I remember it as one of the nicest surprises I'd ever had. First day of my second year of college, and one of my roommates, Winsor H Watson III, arrives and presents me with a copy of The Band's second album, titled, appropriately enough, The Band. I'd turned him on to Music From Big Pink the year before, when there weren't many of our freshman class playing 'Chest Fever', and he was returning the favour I guess. So I carried my primitive stereo up to the roof and we listened to it there, and now, more than 40 years later, I still can't decide which of those two records I like more.
The feel of the second one was nicer, more solid and serious. John Simon, who was already my producer of choice, got his props, and the group and their functions were laid out properly. But what I'd always loved about Big Pink was the photo on the album's inside of all the families and friends—just average people like our own families, a reminder that not every rock musician had to make his audience by rebelling against everything, that there was much to love and cherish and hold on to in the old while bringing in the new.
Levon Helm was at the core of that. The Band themselves were like a family, and at times you might like one of them more than others, but Levon was the one who seemed like the musical anchor, the one with the country voice, the dance-beat rhythm, and the love of throwing the football around the yard of that house in the Saugerties. If you were going to be in a rock band, you'd want to be in one with Levon.
You can argue about what happened after The Band broke up, who had the best career. Robbie went on to movies and some good solo albums. Richard, whose voice could make you cry, killed himself, tired of pretending on the road. Rick, the good time guy, died too—a couple of his last records are really good. Garth continued to be the enigmatic musical genius—showing up on odd records, and making one beauty of his own. They toured as The Band without Robbie and with the Cate Brothers; they toured without Robbie and Richard with some good Woodstock players but it was never the same.
Levon was always there. He did the faux Band tours, and I really like the Crowmatix disc I've had for years. But he was also with the RCO All-Stars, and with Ringo's All-Starr band—good time collections of great players who seemed to have a hell of a lot of fun doing the same great songs over and over again. And he too hit the movies, as an actor, and a damn good one—not just the roles you remember, but look for his wasted body in Shooter, or In The Electric Mist, where he plays General John Bell Hood, or his ghost, which is about the best casting I can think of. Bertrand Tavernier loved him, as a musician and as an actor. And then, after temporarily beating his throat cancer, he put together another band, went back to the roots, and won Emmys and new fans, and became an Icon—if you hang around long enough in America and keep smiling you're bound to get wide acceptance.
Go through You Tube and watch some of the Levon videos from the last few years and see if you don't smile as you see the big names lining up to play with him. There are so many versions of The Weight it will take you a sombre evening to get through them...but watch for Donald Fagen's verse on the organ, and Howard Johnson's on tuba in the concert with Wilco, followed by Levon croaking out the third verse. I know 'I Shall Be Released' is about prison, but I guess we can look at it as being about life too—not that it's a prison, but all of us have someone who's 'put me here', and all of us will be released. RIP Levon.