Thursday, April 19, 2012

Farewell, Levon Helm

In the autumn of 2009, I went to the Apollo Theater for a taping of Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle”. The guest line-up was probably the best ever to appear on his short-lived chat show. I’d seen Elvis live several times before, but had yet to see Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, or Allen Toussaint. I was excited to see each of these artists, but not nearly as keyed up as I was to see one of my very favorite singers, Levon Helm. Unfortunately, Helm was having throat troubles that night and could barely speak, let alone sing. Yet, he was still in great humor, and sat behind his drum kit to do his talking through his slack-tuned skins, as he so often did on those amazing old Band records. Elvis would ask him a question, and Levon would change up his beat to indicate a “yes” or “no” response. It was a cute joke, but also a beautiful metaphor for the guy. The Band was a group of five great artists and uncommonly distinct individuals, but Levon’s voice always rose above everyone else’s whether he was singing or speaking through his unmistakably loose, funky drumming.

Very sadly, that voice fell silent today. Levon Helm died of throat cancer at the age of 71. Of course, as long as we still have his records, that voice will never really be silent.

Here are some of my favorite examples of the humor, heartbreak, and humanity of Levon Helm’s voice and equally expressive drumming:

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