The thing I’ve heard most this week when talking about the imminent passing of Levon Helm is that the lifelong musician was still playing shows even a few short weeks before he was hospitalized in New York. As he battled his last against cancer, the Midnight Rambler was still rambling in Woodstock, N.Y., as a host, a part of the whole in addition to being a centerpiece.
You could say similar things about The Band, whose communal strength in the ’60s in ’70s was in its individuals, and the group’s ability to be its own centerpiece or to play well with others. Backing Bob Dylan or — in its earliest incarnation, Ronnie Hawkins — the Band stepped out with brilliant “Music from Pink House” and went on to define, reform and inform roots-based rock music of the era from within the band and through those they worked with outside of it. Despite the loss in gravitational pull that brought Helm and other Band members together with Robbie Robertson, the group’s legacy was firm by time they broke up in 1976.
That bust confirmed at least a couple of things: one, it put “The Last Waltz” firmly into the living curricula of any music lover and, two, it was a proven moment that Helm would continue to be a lasting, working musician, solo or in a group. Helm didn’t slow, and spent his life finding ways to work with (and even launch) other greats, creating a special space in a barn in upstate New York for creation and cohabitation with his art. He’s collected Grammys and played Woodstock, became the leading name to drop when you talk about singing drummers (and Helm on mandolin? My gosh!). But he wasn’t just a stand-out. He also purposefully blended in, whether with Johnny Cash or performing Roger Waters’ “The Wall,” bouncing back after interpersonal tragedies and other, potentially fatal health problems.
He was 71 when he died today, very close to 72. In videos I’ve watched all week, he has showed that age with the heavy weight (and no help) from cancer. Every era, though he showed an appreciation, that as a committed lifelong musician — even when he was sick, he knew — it’s still a hell of a way to make a living. And he loved that life.
Below are some videos and songs I’ve enjoyed pouring over in tribute this week. What are some of your favorites?