In thought: Goodbye, Levon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
One of the greatest drummers and singers in rock ‘n’ roll history died Thursday. The Band’s Levon Helm, whose twangy Arkansan voice and funky half-step drumming style played a part in the redefinition of popular music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, lost his lengthy battle with throat cancer. He was 71.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Levon in the spring and summer of 1998 while working as a reporter for City Business, a weekly publication in New Orleans. I was a big fan of The Band as well as a Southerner, and we connected right away. He and some East Coast investors were planning to open a club in the French Quarter on Decatur Street, Levon Helm’s Classic American Cafe.
The club opened in the fall but lasted only a few months. It didn’t help that while preparations were being made for its opening, Helm was diagnosed with cancer. Radiation treatments prevented him from singing at the club, but he soldiered on with his unique drumming style and a blues band he put together.
When I first met him, Levon gave me an interview I’ll never forget. We walked up four or five flights of stairs to the top of the building that housed the club. There were two lawn chairs set up next to an ice chest with some cold beer. It was a sunny, warm day, and the view overlooking the Mississippi River was perfect. We talked for about two hours. Most of the stuff he said didn’t make publication. There wasn’t enough space in the paper to do the story I wanted to do. The material wasn’t the best fit for a business journal.
He was a little bitter when he spoke about former Band-mate Robbie Robertson. Levon claimed that Robbie, in cahoots with record-company execs, stole the songwriting rights to most of The Band’s material. Most of The Band’s songs were a collaborative effort, with bits and pieces coming from all five members: Helm, Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Rick and Richard died in 1999 and 1983, respectively.
“What the hell did Robbie know about Southerners and how they felt at the end of the Civil War?” Levon told me in a discussion about one of their greatest compositions, “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down.” He also chuckled as he kept referring to Robbie as “Red Boy.” Robbie, a Canadian, had released an album called “Contact From the Underworld of Red Boy” and was claiming in interviews that he had Native American blood.
Aside from the jabs at Robbie, we talked about the South and his time in south Louisiana working on an oil rig. He also spoke of the tension-filled mid-1960s tour with Bob Dylan when Dylan was scrapping acoustic folk for an electric sound. Folk-purists everywhere were booing Dylan and The Band, Bobby D’s backing group at the time. Levon couldn’t take the boos and quit the tour to work on the rigs.
“Everywhere we played they would boo us,” Levon said. “You can’t take that kind of thing for too long.”
I asked him about the basis for “Katie’s Been Gone,” my favorite song from “The Basement Tapes” album, which was recorded in 1967 but released in 1975. Richard, who would commit suicide in the 1980s, sang it, not Levon. It’s a song about unrequited love – despite the woman’s feelings for the guy, she feels compelled to hit the road.
“Richard’s with Katie now,” he told me.
Levon was a sweet man who had a lot of soul and I will always look back on him kindly. I wish I still had those interview tapes. At least I still have some of his solo recordings and the stuff he did with The Band, as well as memories of the handful of times we hung out.
Levon is with Richard and Rick now.
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