Levon Helm 1940-2012

From Arkansas to Big Pink: The deep roots, hard times and quiet redemption of an American original

May 10, 2012
Levon Helm
Levon Helm
Gems/Redferns/Getty Images

He was the sole American-born voice in a fellowship that set out to discover – to imagine redeeming – what was left of America's promise, in a time when few knew whether discovery or redemption was any longer possible. Drummer and singer Levon Helm was perhaps the purest product of that fellowship, the Canadian-rooted rock & roll quintet the Band. The group came to fame after an eventful association with Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s; by the time the decade was out, the Band were making music that subverted the revolutionary intentions of rock & roll with an unanticipated revolution all their own.

When the Band played live, Helm located his drums at center stage, between guitarist Robbie Robertson and bassist Rick Danko, just a little behind, at the same level, not on a riser. The idea was for them all – along with pianist and singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson – to press on into risky territory with shared grace and nerve. That drum stool, Helm noted in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, "was the best seat in the house. From there you can see both the audience and the show." Helm aimed to keep faith with that dream of communion, right to the end of his days.

Born in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas – a rural village in the Mississippi Delta – on May 26th, 1940, Helm grew up in a family that worked long days in dry and dusty heat. His parents were cotton farmers who encouraged their children to sing and play instruments. When Levon, at age six, saw Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, he grew determined to make himself a musician. He began playing guitar when he was eight, and soon took to the drums. He heard country music and R&B on radio stations that beamed out of Nashville, and was fascinated by the blues harmonica of Sonny Boy Williamson II, whose King Biscuit Time was broadcast in Helena, Arkansas. Most of all, Helm remembered a bawdy act with a hardback beat known as the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels, who held raunchy Midnight Ramble events on Saturday nights. "Today, when folks ask me where rock & roll came from," Helm said, "I always think of our Southern medicine shows and that wild Midnight Ramble. Chuck Berry's duckwalk, Elvis Presley's rockabilly gyrations, Little Richard's dancing on the piano, Jerry Lee Lewis' antics and Ronnie Hawkins' camel walk could have come right off F.S. Walcott's stage."

By the time he was 17, Helm was playing in rock & roll bands at clubs in Helena. He came to the attention of fellow Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins, who sought Helm out at his parents' house. Helm was stunned by the rockabilly singer's huge pompadour. "I like that hairdo," Helm told Hawkins. "Why, thanks, son," Hawkins replied. "I call it the Big Dick look." Hawkins invited the young player to join him in Toronto to drum for his band, the Hawks. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," Helm later wrote. One night, a 14-year-old boy named Robbie Robertson caught Hawkins and his band live; he was riveted by Helm. "You couldn't believe this kid was the drummer, and yet he was terrific, terrific to look at and terrific to hear," Robertson later said.

By moving to Canada, Helm had abdicated any real chance for American rock & roll success, but he liked where he was. "The Hawk had been to college and could quote Shakespeare when he was in the mood," Helm later wrote. "He was also the most vulgar and outrageous rockabilly character I've ever met in my life. He'd say and do anything to shock you." On one occasion, Hawkins asked the teenage Helm, "You ever fuck a goat?" Helm admitted that he had not. "Well," Hawkins continued, "I have – good pussy too. Only problem is you have to stop and walk around to the front when you want to kiss them."

Others came and went in the Hawks, but Helm stayed. In the early 1960s, other Ontarians joined: Robertson – the son of a Jewish gangster who had met with a violent death – Danko, Manuel and Hudson. As time went along, Helm would listen steadily to drummers such as Earl Palmer and the great Louis Hayes. Helm later told drummer Max Weinberg that by listening to such players, he learned "you're supposed to dance the beat along." It was an apt description of Helm's unique style; he played in motile gestures, with graceful pulls of his arms and shoulders that could pivot in a moment, punctuating and commenting on what was transpiring while also pushing into the rhythm.

The early 1960s were exciting years for the young members of the Hawks, both musically – they were making sharp-edged rock & roll and R&B sounds, at the same time that artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were percolating – and in other ways. Hawkins talked about visits he and Helm made together during tours of the South, in West Helena, to a woman he called Odessa. "Levon was always the best fucker," Hawkins said. "I remember with Odessa that Levon would go first, and when I went in she would say, 'Mr. Ronnie, you can go ahead, but I think Mr. Levon has gone and taken it all.'"

Robertson was the first to begin to feel the limitations of Hawkins' show style – the mohair stage suits they wore, the kick steps to the beat they sometimes had to perform. "That shit started to embarrass me," he said. In 1963, Robertson asked Helm, "Do we really need Ronnie?" Later that year they struck out on their own. Since Helm had been in the group the longest, the band formed itself as Levon and the Hawks. They would stay on the bar circuit for months to come, in both Canada and the American South, and they shared some rare experiences – playing late into the night with Williamson, the blues singer and harmonica player, Helm's idol, in West Helena, shortly before the bluesman died in 1965. But they also sometimes resorted to stealing food from markets to feed themselves.

The band was considering returning to its Canadian home when a friend who was working with New York manager Albert Grossman called Helm and asked if the Hawks would be willing to support Bob Dylan, who had recently gone electric on his hit single "Like a Rolling Stone" and at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. Helm wasn't particularly surprised that Dylan had heard about them. "Truth was," he said, "the Hawks were the band to know back then. It was an 'underground' thing We were like a state secret among hip musical people because nobody else was as tight as we were." Before joining Dylan onstage at his August 28th, 1965, show at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, the singer told Helm, Robertson and his other accompanists, "Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets." Fights were breaking out between fans and detractors in the audience, Helm recalled: "People were being thrown out. People were cursing, but not at Bob. They were mad at us, the band. People were throwing fruit at us."

For Helm, life with Dylan became complicated and troubling: "I began to think it was a ridiculous way of making a living – flying to concerts in Bob's 13-seat Lodestar, jumping in and out of limousines, and then getting booed It was getting really strange." In late November, at the end of the tour's first U.S. phase, Helm felt he had taken as much of the frantic pace and abuses as he could abide, and gave notice. "I want to draw a line for myself," he told Robertson. "This stuff is too damn powerful for me."

In the seasons that followed – while Dylan and the rest of the Hawks made their notorious 1966 tour of England – Helm spent time working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "At nights we played cards and listened to the radio," remembered Helm. '"Rainy Day Women 12 and 35' was a big hit. It was real funny to hear it and wonder who was playing the drums and how everybody was getting along."

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