Levon Helm dies at 71
Those familiar with the history of the Band will know that things were acrimonious to say the least when the group threw their final big show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1976. Despite this, a scene in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz speaks volumes about Levon Helm when, during an interview segment, the drummer-vocalist leans over to light a cigarette for Robbie Robertson.
It’s a tiny gesture, and seemingly unremarkable, except that Helm——who passed away this morning at the age of 71 from throat cancer—doesn’t break his stride or even look away from Scorsese’s camera as he does it. But considering the tension between Robertson and the rest of the band at that point, it does give us a glimpse of the man’s basic decency, something his Canadian bandmates recognized as a gentlemanly trait native to the Arkansas-born musician.
More obviously, they also understood that he was a musician who, even in such almighty company, dripped with soul. In a combo already 20 times more talented than everyone else, Levon Helm was the best. You only have to listen to the Band without him, when they toured with Bob Dylan in ’66, to get an idea of just how much his light touch and all-encompassing funkiness elevated that outfit.
When the Band was making its 1969 self-titled masterpiece, Helm became fixated on the idea of making his snare sound “like wood,” but his playing was already a thing that seemed uncannily close to nature, as if Helm was simply drawn up from the mud and plunked behind a drum kit. He was a God-given musician.
Pitchfork has a good rundown of Levon Helm’s life and career here (and it’s probably worth mentioning that in the time it took to write this, two Straight contributors emailed to say how bummed they were by the news.)