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.


  1. A lot of great musicians are sadly going to be passing away in the next decade or so and it will be sad — we look to the yet to be discovered for great music and hope for the best

    1. You’re right, Gordon. The next decade will remove our everlasting. morphing, greats from the ’60s and ’70s. I can’t think of anyone else of that generation who has had a more devastating effect us than Bob Dylan; and the day he dies, will be the day we finally know the meaning of “unrecoverable.”

  2. Levon’s passing leaves a great hole in the family of American music. Much to the surprise of many, Levon was not on board during Dylan’s first barnstorming of England, backed by the Hawks, as documented in Martin Scorsese’s American Masters presentation “No Direction Home”. I am inclined to disagree with your premise that this is the “beginning of the end” of the Bob Dylan era for a number of reasons. First, and this is certainly debatable, while I suppose you’re right to link Helm intrinsically to Dylan, its a little bit harder to link Dylan to Helm in the same fashion. Second, and more importantly, while the thought of Bob Dylan’s demsie is just very painful to consider, I’m sure many of us have ruminated on it from time to time for many many years. Someone could just as easily argue that the “death era” of Dylan began with his going electric, or with his motorcycle wreck and subsequent turn to a more bucloc musical setting. Or that the gospel era made us confront Dylan’s mortality – musical at least. His scary heart/lung infection years ago was a very real close call. The passing of Allen Ginsberg, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, heck, Jerry Garcia (Dylan’s spot-on, beautiful eulogy to the man can be found here: http://www.dirtysouthwine.com/my_weblog/2009/08/jerry-garcia-8142-8995.html ), all could stand as signposts of the passing of Dylan, and the Dylan era. The same could be said of Dylan’s own death-obsessed recent musical output, starting with Time Out of Mind. Call me crazy, but Levon’s passing is part of a continuum, not the start.

    Levon Helm will be remembered fondly and missed greatly.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Matt.

      I do think Levon’s passing is an ominous milestone in the inevitable path waiting for Dylan — and us all — because they were musically linked. The next step to the sorrowful grave will be if and when Baez dies before Bob — the shared spirit between Joan and Dylan was, and is, not of this world.

      The fact that Dylan is still producing at the end of life is inspring and full of promise: There’s always the instinct for new music as long as he’s alive. When he’s over, we’re over — because we know there will never be another one like him and because we will never again get to have him create something from nothing.

  3. UPDATE:

    Here is Bob Dylan’s official response to the death of Levon Helm:

    He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too.


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