Before and after ‘Last Waltz’: What Levon Helm and, for a short while, The Band, stood for

Levon Helm performing in Woodstock. (Jaime Martorano)
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Drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who died yesterday at the age of 71, had battled throat cancer for over a decade, losing and regaining his voice at one point. When his family announced earlier this week that Helm was nearing the end, though, there was no mistaking the gravity of the moment.

Almost immediately, writers began lining up to eulogize not only Helm, but The Band, the outfit that he will forever be associated with. The cloistral farm-gaze outfit began as Bob Dylan's rambunctious "gone-electric" touring band, only to hole up with him in Woodstock and mine the deepest, most mythological recesses of what Greil Marcus famously christened "old, weird America."

While never rock gods on the order of their contemporaries, The Band stood—in some pure, yet often entirely cryptic way—for the least modish, most enduring values of the '60s. What's more, their last concert was the subject of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the finest rock doc ever made. And, for what it's worth, a singularly dismal acknowledgement that everything The Band stood for was over, or at least had been pushed aside by self-interest, cynicism, and incredulity.

With the exception of Helm, all of its members hailed from Canada. That makes it either really easy or profoundly difficult to call The Band "outsiders," since they so rooted themselves in America's past, or at least a highly abstracted, symbolic version of it that was as much about internal geography as real highways and byways. Their mentor Dylan had begun his career emulating Woody Guthrie's angry train-hopping, had thrown his id out into the world with abandon in his electric phase, and then reinvented his relationship with the tradition after a 1966 motorcycle crash.

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The Band, almost more than Dylan himself, understood how the past could be rendered timeless, at once light and mighty. They themselves were an idea about how music could exist, not kids with a dream; their songs were as specific, and without direction, as the listener needed them to be. This was a finely curated innerspace of America, stretching back generations, at a time when LSD had reduced introspection to a pitched, lawless battle against the rules and norms of Kantian mom and dad.

This bunch of outsiders went deeper into America’s soul, and found more joy, sadness, and value across all that terrain, than any act before or since. Levon Helm, though, was in a totally different position.

There’s a reason why Helm’s death has felt like the right time to reflect on The Band, and it’s not just because only two members remain: the preening publishing thief Robbie Robertson, the self-styled frontman who refused to sing; and virtuoso Garth Hudson, a multi-instrumentalist regarded as something like a savant. Helm didn’t just dream America; to a greater degree than even the Midwestern, Jewish Bob Dylan, he embodied it.

Levon Helm was a native of Elaine, Ark., and was responsible for showing his bandmates that insider’s view of the country (and the country). Without him, their folklore would have rung hollow; while bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel had a tendency to blur their singing voices, seemingly the ultimate acknowledgement that their group, and the plane of the imagination they inhabited, required a certain amount of surrender even at the height of expression. But Helm’s growl, his twang, remained unmistakable and essential. It’s Helm who sings that first line of “The Weight,” and even if Nazareth is supposed to be both biblical and a stop on a long interstate drive, only Helm could sanctify the rest stop and cast the parables in roadside neon.

It’s a mistake to call Helm the element of authenticity; The Band was always past that kind of simple description. But he was their authority. If he wasn’t the soul of their peculiar alchemy, he was their heart. His session-tight drumming bore the scars, and the pride, of years on the road down South. The Band opened their live Rock of Ages with a rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t You Do It,” and Helm’s backbeat practically shatters the scholarly pretense that might otherwise have had this mystical, pre-rock group venturing into more recent, hipper waters.

At the same time, only Helm could turn the profoundly unpopular cause of Confederate suffering into an anthem without sacrificing an ounce of personal significance. On The Band, he absorbs it into community. By the time of The Last Waltz, the song had become the battleground it was never meant to be, as Helm savagely laments the end of another kind of idealism, and Robertson, who spends much of the concert fiddling with the new-fangled pick-harmonic, rips apart at their very fabric of the song in much the same way they once laid waste Dylan’s musical universe. The introduction of tension into a song whose entire achievement was acceptance and compassion is pretty much the sound of irreconcilable differences—not to mention squandered idealism.

The Band post-The Band was not a pretty place. Court battles over publishing rights hammered home the message that trusting other people was a bad idea, with Robertson using his technical claim to songs as a trump card over the very public understanding of the group’s creative process. Drug and alcohol abuse continued to plague a bunch who had been refreshingly un-druggy in their early days. There were reunions, but without Robertson’s guitar, and with his rancor hanging over them, it wasn’t the same. During the 1986 tour, Richard Manuel hung himself.

But Helm, just as he had done within The Band, continued to mine what was unavoidably, inextricably his. He played the blues. He put together the Midnight Ramble concert series in Woodstock, his home, where a totally unpredictable cast of names—some big, some small—came by to just jam out in the old way. A pre-Band way, even, a celebration of unfettered musicianship and mutual respect that didn’t need to distill its essence into some sort of highfalutin art project. Because though Helm may have been the outlier in The Band, he was also the one closest to the source.