Thursday, April 19, 2012

Let Us Now Praise Famous Arkansans

From Esquire's incomparable politics blog, here's Charles Pierce on Levon Helm, and why he matters.
It was a hot summer night very long ago, when my career in this racket was brand-new and distinctly alternative. I was in a beneath-the-sidewalk joint in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift's, and I was listening to Levon Helm play with the Cate Brothers, who were formidable players in their own right, and old friends of Levon's from Arkansas. We were all deep into the howl of the evening when it occurred to my friend and I that we were enjoying the show so much that we really ought to buy Levon a beer. So we ordered one up, and the waitress brought it out to the stage and Levon took a long pull, looked down at the two of us, touched his drumstick to his forehead and said, "Thank you, neighbor."

It was what they were all about, Levon and the rest of The Band, in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats's center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn't or wouldn't take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn't even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find...
Oh hell, just go read the rest of it here.

And in case you've never heard it, here's Levon (with the 1996 incarnation of The Band) with a hilariously sly and lascivious take on En Vogue's "Free Your Mind." A cover version choice that I can pretty much guarantee wouldn't have occurred to many other musicians of his generation.

I should also add that in the otherwise preposterous and forgettable 2007 Mark Wahlberg action thriller Shooter, Levon can be seen in a small but crucial scene -- looking like death warmed over but clearly having the time of his life -- as a renegade intelligence agent who knows where all the bodies are buried.

It is perhaps also worth noting, since Charles Pierce didn't, that there was and is a certain irony in the fact that the true voice of America came to our attention in a band in which he was surrounded by a gaggle of Canadians.


Gummo said...

Never heard this before (I tended to ignore the fragmented versions of The Band that came after the Big Breakup) but the way they do it, it makes perfect sense. And is great fun, to boot.

This kind of musical cross-fertilization used to be so much more common in the days of Top 40, before music audiences were carved up into ever smaller niches.

Dick Clark dies, Levon's dying, and yet Ted Nugent lives on. Reality can be such a dick.

Billy B said...

I have the Band CD this cut is on (High on the Hog - released in the 90s). It's pretty good. I'll have to dig it out when I get home. The Cate Brothers are from Fayetteville AR and had a hit in the mid-70s called "Union Man". I posted it on FB once and you commented on it Steve.

steve simels said...

That En Vogue cover has been one of my favorite things for ages. It's just so perfect for Levon....

FD13NYC said...

Unusual cover, but kind of funky nonetheless. A shame about Levon, a good guy, musician and actor. The Big C is very vicious, it has no mercy. I guess, as they say, death comes in threes. Dick Clark, Levon Helm and Robin Gibb. Oh well, as my uncle used to say, when it's time to check out, you gotta go.

pete said...

A good guy, but complicated. I always thought the great feud with Robertson was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding on Levon's part. Remember, he left the Band for almost two years in '65-'67 and hen he came back rock had changed in ways he didn't always understand. I was touched by Robbie's account of seeing him in the hospital one last time.

All that aside - a great, truly profound drummer and he was always gracious and kind (in *every* way) the few times we met. The first time we met face-to-face (I'd interviewed him a few weeks before) he shook my hand and said in that ravaged voice, "Welcome aboard."

And say what you will about the Band Reunion, it produced some memorable shows. I remember a hot September night at a minor-league ballpark in Trenton, down by the River. There had been a barbecue taste-off all day and the outfield running track was lined with pits. Big yellow moon over left field, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, people dancing on the infield. It was a mythic small-town rock and roll jamboree.

steve simels said...

You got to meet him?

I'm truly jealous. Talk about a guy you'd like to have a beer with. Can you imagine the stories he had? Wow.

Anonymous said...

Band schmand. But Levon!!!

Robbie learned the tricks of the copyright trade from Grossman (who taught Dylan how to appropriate folk songs as his own).

I think Levon didn't care but came to regret seeing "The Weight" being used for cell-phone commercials knowing the money was rightfully part his.

Anonymous said...

I met him (and Rick Danko) a couple of times in the way post-Robbie era, where the surviving members (Richard was gone by then)would play gigs at roadhouses in VT. (An old friend of mine ran their sound.) A TOTAL gent; a sweet and funny guy.
KICKING myself that I never made it up to Woodstock for one of the Barn shows - tickets were a little rich for my blood, but everybody that I knew who went are still raving about it. Last saw Levon at The Orpheum a couple of years ago. He didn't sing much - his voice was still very frail from the throat surgery - but he drummed w. authority from stage right. (And the guest vocalist that night was the late Phoebe Snow, whom I'd always assumed was just not my thing. She tore the roof off - WTF do I know?) - bill buckner