Take a load off, Levon
by Matt Worley
This conversation probably took place a lot on Thursday:
"Levon Helm died today."
I probably first heard The Band when I watched Easy Rider for the first time. "The Weight" was one of those songs I recognized even though I had no idea who sang it, or what the name of it was. And I was pretty sure for the longest time that the lyrics went "Take a load off, Annie." Not a huge difference from the actual ("Fannie"), definitely not as far off as I was on the bridge in "Hey Nineteen" by Steely Dan.
As a drummer, I never really thought the drumming in The Band was exceptional. It didn't stand out. But, until I saw The Last Waltz, I didn't know the drummer sang so many of those songs.
Helm wasn't the first guy in The Band to check out. There aren't so many of them left now. And maybe that's why Robbie Robertson buried the hatchet on a long running rock and roll feud a week or so before Levon left. Last chances and all.
Axl Rose wasn't the first lead singer to skip the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (although he might be the quickest to apologize...so you didn't want to go, but instantly had to say something after it happened...and it's all about Cleveland?), Levon Helm didn't go either. He was mad at Robertson for a few things (leaving the band after The Last Waltz instead of just taking a vacation, and taking all the songwriting revenue among other things). You're in a successful band for a long time, resentments creep up. Ten years on the road sometimes kills even the best of relationships.
The first record I bought when I began building my vinyl collection a few years ago was Anthology, Vol. 1 by The Band. I didn't have a turntable at the time. I meant to buy it for my brother (who had a turntable), but when I got it in the mail, I decided I'd keep it for myself. Because I'm selfish. I didn't have any music by The Band at the time. Now I have a bunch (none of it is on CD).
I don't have much in common with Levon Helm, drummer wise. He played with a traditional grip. He played mostly slow and steady. And he sang a lot more. But he was solid, which is what you want from your drummer. If you have to worry about the drummer staying on the beat, the band is doomed. Any drummer that sings, though, owes him a big debt. He's an example. You can win over other musicians with just a bit of rock history. Levon, the Romantics...Night Ranger.
I came to the Band late. And I think part of it is that it's really hard to search for The Band on anything. You have to know a song name or the name of somebody in the band. The Band. Try it. See what you get. Probably pretty much every band other than The Band. So I never downloaded their songs through Napster. I probably came to listen to them because of Bob Dylan. And it was definitely this century.
I've listened to a bunch of The Band (and drunkenly watched The Last Waltz last night) over the last couple of days. I remember what he looked like when he was much younger (from the movie, really). Seeing all the pictures of him from the last few years is kind of shocking. So I'm going to remember him young. Playing and singing. Especially about the night they drove old Dixie down.
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