Obvious, I know. Levon Helm dies, and every blogger has to pipe up. But this death did get to me, a real sock to the gut, more than I ever would have expected.
It's not because I was a longtime fan of The Band or anything. Count me in the legion of music fans who only discovered The Band when The Last Waltz came out in 1978. (Hey, at least I'll admit it.) I explained it all when I wrote last year about "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
In that film, watching Levon, with his gingery beard, open grin, and twangy drawl, I immediately sensed he was the authentic heart of The Band. The guy from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, was real country, as opposed to those Canadian wannabes. If the Band invented Americana -- and we might as well give them credit for that -- Levon was their pipeline to the real stuff. Okay, okay, so that's a gross simplification. The music we now label Ameericana has always been a fabrication of sorts, a self-conscious blending of folk rock and bluegrass and Delta blues, There's no reason why a talented bunch of Canadians couldn't do it as well as anybody. If Nick Lowe can pass himself off as a country crooner, anything is possible.
But accidents of geography aside, Levon's joyous passion for music seemed to me to be the energy feeding The Last Waltz's performances. I saw that same passion still alive a year and a half ago, when Levon joined Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, and Allen Toussaint at a taping of Elvis Costello's Spectacle. Even though Levon couldn't sing -- he claimed it had nothing to do with his bouts of throat cancer; now I wonder -- just watching him bash those drums was a joy. There was no disguising the evident affection those other musicians felt for Levon, either. I went to that taping to watch Nick and Elvis, but in the end it was Levon's night all around.
So here, in tribute to one of the music greats, is another Band classic:
In many ways this is the quintessential Band song: the traded harmonies, the rustic setting, the Biblical overtones, the old-timey storytelling. From the very first line -- "Rolled into Nazareth, I was feeling 'bout half-past dead" -- we seem to be dwelling on the border between gospel and folk song. Never mind that it's most likely Nazareth, PA, he's rolling into, home of the Martin Guitar factory -- you can't tell me that Robbie Robertson didn't assume listeners would think he was writing about Jesus.
The ambiguous clues keep on coming. The traveller can't find a place to sleep, just like Mary and Joseph stranded in Bethlehem. He runs into the Devil, walking down the street. There's a Luke (like the Gospel writer) waiting for the Judgment Day. There's a Miss Moses, who he tells to "go down" (like in the spirtual "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land, / Tell old pharoah, / Let my people go"). Come on, Robbie!
And what is this "weight" that the singer/s is going to take off of Anny and "put right on me"? Is it really just a simple obligation, to say hello to an old friend? Or is it Christ taking on the sins of the world?
Of course, Robbie Robertson wasn't writing a Christian parable. All of the people the traveler encounters -- a song structure that he totally ripped off of their mentor Bob Dylan -- are supposedly real people they knew, all the way down to Crazy Chester and his dog Jack. (Do we not love Rick Danko's strangulated singing on the Crazy Chester verse?) But if Robbie could rip off Dylan, why not borrow a little flavor from the Bible, too? All smoke and mirrors, my friends.
And yet, the lyrics of the song aren't why it's great. It's those stately, momentous piano chord progressions, the glorious wailing harmonies on the chorus, and, yes, that loping whack of the drums, courtesy of Mr. Levon Helm. It's definitely more than the sum of its parts. How perfect to have the Staples Singers join in on this number in The Last Waltz, testifying their hearts out.
I'm sorry now that I wasn't more clued in in 1968 when Music From Big Pink came out. This music may have sounded old-fashioned, but at the time it was in fact something original indeed. In a world full of Beatle-esque pop and psychedelia, someone was finally coming out with a new sound. (Not that it didn't have its own psychedelic buzz...).
And at the heart of it all was Levon Helm, one of the music greats. Lay your head down in peace, brother.