Levon Helm's Last Waltz

Except, possibly, to his onetime musical cohort Robbie Robertson—who may be glumly realizing that people will be unlikely to get this choked up when he passes—the outpouring of online love for ex-Band drummer Levon Helm, who died last Thursday after a 14-year battle with cancer, was no surprise. Even so, I'd have bet anything my own mourning would stay on the remote side. Live and learn. 

Calling myself only a very occasional fan of the Band would be an understatement. True, they were one of the first acts I saw live back in the Pleistocene era—with Aerosmith opening for them, in hindsight the night's most piquant joke. But they were never renowned for fireworks in concert, and their show was pretty dull.

I still think the one and only Greil Marcus should have pumped up Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Grateful Dead instead of the Band in Mystery Train. Among that landmark book's four major topics—Elvis, Sly Stone, and Randy Newman were Marcus's other "inheritors"—there can't be much doubt which pick turned out to be the least durable. At best, we're talking two emblematic but never quite seismic albums featuring a handful of classic tunes, followed by a lot of misfires and guff that climaxed in the most overweening goodbye-to-all-that (The Last Waltz, which Helm reportedly hated) in rock history. 

If not for their fortuitous linkup with Bob Dylan—an association Helm staunchly sat out for the most part—I'm not sure the Band's impact or influence would deserve more attention than, say, the Lovin' Spoonful's, let alone the Byrds'. And so far as impact and influence worth praising goes, I'll take the Stooges any day. Nonetheless, within minutes of learning last week that Helm probably wasn't long for this world, I reacted in the usual contemporary way of instinctively heartfelt tribute. That is, I googled "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and posted the YouTube link I'd decided I liked best, visually augmented by somebody's not too badly chosen vintage imagery of the Civil War. And as always, Helm's incautiously distance-free lead vocal—politically incorrect, since nowadays, mourning the Confederacy's demise without irony is no quick ticket to enlightened kudos—had its way with me. 

Not only the Toronto-born Robertson's Americana whisperer, Helm the Arkansas cotton farmer's son personified an often history-disdaining counterculture's links to hardscrabble roots that both predated and outlasted World War II, adding that most pined-for and usually most illusory of rock values—authenticity—to what remained, in essence, Robertson's highly sophisticated and self-conscious frontier mummery. (There may be excellent reasons to prefer his outfit musically, but their 19th-century gravitas wasn't any less of a deliberate construct than Alice Cooper's theatrics.) Because I was as cowed by the Band's prestige rep as most collegiate rock fans when I started listening, it took me a long time to work out that the only songs of theirs I had any emotional investment in—or just honest-to-gosh enjoyed, which may have been the gateway—were the ones Helm sang lead on. 

Beyond the deep affection summoned up by his passing, which was more vivid in my case for having been mostly unsuspected, the '60s-generation milestone that's stayed largely subterranean here is that Helm can't be described as having died young. By today's standards, 71 may not qualify as anyone's idea of dotage, but it's still past the biblical three-score-and-ten—an old-fashioned benchmark that seems suited to him. Boomers are used to losing their musical heroes prematurely; even Jerry Garcia and George Harrison were only in their fifties. A death like Helm's, on the other hand, brings our own mortality into view—winter's coming, and that's all there is to it. Call me sentimental for wishing that the very last to go is a triumphantly 98-year-old Charlie Watts. 


I began my Friday history class on the New South at Vanderbilt by playing the "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" clip from *The Last Waltz*--not my favorite performance, but it well captured Levon Helm's passion. As it happened, my students had just done a unit on southern Confederate memory [white and black], including a look at efforts by the likes of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to control it. I told my students that there was more real historical experience in that song than in all the mealy-mouthed UDC catechisms ever drafted. Hardly any of them had ever heard of Levon Helm [Hardly any of them are from Nashville, actually; his Rambles at the Ryman were among the most important musical events of the last few years], but I think they got it.

"politically incorrect, since nowadays, mourning the Confederacy's demise without irony is no quick ticket to enlightened kudos" - except the song doesn't mourn the Confederacy's demise, but the narrator's brother's demise, in a war where farmers and the working class died for the privilege of the elite. Not the same as glorifying a slave-holding culture at all.

Dear LdeG, we agree about "a war where farmers and the working class died for the privilege of the elite." But claiming that the song doesn't mourn the Confederacy's demise seems like a bit much to me. The "night" in the title is the night the speaker learned that "Richmond had fell," after all -- not when his brother died. I don't think of the song as a glorification, just testimony.

Decent piece of writing, but c'mon man, are you KIDDING?? Least durable??!!! The first two Band albums remain absolutely monolithic to me and to most of the people I know who were around then.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)