May 26, 1940 - April 19, 2012
Levon Helm: A Different Drummer
They came screaming out of a dorm window somewhere in 1968 and on the way to some place you had to stop and wonder why someone was playing a fugue. Much less a fugue on a campus. And playing it so frickin’-frackin’ loud. Then “Chest Fever” began in earnest, Garth Hudson’s church organ lunacy — I think it was Bach — giving way to a solid snare snap and some lyrics that I still don’t understand. But it was then, after I chased down the source of that wonderful noise, that I began to pursue Levon Helm, the snapper of that snare, the definer of what became known as The Band and, for periods over the next four-plus decades, an inspiration for me and hundreds of guys who try to play the drums.
Helm died Thursday after 71 well-worn, not always kind but rewarding years. He smoked a lot. Cancer, successful treatments and then cancer again. But he received a great second chance, which we got to see in the Midnight Rambles and the Dirt Farmer disks. But this his death hit hard — I’m 59 — and this week for a whole bunch of us who liked The Band has been empty since his family let it be known he was moving along.
I drum. Not great but have had my moments. And I’ve been up in the attic, time to time with Levon, for the last two years, since I cleaned off my early ’60s Slingerland kit — thank you, wife — and began what idle musicians call woodshedding, a romantic term for playing alone with a headset and someone more talented than you on a CD. Two or three times a week, Levon has schooled me. And he has, I know better than ever before, the left hand of God.
It has been said Levon doesn’t play the drums. He plays the song. Listen closely to pieces like “Shape I’m In” or “Life Is a Carnival” or a song I probably love the most, “Opehlia,” and hear how the drum can create character within the lyrics. That day in 1968 when I first heard this music was when thumpers like Carmine Apprice, Ginger Baker and, in his jazz-sweet method, Mitch Mitchell defined rock. I stopped playing for a few years because, as much as I comprehended Mitchell and what he meant to Jimi Hendrix, I couldn’t play it. Lacked skill. Ringo, yes. Psychedelia, not so much.
Eric Clapton has said that after the first heard The Band and their way around a song, he was moved to quit Cream (and Baker). Levon was so full of Mississippi Delta that he sang a band of Canadians into sounding like they were from Little Rock. But it was how he drove The Band, such a virtuosic collection of musicians — who sounded like that? — that helped a teen-aged kid, then back in Pennsylvania, get back behind his kit. (Allman Brothers helped too.) It was his simplicity — or so I thought — and beautiful material that raged against both the late ’60s and the 70s’ — not Leslie West, not Doobie Brothers — that fascinated. He sounded like the guy down at the VWF Hall who understood syncopation better than you ever would. And sang. And was humble. I pity the kid who sat next to him in that semester of 1972, when he took courses at Berklee College of Music.
But then came the matter of trying to play like him. It only dawned on me later that I saw Levon do something new on an old song every time I watched him, rendering duplication in covering Band songs futile. All you had to was try to capture not just both his hands and both his feet but his spirit and utter joy at all this. Screw the drums. He played Gretsch, Yamaha, Pearl and Slingerland kits. It wasn’t the equipment, save for an old 17-inch Zildjian ride cymbal he favored. He tuned his toms down low, cutting the resonation. You can apply all that. Won’t help.
It was Levon Helm. I’ve been in the attic, since his family let it be known he was going, woodshedding with old Band stuff. Press rolls. Snare-to-tom-to-snare five-smack turns. To my neighbors, I am sorry. I’ve been in groups that played Band numbers. I hope we get back to try them again. “Shape I’m In,” played with some proximity, can make your whole weekend. But to me, it’s not a song. It’s Levon.
We met once, in an I’m-not-making-this-up collision during Jimmy Carter’s inauguration day. We all wound up in a room at a hotel in Washington — OK, it was the Watergate — with a bunch of people from Arkansas. (I got kin there.) The Band had been over for three years but I had read that he was getting the RSO All-Stars record together. They recorded an under-appreciated record with a collection of the Stax people. I asked him, a fool running his mouth, if he needed any help.
He grinned politely and said, “We can use all the help we can get.”
Don’t we all.