossed its threshold once a week to clean it. The Band, of course, had spent its six previous years living in hotels, motels, rooming houses, bus stations, airport terminals, and the back seats of newly wrecked cars. What the Band brought to Big Pink was the dust of the road. But then, that's the story of how the Band got to be the Band.

"We've played everywhere from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, which is a mining town about 100 miles from the tree line," explains guitarist Robbie Robertson. "We've played such far-out places that I couldn't even begin to tell you about them. We played towns and joints and places that were 85% Oklahoma Indian. We played places where the people didn't come to hear you, they'd come to mess with you. They'd flick cigarette butts at you and throw money at you and steal your things, and, if you got past that, then they'd listen to you."

For a musician, the dust of the road becomes part of the skin. It gets into your hair, your nose, your eyes, your mouth, your voice, and your music. When Robbie Robertson talks about Molasses, Texas, and Timmins, Canada, he isn't boasting about the grime embedded in his pores; he's merely verbalizing the stories that his guitar has to tell. There was the time the Band went into the shantytown of Helena, Arkansas, to pay homage to Sonny Boy Williamson, 6'3", 70 years old, a blues man with a white goatee and tuberculosis who was spitting blood into a can on the floor next to him as he got the Band drunk on corn liquor and played with them until the police ran them out of town.

"The cops couldn't understand what we were doing there," Robertson remembers. "You've got to realise that this is near a place where they had hung 13 guys from a water tower a few years back."

There was the time the Band played Fort Worth, Texas, working in a gangster-owned club that had been bombed, burned, gassed, and robbed so often that nobody even bothered to lock it up at night.

"We had to wear guns and take turns staying through the night to guard our equipment," Robertson remembers. "One night, the police came busting in with dogs. The dogs nearly got us, and we nearly got the dogs. The next night, someone shot off a tear gas bomb in the club. It stunk up the place for four days. We would be playing, and the people would come in and their eyes would tear up."

At 24, Robertson could be considered the leader of the Band, if the Band bothered itself with such considerations. They've been together too long not to know what each one has to do without needing someone to tell them.

"There are five of us," says Richard Manuel, who plays the piano, writes some of the songs, and does most of the singing, "but we think like one."

Just as the Band has rubbed elbows in the same road dust, it has drawn its water from the same well. Like Robertson and Manuel, two other members of the Band come from Canada. Rick Danko, who plays bass guitar, was born the son of a woodcutter in the Canadian tobacco belt village of Simcoe, where he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a wind-up Victrola and a battery radio. "We didn't have any electricity," he explains, "until I was 10."

Garth Hudson, who plays organ, had started out planning to attend agricultural college until a photograph of his uncle playing trombone in a dance band led him into the study of music theory and harmony. "By the time I was 13," he says, "I was the only one in London, Ontario, who knew how to play rock 'n' roll."

The only American in the Band is drummer Levon Helm, the son of a sharecropper from the South Arkansas Delta country. Actually, Helm was the first member of the Band to join it.

"I was right in my last year in high school when I got drunk one night at the Delta Supper Club in Helena," he says. "Ronnie Hawkins was playing there. I went up and asked him to let me sit in with the drums and I had a job in three weeks."

From Toronto, Ronnie Hawkins had been barnstorming through Canada and the States, leaving a trail of local hit records behind him. Those were the days when rock 'n' roll was still called rhythm-and-blues. Out of the void between the two musics came that spontaneous combustion of country soul and city flash known as "rock-a-billy". Paced by the camel walk, inspired by the Southern Rabbit minstrel shows, and with an excitement that now leaves musicians at a loss to describe him, (other than calling him a "sort of white James Brown"), Ronnie Hawkins became a pioneer, a legend, and a king of rock-a-billy. At his peak, he had three hit records that sold over a million copies each. One by one, the members of the Band gravitated to him, and, one by one, he hired them, until it was Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.

