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2 Waiheke Weekender
The passing of Levon Helm
The five band members
looked like a cross
between a bunch of
daredevils and a family
of Pennsylvania Amish
farmers about to put
up a barn.
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Hawke's eye view
Levon Helm died
a while back. His
passing was duly
noted by social
media but not given
the attention I
thought it deserved.
It wouldn't have
though, he was a
bit of an enigma; he
really didn't like any
attention and was
always happy to be in the background which was
his designated position anyway.
Weirdly I was reading Barry Hoskyn's biog-
raphy Across The Great Divide when Levon
Helm died. I'd bought the book ages ago in
Christchurch at the excellent Scorpio Books,
which used to be in the CBD but like every-
thing in Central Christchurch, has moved to the
The book had been sitting around for a couple
of years and for some reason I decided I ought
to read it.
Helm was the drummer and, more often than
not, lead singer in that gloriously complicated,
ultimately self-destructing group, 'The Band'.
They, for a number of years, backed rock's
weirdest and undeniable genius -- Bob Dylan.
The band known simply as 'The Band' at the
height of their creative powers were untouch-
able. They had a distinctive complicated sound
that was hard to emulate, somewhere between
what became known as Southern American, with
touches of bayou, swamp grass, gospel, carou-
sel, classical, blues and a style of country infused
rockabilly that was driven by rhythms and the
syncopated genius of Levon Helm.
Their frst album in 1968 Music From Big
Pink included the stirring Chest Fever, haunt-
ing Long Black Veil, achingly beautiful Tears of
Rage, a driving This Wheel's On Fire and what
was to become their most recognised signature
tune The Weight.
A gospel infused song with one of rock's
most beguiling opening lines... "I pulled into
Nazareth I was feeling about half past dead, just
need to fnd a place where I can lay my head…”
The soaring refrain, "Take a load off Anny,
take a load for free. Take a load off Anny, and
you put the load right on me,” was chillingly
delivered at last year's superb Mavis Staples
concert at The Civic.
Hoskyn's book Across the Great Divide -- The
Band and America could have easily lapsed into
a syncophantic rave about a group he adored, but
despite his obvious declared obsession, he takes
no prisoners, and was a sometimes harsh and
Genius often comes at a price. Richard
Manuel in March 1986 hung himself from a
Florida motel shower-curtain rod with his own
plain black trouser belt. Rick
Danko in December 1999 died
in his sleep the day after his
56th birthday, his body fnally
giving in to the all too common
ravages of the rock n' roll road.
His epitaph may well have
been 'die young, stay pretty'.
It was the 1969 album
(their second as The Band)
that catapulted them to inter-
national fame and recognition
as a result of appearing on the
cover of Time magazine in
January 1970. As the cover
story enquired "what do we make of this...how
do we defne it…can this be rock?”
The fve band members looked like a cross
between a bunch of grizzly full-bearded Ozark
mountain daredevils and a family of Pennsylvania
Amish farmers about to put up a barn.
Channelling direct descendants of Abraham
Lincoln, they displayed a detached nonchalance
that did not sit easily with the usual 'look at me,
look at me, hear me roar' posing and preening of
most 1970s rock stars. Every song on ‘The Band’
album was sublime. Personal favourites included
Up On Cripple Creek, Rag Mama Rag, Jemima
Surrender and Look Out Cleveland and the song
that was the darling of radio music program-
mers worldwide and possibly the only song they
vaguely understood -- The Night They Drove Old
The Band were master storytellers and they
tended to write outside the existing structures
and 'doowah' simple melodies and catchy repet-
itive choruses of the time. They weren't really
commercial radio fodder -- their material was too
clever and sophisticated and didn’t ft the narrow
'pop' style of radio formats -- nor did they care...
but they quickly established a cult following and
were to be a blessed escape from a lot of the dire
disco 1970s mania.
Alas their dysfunctionality saw them lurch
from crisis to crisis, mostly related to the usual
twin evils of alcohol and drug abuse. They
would often all retreat back to the relative calm
of Woodstock north of New York and embrace a
kind of communal existence with mixed results.
On the one hand they couldn't do without each
other and at the same time personal jealousies and
stupid arguments over song
writing and vocal arrangments
tore them apart. A handful of
albums followed with isolated
shafts of genius surfacing but
nothing to make you want to
hold the front page.
By 1976 it was obvious
it was over. Deciding to go
out with a bang rather than
a whimper, The Band staged
the still famous and worth
owning... The Last Waltz,
which was a concert flmed
by none other than Martin
Scorcese and available on DVD. On stage they
were joined by old friends -- Dylan (of course),
Ronnie Hawkins (who they used to back in their
formative years), Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell,
Emmy Lou Harris, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr.
John, Paul Butterfeld, Muddy Waters and Neil
Diamond. How the hell Neil Diamond made the
cut remains a mystery to this day.
There were over the years a series of half-
hearted collaborative reunions, which never
quite included all the Band members and usually
went under the banner of 'all stars'. Solo projects
didn’t set the world on fre but Levon Helm’s last
album from 2009 called Electric Dirt is a fabu-
lous reminder of what a talent he was. In an ulti-
mate cruel irony he died of throat cancer.
The last song on Electric Dirt is called I Wish
I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.
Aged 71 on 19 April this year, Levon Helm
was granted his wish.
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