“Levon slowly dies”, ended Elton John’s 1971 part-tribute to The Band’s drummer. Death did come slowly to Levon Helm. A few months prior to his demise, it’d been revealed that he was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. He passed away in his sleep, surrounded by his family and friends, on April 19, 2012 at 1.30pm. It was the first death of a Band member that didn’t have the specter of addiction hanging over it. Richard Manuel drank and drank and hung himself one day. Rick Danko died of a drug-induced heart attack.
That Levon died naturally isn’t surprising, for everything the man did was natural. There was no undue effort in his drumming; it was, like so many things the Band did, just right. His singing, too, seemed to be rooted in the Arkansas soil he rose from (he was the only non-Canadian in the group). To hear Helm sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is to understand why Manuel or Danko, astonishing vocalists both, could not have brought the same weight to bear on this most Southern of American rock songs. Or you could listen to “The Weight” – borne by all three vocalists – and marvel at the carnal joy in his vocalising of “Well Luke my friend/ what about young Anna Lee?”
Helm could be playful (“Rag Mama Rag”), sly (“Yazoo Street Scandal”), humorous (“Up On Cripple Creek”). He sang almost exclusively in the lower register, and lent to everything a rare combination of knowingness and feeling. In a age of drum solos, his playing was spare, unadorned (and influential – just listen to his flat beat in “The Weight”, and then to The Kinks’ “Strangers”). Like all his bandmates except Robbie Robertson, Helm’s solo career never really took off. His legend, though, remained untarnished; at his Midnight Rambles, everyone from Elvis Costello to Allen Toussaint, Hubert Sumlin, Kris Kristofferson and Rickie Lee Jones would turn up to play for free. One hopes his long, bitter feud with Robertson ended with the latter’s hospital visit a few days before his death. An inscription on the tomb of Virgil, the Greek poet, reads “I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders” – an uncannily good description of the man whose most recognisable song begins with the words “Virgil Caine is my name…”