"We played on bills with Conway Twitty, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, and Little Richard," says Robertson. "At one point, when I was about 18 and we had been into it long enough and knew enough, we were playing hard, fast, and tight – and we knew how wicked it was because there was no dancing around. We were out there for blood. At that point, everything in our lives changed right then."

One day three years later, the Band quit Ronnie Hawkins to go on their own. "Ronnie didn't hire everybody because they were cute kids," says Robertson. "He took pride in being able to spot people on their potential." At the end, Hawkins had been paying the Band $150 a week each. On their own, they had to take turns stealing from supermarkets to have enough to eat.

"We played four prima-donna months," remembers Helm.

Then, in the summer of 1965, the Band took a job playing at a nightclub in the seashore resort of Somers Point, New Jersey, "We'd barely heard of Bob Dylan, but somehow he had heard of us," says Helm. "We were lolling in the sand when he phoned us and said, 'You wanna play the Hollywood Bowl?' So we asked him who else was going to be on the show. 'Just us,' he said."

With Dylan, from Molasses, Texas, to Timmins, Canada, came such road-dust stops as Stockholm, Cardiff, Copenhagen, Paris, Glasgow, Sydney, Dublin, and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Eventually, some members of the Band also played with Dylan on his Blonde on Blonde album. It was with Dylan that the Band found maturity.

"It turned out to be not just songs," says Robertson. "It turned out to be a whole dynamic experience. He was sailing. We were sailing. We did it until we couldn't do it any longer. We went all over the place until, finally, it was about to burst. We were so exhausted that everybody said this was a time of rest. When we went up to Woodstock, we stopped listening to music for a year. We didn't listen to anything but what you didn't have to listen to, like opera. That's why we couldn't play things like the Monterey Pop testival. We weren't – and we aren't – looking for blood any longer. We're just looking for music."

It was after Dylan's motorcycle accident that the Band moved up to Woodstock to play music and write songs with him. Their music was for no one but themselves. A friend found Big Pink for them, in the West Saugerties hills near Woodstock. In the cellar of Big Pink, they set up their equipment and a home recording studio. They became a band of hermit musicians.

"In Woodstock, we would meet in a little diner in the country and would be greeted like a mechanic from down the road," says Robertson. "You feel like you're in the mountains, because you are in the mountains, and you get the feeling that you can look down on New York City. The music that we play now is mountain music because the place where we are now is the mountains."

If the Band has drawn its water from the same well, the water sparkles, with clear, cool country soul. The Band sings in the rough-hewn harmonies of honest mountain air. The music from Big Pink has the taste of Red River cereal. It has the consistency of King Biscuit flour. It rings with the now-ancient echo of John R, broadcasting from Nashville over Radio Station WLAC, 1510 on the: dial, its signal faintly received but eagerly listened to by an audience that took root in Stratford, Ontario, and Elaine, Arkansas, all with the same passion. It is music which comes from a band that has nothing but music to offer. The Band doesn't even have a name.

"I suppose a lot of people are going to try to call us Bob Dylan's band, but even he doesn't call us that," says Robertson. "The only name that we do have is the name all our neighbours, friends, and people who know us call us. They just call us the Band. When we decided to put a record out, the company asked us what we were going to call ourselves, and we told them that our names are our Christian names, the names that our parents thought were groovy for us. We told them that our friends refer to us as the Band, but we don't refer to ourselves." As a result, the LP is simply called Music from Big Pink.

If Music from Big Pink sounds familiar, the reason is that you might have heard some of it before from Uncle Remus. If it sounds traditional, the reason is that it has nothing to do with fads. If it sounds gritty, the reason is that it's full of road dust. If it sounds real, the reason is that it is.

The Band's connection with Bob Dylan in no way obscures its importance as an individual entity. While the Dylan influence has undoubtedly contributed to the group's growth, the Band is so far from imitative that comparisons are a waste. Nor is the Band concerned with how their music will be labelled. When asked how seriously they take their music, Robbie, speaking for the group, says (and means it): "Just seriously enough to satisfy us, enough so that we can smile at one another when we're through playing."

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