Back in 1968, Greenwich Village was a hotbed of sounds and new faces. Blood Sweat and Tears was a quartet, Stevie Winwood sported a fashionable Afghan jacket, Donovan strolled in and out of saw dusty folk retreats, and Jimi Hendrix was rumored to be the best village sleepover. Meanwhile, the Cream blew the roof off at the Café au Go Go, Todd Rundgren was holed up at the Café Wha and Neil Diamond, at the Bitter End. As for Miles Davis, he proclaimed the Electric Flag to be the best band in the world. During this golden age, rock music had a distinctive voice- no band played or sounded the same.I was sharing a flat with bassist Stu Woods and an enormous stack of pop and jazz recordings. Eric Mercury was a mainstay; so were Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Santana and a lot of classic soul.
While digging through piles of brand-new releases at a vinyl shop on 8th Avenue, I came across something called Music from Big Pink. It wasn't the title that caught my attention but the colorful sketch on the cover. I liked the song titles, too: "Tears of Rage," written by Bob Dylan and keyboardist Richard Manuel; "The Weight" by Robbie Robertson; "Chest Fever" and the classic "Long Black Veil." There was also a version of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." Talk about a drop the needle experience! Rarely does a recording spin my head as much as it did.
When I was growing up, mountain music was all around us. Trips with our parents through Tennessee and lower Kentucky put us in the heart of twang country. Flatbeds filled with pickers and fiddlers. Grand Ole Opry. And roadside juke boxes, their next of kin, conveying a sound born of sorrow and lifted by the glory of redemption. That lush countryside was still scarred by long-ago wars; beneath its dirt hid ancient arrowheads and bodies in unmarked graves, hundreds of years after the last kill.
I also loved real church music. Not the stuff imported from England that made Jesus sound like a stiff in a wooden box, though. Instead, I went for the tunes that evoked blessed light shining through tall Georgia pines, instructing angels to carry out their earthly duties.
Once I placed the stylus in the first groove of Big Pink, the drums of Levon Helm came snapping at my knees. The percussion had a laid back pulse, one that kicked the band in all the right places.
It sounded like the rhythm of a hundred raggedy children, falling about on the ground in some kind of slump dance.
And oh, that amazing singing! Delicious harmonies, flowing past one another, bending and tailing away, leaving behind a mournful scrap of rust and bitterness to savor. Phrasing like this comes from hanging outside Pentecostal Sundays, humming the big jam to yourself. As a unit, the band's voices rose and raged with community emotion and immediacy. And that was the name by which they eventually were called: The Band.
At first, I thought all of the vocals came from Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. On closer inspection I got the message: it was the drummer, too: Levon Helm.
In music circles, it's well known that drummers rarely sing this well or with this urgency. I once knew an exception, an Illinois drummer and gospel singer named Kent Sprague. We worked together in the mid-60s in Los Angeles. He had a positively divine mastery of soul music. Later, he put together the Boone's Farm band. When I watched Kent sing and play, I couldn't put it all together. Instead, I looked on enviously at someone who could make such a powerful relevant tone while pounding a beautiful groove.
When I first arrived in Canada, we shared accommodations on Hallam Street with Ronnie Hawkin's former pianist Scott Cushnie and bassist Rick Birkett. Guitarist Bob Yeomens and drummer Frank DiFelice were always around as well. They were working on the second edition of a band called Jericho, and rehearsed 20 hours a day, giving us a heavy dose of those Band songs. At times, we longed to change the playlist--yet it made us appreciate the craftsmanship that went into producing and writing those epic laments.
For the Band, Canadian keyboardist Garth Hudson was the resident genius who knew how to take the basic tracks and color to perfection. His keyboard work comes from a place where originals originate.
Drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who became the heartbeat of The Band, was a big southern landscape. That aura traveled with him wherever he went. Later, in 1980, I remember seeing him and Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. I had no idea what his acting chops would be, but did he ever nail the part. Levon came across as authentic as every particle of red earth that he sprang from, growing up in the cotton field countryside of Arkansas.
Whenever I watch The Last Waltz--quite possibly the best concert documentary ever -Levon is the glue. Not every player is consistent. Not every performance redeems itself. Levon, however, is positively masterful. His quirky drumming rides the concert from beginning to end. By the final bar you know its collective history, and you realize you've been on a glorious journey few with ever travel.
With Levon's passing in April of 2012, a unique beat goes with him; one that cracked perfect time and made the planet dance on his own terms.