Category Archives: Levon Helm

Small Town Talk Speaks Volumes

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Any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually full of conundrums and partial truths, but any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually a good read. Sprinkle in The Band, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren and other rock notables and you should have an enjoyable word stew. Barney Hoskyns’ new book, Small Town Talk, is a very good entree.

Dylan was visiting his brooding, enigmatic manger Albert Grossman in Woodstock NY. He had just returned from a hard grueling career changing 1966 electric world tour with his backing band, The Hawks. He needed to re-charge. Woodstock was the ideal place for him and his family to leave the public eye and enjoy a more rural pastoral life. In other words Bob was tired.

That all changed on July 29, 1966 when Bob wrecked his beloved Triumph motorcycle. Reports of the time ranged from his death, to broken neck to career ending injuries… at this point the book takes off.

During his recovery Bob invited The Hawks up to the village to play, write, and have some fun. The Hawks became The Band, the playing and writing became The Basement Tapes and the fun became infectious. Word leaked about what was happening up in Old Woodstock, then the songs leaked out and then Big Pink leaked out,  then everything changed.

Soon every rock star passed through, visited  or moved to the tiny village, and with them came sex, drugs, and, you know, rock and roll. It was a startling invasion of not only musicians but their entourages: parasites, groupies, drug dealers and media. This book chronicles those stories from 1966 until today. Some of the best parts of the story is how the locality and its governing officials and town business owners had to deal with this new paradigm of change. (The Chief Of Police has some fine stories with regards to the driving escapades of certain members of The Band ). Money was flowing in, but the quiet farming/art community was becoming more Greenwich Village than Mayberry. A seamy underbelly was growing underneath the narrow streets of the beautiful old village. The uneasy balance between old and new Woodstock is as much a character in the story as any musician. It is also filled with sadness as many of the Woodstock icons succumbed to their demons: Richard Manuel, Janis Joplin, Rick Danko and others.

Small Town Talk is a wonderful read, and any rock fan who cares about the birth of the Americana genre should pick it up. I’m betting most Dylan and Band fans already have. My only complaint is I wish the author would have dug deeper into the locals’ reaction to the conquering horde, being from a small town I know how my father would have.

Available at your favorite bookstore and here at Amazon.

Levon Helm – An Appreciation

I saw The Band over 30 times. They were my first concert way back when as a sophomore in high school. That night they tore up Merriwether Post Pavilion. In 1974 from January 15th through the 22nd, I saw The Dylan/Band: Before The Flood Tour six times in four cities. The last time I saw them was at Wolf Trap opening for John Prine. I took my daughter Morgan for her first ever concert. As much as I loved it, I think she was too young to appreciate the music, but she liked the tie-died Life Is A Carnival tee shirt I bought her.

One visit to New York City in 1981 at a small club I was fortunate to see an impromptu show by Steve Forbert. He was joined by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. As great as the music was, it was made fantastic because during the break and after the show all four artists sat at our table. It remains a memory that has become almost surreal. All I can say is that they were down to earth, friendly, and gracious. They were cats you could hang with at the local bar or pool room. The clearest moment I have is that every time the waitress (her name was Rhonda and she was from Virginia and is the reason why we were so well seated and treated) brought the table drinks Levon would say in that beautiful soft southern drawl “thank you m’am”.

Every member of The Band, except Richard Manuel, would tell you Richard was their lead singer. But for me the voice of The Band was Levon. My first introduction to their music was his line “I pulled into Nazareth…” Hell, I never pulled out. He is considered by many as one of the best drummers of his and any generation, I cannot attest to that but I know the cat could play, and as he played he sang his ass off.

Over the past days so many appreciations of Levon have been written and read. They tell of his days as a boy in Arkansas, his stay as a teenager drummer in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Dylan years, The Band, the Last Waltz, acting, The Band’s reemergence, the illness, Midnight Rambles, revived solo career and Grammy awards. I urge you to take time to read about this remarkable artist, man, friend, father and grandfather.

This is what I know. The following are links to what I consider are his greatest vocal performances, and they are what I want people to hear as a tribute to this American troubadour, this music legend.

When I Paint My Masterpiece – A Bob Dylan song that The Band and especially Levon added the masterstroke to.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – This is the live Last Waltz rendition and it’s revelatory. Levon sings as if a gun is held to his head and his life depended on this particular take. It’s one of the greatest vocals of all time.

Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen may have written it, but The Band and especially Levon own it.

Tennessee Jed – From his last solo album, Electric Dirt. His voice, ravaged by time and illness, still conveys his power and the innate good natured inflection I love about his voice. And his pitch, as always, perfect.

So rest easy Levon, we here know the drum stool is now taken in Heaven, you and Rick and Richard can start a band.