I’ve been thinking a lot about Levon Helm and The Band over the past week. A few final thoughts.
I’ve been really impressed with the outpouring of grief for the passing of Levon Helm. While his passage may not have had the pop culture impact of Whitney Houston, for “music people,” broadly defined, Helm’s passing was a very big deal. I’m certainly too young to have been aware when Richard Manuel died, but I was already a big fan of The Band when Rick Danko passed. I remember that being a noteworthy event, but hardly a matter of massive remembrances and sorrow. Maybe that’s because internet culture was not fully developed in 1999 and maybe because Danko did himself in through his drug use.
What’s interesting to me is to think about why Helm’s death has had such a greater impact than Manuel or Danko’s. While all three shared the vocals for The Band, Helm sang of most of their most remembered songs and there’s no doubt that people’s knowledge of “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” makes a difference. At the same time, none of The Band’s members exactly had a stellar post-breakup career. Manuel was a total mess. Danko put out at least one album in the 80s that people I respect talk fairly positively about, but I’ve never heard it and it’s hardly an important album (taking a look at Danko’s Wikipedia page, it seems that someone has been releasing live recordings of Danko solo shows from the 80s. Why? Am I missing something here?). It’s not like Levon did all that much more. His acting, since he had real skill at it, did keep him in the spotlight. But he didn’t release any solo albums of note. His “Midnight Rambles” definitely made people brought him back into the public eye on a small level, but it’s not as if that many people ever saw them (I looked into going to one last year and it was like $80 and I had trouble justifying that expense). Of course, Garth Hudson became the session keyboard whiz he always was after 1977. Robbie Robertson was supposed to be the one with the big solo career, but that fizzled fast.
So in creating a public historical memory of The Band, which members grab the attention. Somewhat to my surprise if you had asked me this 10 years ago, it’s clearly Levon.
I know that some people talk positively of The Band as a live outfit, but I’ve always found their live recordings pretty disappointing. I picked up the Live from Watkins Glen album several years ago and, while it’s OK, I hardly ever listen to it. I’ve felt this way watching footage on You Tube as well. They are tremendously skilled and do a functional job with their material, but there’s a huge difference between The Band playing their own shows and backing up Dylan. With Dylan, they feel so incredibly loose and awesome in a way that they never did by themselves. See these two clips:
Feel free to disagree with me, but to me, they sure sound better backing up Dylan on a Woody Guthrie cover than doing their own songs.
I’ve wondered if sudden fame for a career backing band didn’t freak them out a little bit and make them tight. None of those guys had the charisma of Dylan, even if Robertson tried. Despite their 2 transcendent albums and couple of pretty good albums, I still think The Band would have been better as primarily a backing band that occasionally did their own material, something like the members of The Meters and Booker T & the MGs. Today, I think of Calexico this way. Calexico does great work as a backing band, such as on Tom Russell’s Blood and Candle Smoke or that EP they did with Iron & Wine 6 or 7 years ago, but their solo work has always left me profoundly indifferent.
I’ve also been thinking about Helm’s noted bitterness over The Last Waltz and toward Robbie Robertson for hogging all the songwriting rights and thus the money. Of course, Scorsese and Robertson were good friends by the mid 70s, snorting coke together and such (I believe they lived together for awhile around 1980) so it’s hardly surprising that the film would focus on Robertson. And let’s face it, after 1970, he basically wrote all the songs. Now, one might argue that with a band like this, did the lyrics really encapsulate the songwriting? But the other guys did totally drop the ball on even trying to write lyrics for the most part. Even after Robertson broke up the band, the later Band albums were almost all covers. We might think of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” as Levon’s songs, but those were Robbie’s words and that does matter.
Still, Robertson’s slickness has always rubbed me the wrong way. His own solo albums are not good. Moreover, I have no problem that he’s embraced his Native American heritage late in life, even if it hasn’t helped his music. But I do have a major issue with him rewriting the history of The Band to include some sort of Native American influences. I saw an interview with him 7 or 8 years ago where he claimed that the indigenous music he grew up with as a small child was as big an influence on his music with The Band as rock, country, blues, gospel, and everything else that went into it. There’s zero evidence of this whatsoever. It’s not like the 1970s didn’t see hippies embracing Native American culture; had Robertson really felt this way, he could have talked about it sometime before the 1990s. This is a small thing, but annoying and somehow indicative of the slight prevarication I’ve always felt from him when reading or listening to interviews.
So I wonder whether Robertson will be remembered as fondly upon his passing as Helm. He seems less relevant today, maybe because he never sang much and maybe because his solo career is almost totally unremarkable and unremembered. I might be wrong about this of course.
Finally, given the age of the 60s generation rockers and the lack of concern with which most treated their bodies, I suspect we’ll be having several conversations like this in the next few years.