Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Influence of Helm, the Band still strong

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

By any reasonable standard, Levon Helm was one of the coolest rockers who ever lived.

The former drummer, singer and multi-instrumentalist for the Band died last week after a battle with cancer. He was 71 years old.

With his gnarled Arkansas accent, easy smile, gorgeously gritty voice and a drumming style so behind the beat it was like hearing a song propelled by afterthought, Helm was the kind of cool that you could, quite literally, build a band around.

Born May 26, 1940, in Marvell, Ark., Helm, the son of cotton farmers, grew up absorbing all American music had to offer in the 1940s and '50s: country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and R&B. His high school band was called the Jungle Bush Beaters (no, really) and he joined rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks after graduation. In Toronto, he and Hawkins famously assembled the version of the Hawks that would go solo in '63 and come to back up Bob Dylan on his legendary '66 tour and participate in the Basement Tape sessions before becoming the Band in 1967. (Helm famously left the tour early on because he was sick of the booing Dylan got, but he returned to the fold after a two-year hiatus from music.)

The lone actual Southerner in a group of Canadians, it was Helm who embodied the American authenticity the Band traded on. Robbie Robertson may have written (most of) the songs that Helm, the late Rick Danko and the late Richard Manuel sang, but it was Helm who looked like them, who sounded like them, who seemed like he could have lived them.

In spite of a striking performance in "The Last Waltz," Helm's time in the Band famously ended poorly and bitterly, as chronicled in withering detail in his often-brutal memoir, "This Wheel's On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band." (Those who know the Band only as a live entity in "the Last Waltz" are urged to track down the amazing live album "Rock of Ages.")

There's a wonderful moment in the weirdly forgotten 1987 TV special "Rolling Stone: Twenty Years of Rock and Roll" where Helm talks about his admiration for the Grateful Dead and that band's ability to "keep their own counsel." He is smiling, but given the history of the Band (and the suicide just a year earlier of Richard Manuel), it is a haunting moment.

Few songs about bands are as striking as Drive-By Truckers' "Danko/Manuel," a song written by then-DBT guitarist Jason Isbell about the Band's other two amazing voices. The song was based in part on Helm's memoir. (Yes, you will cry.)

After the Band, Helm regrouped, a little, making some solo albums and futzing around with a side career in movies, showing up, kind of brilliantly, as Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter," and a small part as a mechanic in "The Right Stuff," in which he was as cool as Sam Shepherd was playing, which is tough to do.

After struggling with cancer in the 1990s, Helm seemed to bounce back in the 21st century, building a scene around his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Instead of touring, musicians and fans came to him, at his "Midnight Rambles" that were famously attended by a who's who of American roots musicians. He toured in the 2000s, released the Grammy-winning album "Dirt Farmer" in 2007. In 2010, a wonderful documentary called "Ain't in it For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" premiered at South by Southwest and wasn't picked up for distribution. It continues to play festivals.

The influence of Helm and the Band sometimes feels as strong or stronger than it has ever been, especially in indie rock. Bands such as Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, Deer Tick, Phosphorescent and Megafaun owe the Band a ton in sound and vision. Heck, every beard on Red River in a pearl snap shirt or a thrift store suit is paying tribute to Helm and the Band whether they know it or not.

And nobody has ever or will ever look cooler singing while drumming.

You know how hard that is?

You know how hard it is to look cool singing while drumming like a laid-back R&B god whilst surrounded by Canadians who are imitating your vibe?

Levon Helm did.

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926