Last week when Levon Helm's family sent out word that he was in the final stages in his battle with cancer‚ Tommy Hamilton (American Babies and Brothers Past) reached out and asked if he could write something on him. A few days later we lost the iconic drummer and singer from The Band and host of the Midnight Ramble. It was a sad day for rock 'n' roll. I took respite in exchanging stories with friends‚ and seeing my Facebook feed filled for days with tributes and memories of the man. I felt grateful to be surrounded by so many people that feel so strongly about the power of music. I took my friend Jay's (The Show Sherpa) advice: let's not mourn the loss‚ but celebrate the life. Levon was one-of-a-kind‚ and that smile and sound will never be forgotten.
Here are Tommy's thoughts on Levon.
photos by Andy Hill
April 17th‚ 2012
Most of my early childhood memories revolve around my dad sitting me down and making me listen to music. There was always a specific lesson to be learned. Whether I was getting examples of what a Leslie speaker sounded like from Rick Wright on Pink Floyd's "Eclipse" or what a wah-wah pedal does on Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4‚" it was always for a deliberate reason.
When I was around seven years old and diving heavily into drumming‚ my old man put a VHS tape into our VCR and told me to be quiet‚ watch‚ and listen. I asked‚ "What am I listening for?" looking for some instruction. He just hushed me and pressed play. This was the moment that Levon Helm became a fixture in my life and a standard in my development as a drummer‚ singer‚ artist‚ and adult.
The music was flat out overwhelming‚ and there were (still are) endless lessons to be taken from that movie. The groove was so unique to my ears; the tones were as warm as anything I had heard up to that time. It was all so real. It was all so serious. I was coming from Zeppelin's Lord of the Rings/wearing capes on stage/over-the-top-ness‚ and the Dead's psychedelic leanings. There was nothing mysterious or flamboyant about these songs‚ especially when Levon Helm was delivering it. They were straight up and brutal. They spoke of shit that I couldn't possibly grasp‚ but I knew sincerity when I heard it.
I latched onto Levon like I don't know what. His playing was‚ quite simply‚ incredible. His voice was like a sledgehammer to the chest. But my favorite parts of the film were the interviews. The manner in which he spoke was deliberate and at a steady pace. He was charming in the most honest way and you could tell‚ without a doubt‚ that he respected the craft. He was dignity personified.
Over the next twenty-some years‚ I have seen The Last Waltz quite literally hundreds of times. I've dug deep into The Band's discography‚ as well as other acts' records that Levon played on. I've seen his movies‚ read his book (do yourself a favor and read This Wheel's on Fire immediately)‚ and had the honor of seeing one of his Rambles. Through all of my phases of music‚ either listening or creating‚ I've always come back to Levon as a litmus test for remaining grounded and true. His integrity was and is the standard of which I hold myself and others to.
Today we all learned that Levon is on the wrong side of his lengthy battle with cancer. It's strange to think that as I write this‚ he is breathing his final breaths and making his peace with this life. I've never had the opportunity to meet Levon Helm and thank him for all he's done for me and countless others‚ but I can hope that he moves onward without fear or pain‚ and with the dignity that he has always displayed and inspired in others.