Levon Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 71. The only live performances of his that I have witnessed were on film, or rather, in one movie, The Last Waltz. And in particular, there was one that stood out, whose memories have endured, clearly, distinctly, across the many, many years that have passed between that day and this one: Helm’s rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Some of what was distinctive about that song and Helm’s take on it is alluded to by Jon Pareles’ in yesterday’s New York Times:
In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.
But let’s back up for a second. I saw The Last Waltz in the company of high-school mates, at what might be termed a pre-matinee show, the so-called “morning shows” that used to be so common in Indian movie-houses in the 1970s and 1980s (and possibly before). The tickets were often sold at marked-down prices, and many off-beat gems could be found there. So off-beat in fact that there was often little publicity or hype associated with their release. The Last Waltz saw its release in such a time-slot. We knew little about the movie; we didn’t know it had been made by Martin Scorsese, and had no idea either, that its cast included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young. All we knew was that it was a concert movie featuring a band called, well, The Band. So we played hooky, scraped together the money required for the tickets, caught the right buses, traveled to the movie-house, bought our tickets, and filed in.
When Helm began singing “The Night..”, I was surprised; I had never seen a drummer do the vocals for a rock band before. And it quickly became clear to me that this was not just a fill-in gig; this man knew how to sing, and he sang with a ‘desperate’ passion that showed, in the urgency of his voice (and facial expression!), in the intensity of his pathos every time he sang “The night they drove old Dixie down/And the bells were ringing/The night they drove old Dixie down/And the people were singing.”
Truth be told, I didn’t understand what the lyrics meant, I didn’t understand, then, what time and place they had as their referents. All I knew, all I could sense, was that I was in the presence of a spirit pushed to the edge of his tether, brought to the brink of heartbreak by circumstance. That much I could somehow identify with, even if I was just a young Indian schoolboy, and the man inducing that feeling in me was from Arkansas, singing about a land, a people, and a time, very far away.