I’m sure my parents played records by The Band when I was growing up. They must have. There was John Denver and America and Joni Mitchell and The Beatles and Neil Young and Elton John. There was Cat Stevens and Roberta Flack and Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. I must have heard The Band too. What’s funny is that even though The Band’s music harkens back to something deep within me, which is why I’m sure it was around in those days, I don’t have strong recollections of hearing their music until I was in my twenties. A lot of other music I can firmly root, and concretely so, in my youth. But not The Band. High school was lost to rap and heavy metal and alternative and Dave Matthews. College was dominated by jazz and Toad the Wet Sprocket. In my twenties, my best friend and bandmate at the time, Nicholas, liked The Band and it was in his company that I first started really listening to The Band and when I first saw Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which for many reasons has become a classic and is widely considered the greatest concert ever filmed.
The Last Waltz is a concert film masquerading as a love letter to The Band and to its intrepid chief songwriter and spokesperson (or so Scorsese would have us believe), the ruggedly handsome and windswept Robbie Robertson, with whom Scorsese was friends, but its most striking moments actually come not when Robertson is on camera but whenever drummer and singer Levon Helm is behind his drums singing timeless classics out of the side of his mouth like his very life depends on the next note, every glob of flying spit alive and bug like under the crew’s bright lights. Helm died April 19th after a long battle with cancer at the age of 71. Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson are the sole remaining members of the original line up. So long, Old Friend.
When I first saw The Last Waltz, I had only a passing knowledge of who the guys in The Band were. I’d go on to nurture a deep love of their music and learn all about them that I could, but at the time, I didn’t know much, other than that they sounded like they were from the American South circa Appomatox, but were actually (of all things) 4/5 Canadian and came up in the 1960’s and were, for a time, Dylan’s back up band, then known as The Hawks. So I’d heard them a little bit, but with The Last Waltz, at last, I got to see them. “Don’t Do It” was actually the very last song played that Thanksgiving night in San Francisco in 1976, but it actually opens the film and I remember thinking, as I watched the music kick in and the camera swing over to Helm, He’s the fucking drummer? Are you kidding me? The Drummer! Somehow this fact had eluded me. There didn’t seem to be any possibility in my mind that that voice was coming from a guy who was also keeping time and ripping fills. Up on Cripple Creek. The Weight. Ophelia. Rag Mama Rag. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Get Up Jake. All sung by a guy playing drums.
There’s a reason singing drummers are a rarity. It’s hard enough to play drums when you don’t have to do anything else. Trying to sing with feeling while playing drums sounds to me like trying play drums while someone is throwing bottles at your head. But even still, some end up doing it. Don Henley and Phil Collins are probably the most famous examples, but for my money Levon was the best of them. I don’t say the “best” because I want to make this into a contest. What I mean to do is just make a distinction of why I think he’s the best.
Here’s Don Henley singing lead and playing drums on “Hotel California.”
Now, here’s Phil Collins doing “In the Air Tonight.” Skip to around 3:30 where he starts drumming. It should be stated, though, that Phil Collins is actually a bad ass drummer most of the time and that this song doesn’t showcase his overall drum skills very well. I’m trying to focus on singing while drumming, though.
Here’s Rare Earth with Pete Rivera on drums doing “I Just Want to Celebrate.” For me, Rivera’s a guy who actually gives Helm a run for his money.
Now, here’s Levon Helm singing lead and playing drums on “Up on Cripple Creek”
Again, I’m not trying to malign these other musicians because they’re all great, just to draw some attention to Levon, who I think is a cut above other singing drummers. It’s mostly a distinction made by two things: his intensely emotional singing and his jazzy right hand. Helm plays the ride cymbal like a jazz player, using it to syncopate both what he’s doing with his snare hand and what he’s singing. There’s a liquid connectedness in his overall performance that’s simply unteachable and the product of the panoply of influences that informed Helm’s style.
I’ve spent some time thinking about what made Helm so special and I haven’t come up with much that you haven’t come up with. It was alchemy more than anything. The sweet combination of passion and natural ability. The comfort with so many different kinds of music. Shit, on The Last Waltz alone the guy plays drums for Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and more. And that was during one concert. There’s a lot of intangibles that make Helm special, too. He looked the part, for one. The guy just looked right singing that music. Tell me I’m wrong. Pete Rivera…eh…not so much. Helm was damn handsome as well, and seemed to be pretty well in touch with that fact. Watch how he mugs just a bit for Scorsese’s cameras, an extra sly smile or two, a little more mustard behind each fill. He also had an uncanny ability to play off his bandmates, something you don’t see much of from Henley or Collins who seem pretty much lost in themselves and keeping time. In this, Helm sets himself apart, becomes a drummer’s drummer.
There’s many a writer and music fan missing Helm these past few days, missing his windswept dirty hair, his hunched posture behind the kit, his awkward interview smile, his (mostly) humble ways, his bravery as he battled the cancer that would strip his voice down to a fierce whisper, the incredible Americana of his life’s story.
There’s a lot to miss.