Lindsey Kuglin, Here, There and Everywhere
Rock and roll lost one of its legends last week. An honourary Canadian, as far as I’m concerned, the only American in a posse of Canucks, The Band’s Levon Helm passed away last Thursday at 71 from cancer.
I was introduced to Levon’s voice in my teenage years, when his music was already 30 years old. I didn’t then have the appreciation for music that I do now. So my ear wasn’t inclined to The Band until my early 20s.
In college, I lived in a closet of an apartment. There were three guys that lived in the apartment above us. They were absolutely obsessed with The Last Waltz – The Band’s goodbye concert in 1976 in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorsese.
They would turn it up to 11 at any hour of the day or night. And I didn’t mind one bit.
Levon’s voice is unmistakable. Twangy, gravelly, powerful, and so passionate. It’s one thing to hear him sing, but it’s a completely different thing to watch him. You can actually see how much he loves and feels what he’s singing.
One of my favourites is ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The narrative is of a Civil War rebel Virgil Cain, who’s telling the story of the suffering in the south – something you can tell the Arkansas native felt deeply. When you see him sing this song in The Last Waltz, it’s like a kick in the gut with the emotion he pours out. (It’s kind of weird, because it’s a slow song, but I like listening to it on the elliptical. It gets me pumped.)
I can’t write a tribute to Levon without mentioning his unique and enviable talent of simultaneously singing and drumming. It perplexes me how someone’s brain can produce rhythm and melody at the same time. It’s like watching a bumblebee fly, with its giant body and its tiny wings – it defies the rules of the universe, yet he did it very capably. He could take the lead vocals, or sing harmonies, all while providing a throbbing backbeat.
Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. He survived, but he lost his voice. Doctors said he’d never talk again. But by 2004, not only was he talking, but he was singing.
After that, he started The Midnight Ramble. If you could get a ticket, you’d be sitting in a small circle around a campfire with Levon and a few famous musicians at his Woodstock, NY home.
He also graced fans with another three Grammy Award winning albums.
Levon’s family said Tuesday that he was in the final stages of cancer. By Thursday, he’d passed, surrounded by loved ones.
But that’s not the lasting image I want. I’m going to remember him on stage, behind a drum kit, surrounded by bandmates Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson, sweating as he’s belting out the tunes he loved from his heart.