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Levon Helm, drummer-vocalist for The Band, died on April 19 at the age of 71. In the flurry of critical appreciations that immediately followed, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joel Selvin declared that no singing drummer was ever better. The singing-drummer club may well be a pretty small one, but Selvin was right.
For me, April's passing of Levon Helm felt like a last passing of younger days. As a teenager, my earliest migrations away from the silly music of my youth to the real stuff was The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert in San Francisco.
Shot at the now-gone Winterland Theater, The Last Waltz features an all-star performing cast of 1970s rock and roll musicians including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, EmmyLou Harris and others.
In high school, I spent many nights at my best friend’s house on Sanchez Street in San Francisco, watching The Last Waltz with him and his dad on their big-screen TV set. From the opening shots cruising through the dirty, pre-gentrified streets and leveled lots of the City’s Fillmore district (which I could only faintly remember from my childhood) to the rousing final number, where the whole motley crew of musicians gathers on stage for a blazing send-off to “I Shall Be released,” watching The Last Waltz is like a trip through a time and place that I can scarcely remember –but yet seems completely a part of me.
At the heart of it all was Levon Helm. While rock and roll has had its share of indulgent windbags, here was Helm, singing and talking about music in a straightforward and plainspoken way. I still have no idea how he was able play drums and sing so soulfully at the same time. Watch Helm below in action.
Years ago, when The Last Waltz was rereleased for its 25th anniversary, I got back together with my old pal from high school and his dad to catch it at the Castro Theater. Smuggling in beers in a backpack, we sank in our theater seats for those two hours, whooping it up, reliving the fun times and good music up on the big screen. Again, there was Levon Helm, keeping the backbeat, singing “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” sounding like a time and place now gone for good.
Most of the guys in The Band have since passed on to their great reward. So has my old best friend’s dad. So has the friendship itself. They were mostly all casualties, in part, of the lifestyles that both created and claimed those best of times. Now follows Levon Helm.
Every now and then, I break out my DVD copy of The Last Waltz. My wife listens patiently as I share, for the umpteenth time my love for The Band bassist Rick Danko’s flared collars, boxer’s nose, and shag haircut, Van Morrison’s almost-pants-splitting stage kick at the end of “Caravan,” Neil Young’s hauntingly sentimental harmonica solo to open “Helpless,” and other priceless moments.
I can never help but think about those rainy San Francisco nights when I learned how deep great music can run through one’s being.
Photo credit: wfuv
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