Levon Helm died yesterday in New York City of throat cancer. He was 71. Levon was a tremendous talent and an outstanding drummer. Few people understand the engine that drives any sort of live performance music is the rhythm — and in modern music, that means a live drummer. Without a proper human metronome keeping the entire band on track and in sync, the entire song falls apart. If you have a terrible drummer, the job of keeping the energy of the music moving forward falls to the bass player. If both drummer and bass player are inept, you do not have a band. Levon Helm was, The Band:
Helm, the drummer and singer who brought an urgent beat and a genuine Arkansas twang to some of The Band’s best-known songs and helped turn a bunch of musicians known mostly as Bob Dylan’s backup group into one of rock’s most legendary acts, has died. He was 71.
Helm, who was found to have throat cancer in 1998, died Thursday afternoon of complications from cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said Lucy Sabini of Vanguard Records. On Tuesday, a message on his website said he was in the final stages of cancer.
Levon Helm was the living metronomic engine behind Bob Dylan — one of the greatest musical minds in the short history of humankind — and with Levon’s passing, we must begin to come to terms with our mortality and the fact that living legend Bob Dylan is 70 years old. He cannot live forever. He will, however, last an eternity.
Levon Helm is probably best known for singing — “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — but he was so much more than just that single song. Levon had a career. He showed us the way up from the way down.
After The Band disintegrated, Levon fell on hard times. He came back with a series of albums that rooted him back to the rhythms of the earth. He resurrected his career by returning us to the muddy lessons of his Arkansas upbringing.
If you want to see Levon Helm and The Band at their greatest, then watch the movie, “The Last Waltz” and you see and hear music in its essential glory. Martin Scorsese directed the concert movie in 1978 and it is a great, historic, monument to important music — and the whole show comes alive the second Bob Dylan steps on stage to join his Band.
Levon Helm marks the beginning of the end of a musical dynasty, and in his passing, we are rightly pressed to re-admire and find our wonder again in the incredible musical life of Bob Dylan and the remnants of The Band that still remain today.