Everybody has their favourite member of The Band. Mine was always Levon Helm.
“Levon Helm” always seems like a cheap answer to the question of “Who’s your favourite member”; there’s something about saying that the guy who sang lead on a group’s three undeniably most famous songs is your favourite that reeks of entry-level fandom. It’s like saying your favourite Beatle is John Lennon (the cool answer, as we all know, is George, the aggressively contrarian answer is Paul, and the ironic answer is Ringo). Add this to the fact that he was the only American in a band full of fellow Canadians, and my answer can feel downright unpatriotic. But it’s true, and it always has been. Patriotic guilt be damned.
Unfortunately, Levon Helm died yesterday. He had throat cancer. He was 71 years old.
My friends and I elected to deal with this like adults: We got (pretty) drunk. And watched The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz is a special kind of movie. For one thing, it’s a collaboration between two entities whose work I hold in a rarified kind of awe: Martin Scorsese and The Band. So for that alone, it’s a personal treasure. But beyond my own feelings – which, in the cosmic scope of things, really don’t matter – The Last Waltz is special because it’s a music movie in the purest sense; you can just put it on in the background like a favourite record while it serves as a really good excuse to just hang out with some people while good music and cool images play on a screen for two hours. It’s like a rock n’ roll hearth; you can sit and just kind of take it in, or it can act as a center of gravity around which a lot of conversation and good feelings will orbit.
For my friends and I yesterday, it was both. There was some discussion about whether Robbie Robertson pulled off that scarf, a few (many) declarations of everlasting love for Rick Danko, and a lot of laughter whenever Richard Manuel says anything. But this was tempered by brief stretches of hushed, reverent silence; at certain points, it’s impossible not to have to just stop and marvel at the sheer power and beauty of what’s onscreen, and it was at these moments that we all kind of remembered why we were sitting down and watching this together in the first place.
More than anything else, watching the movie yesterday reminded me of why and how much I loved Levon Helm as a rock n’ roll figure. Rock n’ roll is ruled by demons; it’s mostly why it will always seem so exciting, especially to guys like me who were raised to be good Catholic boys. As soon as you stumble across rock n’ roll, you realize that your suspicions have been validated: you have been going to the wrong church all these years. Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten: those were my new gods, and they were substantially more fun.
But none of them were honest gentlemen.
Can you imagine Lou Reed opening a door for anybody? Of course not. That’s a big part of why I love those guys; the idea that Johnny Rotten would actually spit in the faces of people who paid money to see him sing still seems to me like such a ridiculous, alien brand of rudeness that I can’t help seeing it as anything but amazing. But you can only find brutality singularly appealing for so long, and it was when I began to search for something more inherently decent to look up to that Levon came into my life.
Levon Helm was a classic Southern gentleman. An Arkansas man. Even though his greatest work was with a Canadian band, this mark of identity always shined off of him like a beacon. He projected a very gruff, grown-up kind of cool; re-watching The Last Waltz always reminds me that he is at least 35% of the reason that the only jacket I own which doesn’t serve a distinct, weather-beating purpose is my denim one. Because you know he’s not wearing it as some kind of ironic fashion statement, or as a stolen sign of a working-class culture he’s not a part of*; he just wears it because that’s exactly the kind of jacket that a guy like Levon Helm would wear, and its that unconscious honesty in aesthetic presentation that I somehow find just as appealing as all of the flash and artifice of someone like, say, David Bowie. He had manners too, which is always interesting to see in a rock n’ roll man: The scene where Scorsese asks the band about groupies, and while Richard Manuel – as this film proves, one of the creepiest, funniest men to ever walk the planet – is more than eager to share, Levon chastises Scorsese for being rude; he eventually laughs it off as a joke, but for a second, he is totally serious. And that gets me every time.
But those are reasons why Levon was important to me, and as I previously stated, what’s important to me is almost certainly uninteresting to you. The reason why we’ll all remember Levon Helm is for his singing. And my god, the way he sang: wholly, totally masculine, but not in any kind of unintelligent, macho way; masculine in that he was unafraid. Unafraid to throw himself with great vigour into the arms of aural salvation; unafraid to feel and project said feeling with no discernible reservations. When you watch Levon Helm sing in The Last Waltz, you get the feeling that you are watching a man not only bear his soul, but rip it out of himself and showing it just to prove there’s no reason why you can’t do it too.
Thank you, Levon. Thank you very much. Please, sit down. Take a load off.
© Justin Santelli, Music Vice
* I just realized that I am literally the worst kind of denim jacket owner, because now that I stop to think about it, I’m sure that my psychological denim-drive is a repulsive combination of both of these motivations.
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