Levon Helm Dead At Age 71
Levon Helm Dead At Age 71, Much of the Band’s innovative sound was born in the “Big Pink.”
It was a house in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y., rented for $125 a week and nicknamed for its distinctive pink paint job. The group would gather for hours at a time to create songs. Musicians would walk by a typewriter on the kitchen table, dash off a verse or two to a song, and wander off. A microphone once was placed on top of the hot-water heater in the basement. Although they lived in other houses nearby, the Big Pink became the place for them to live communally and make music.
In an age of war, riots and assassinations, the Band lived out a dream of simpler times. They dressed plainly, played tightly and did not upstage each other. The tall, lanky Robbie Robertson was an expert blues-rock guitarist and the group’s best lyricist, his songs inspired in part by Bob Dylan and by his travels through the American South. The baby-faced Rick Danko was a fluid bassist and accomplished singer. The bearish Garth Hudson was an ingenious keyboardist of uncommon wit and emotion, while the sad-eyed Richard Manuel’s haunting falsetto on “Whispering Pines,” ”Tears of Rage” and others led drummer Levon Helm to call him the group’s lead singer.
But for many Band admirers, honors belonged to Helm, whose life spanned and helped tell the history of rock ‘n’ roll, whose voice called back to the earliest days of American song.
The short, scrappy Helm, who died Thursday at age 71, had a bold tenor once likened to a town crier calling a meeting to order. He not only sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but inhabited it, becoming the Confederate Virgil Caine, “hungry, just barely alive”; his brother killed by the Yankees; the South itself in ruins. It was the kind of heartbreaking, complicated story and performance that had even Northerners rooting for the proud and desperate Virgil. Helm was also the musical leader on stage, and played drums loose-limbed and funky, shoulders hunched, head to the side when he sang.
In some ways, the Band was the closest this country ever came to the camaraderie and achievement of the Beatles. They were a quintessential American group, but only Helm came from the United States. The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Mark Lavon (he later changed it “Levon”), Helm was born in Elaine, Ark., in 1940. He grew up around music and witnessed rock’s early days, seeing Elvis Presley perform before he was famous. The Helm family enjoyed listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Helm saw his first live show at age 6 – bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. He would later say the experience “tattooed” his brain. (AP)