Saturday, April 21, 2012

Levon Helm was an American original

Levon Helm, known principally as the drummer for The Band, died earlier this week after a long battle with throat cancer. A lot of beautiful tributes are out there, and I am not even going to try and match those. I also won't pretend that I was an ardent follower of Levon through every twist and turn of his career, but his work with The Band, particularly on those first two albums -- Music From Big Pink and The Band -- influenced me mightily, as a listener, but also as a drummer. And it's the "as a drummer" part that I wanted to mention briefly, because this man was a monster of subtlety, swing, technique, precision and groove.

Here is the single most loaded, yet concise, and therefore greatest, explanation I have ever read of drumming and its importance to rock:

"There are many useful approaches to rock drumming. What can't be dispensed with is that it must be apparent when listening to the music that the drummer feels the rhythm and is swinging with it, or sinking into it, or toying aggressively with it, or crushing it relentlessly. This talent can be developed, but not quite learned, by a drummer. The drummer must come already wired for music. Think of the responsibility invested in who sits behind the drum kit. He must be stable enough to hammer together a musical framework for the others to confidently build from, yet he must also be a responsive enough listener to engage at least the bassist in an ongoing musical mind meld in which each party is trying to match up his particular part of the language with that of the other so that music rather than noisy gibberish results.... Great drummers usually have small kits... because they make their music between the kick drum and the snare. The high-hat is a set-up tool from which the placement of kick then snare is determined. Toms and cymbals are for accenting changes and climaxing. It's so simple that it can't be faked.... It's the purposeful imprecision of the drummer in response to the purposeful imprecision of the bassist and guitarist as the three of them chase down a song-ritual's particular spirit incarnation that excites the listener." -- Joe Carducci ("Rock and the Pop Narcotic")

I grew up first on classic rock, but it was arena rock -- Zeppelin, Floyd, Aerosmith, etc -- and then punk broke in 1977 and I never looked back, jumping headlong first into the British end of that scene (Clash, Jam, Buzzcocks, etc.) and then, later, into the American wave of the early '80s, particularly SST label bands like the Minutemen, Black Flag and Hüsker Dü. It wasn't until Rolling Stone put out a 20th Anniversary issue in 1987 where they named the best albums of the preceding 20 years that I went back in time to catch up on The Band and numerous other American artists, mostly of the late '60s and early '70s that were lauded in that issue (Sly Stone, Moby Grape, the Dead, CCR, etc.). Previously, my only real foray into Americana-laced rock had been Neil Young (with and without Crazy Horse), and I always have loved Neil, but, in terms of an influence on my drumming, it was Levon on The Band's first two albums -- the ones listed in the "best of" -- which was the real game-changer for me.

I have been in a bunch of bands over the years playing everything from gothy Brit stuff to shitkicking Americana to garage punk to the metallic K.O. sound of Detroit, but I can draw the line in the sand -- and it was honestly a number of years after '87, probably as much as ten years later; this was not a fast lesson -- when I finally absorbed all that Levon taught me about "quarterbacking" the music.

See, a drummer is in charge, not in a hierarchical sense, but in a tension-and-release sort of way. He (or she ... don't accuse me of sexism... shit, Janet Weiss is one of my absolute faves) holds the reins of tempo, swing and groove, and can control all of that, or wreck it completely. I hear recordings that I played on in the '80s and, by and large, I hate them. They are impressive from a speed standpoint, often lightning fast, but I sound like a buzzsaw set on "kill." There's no soul, no bottom end to speak of, no purposeful lockdown with the bass player. Whereas if I go to a recording from, say, '97 onwards, I don't always hear genius, but I do hear a drummer who is feeling the song, not just playing it. Locking that bastard down and toying with tension and release. It's a blast and it is noticeable when it's a blast.

Which brings us, again, to Levon. The man played with joy, first of all, but listen to this -- listen to all of it. It is my favorte thing he ever did, and it is simple as all get-out. And it's fucking perfect. He swings when it needs to swing, and then, just when it is needed, he holds the reins *so* tight, like every time the main riff kicks back in. The rest of the band (you know, The Band) wants to take off a bit right there, but Levon gets out the lead pipe and whacks 'em hard. And they snap back into place like soldiers on the march.

It is fucking perfect -- I repeat -- and it is called Chest Fever:

Now listen to this one, Life is a Carnival. It's a good song, not one of my favorites of theirs, but knowing it helps understand the video that follows.

Then watch this, where Levon explains, in detail, what he is doing.

That's a level of genius, including singing it while accompanying himself on the drums without anyone else playing along, that I can never hope to achieve. All I can do is try, though. Thanks, Brother Levon. The ride was amazing, and the groove is eternal.


  1. SO True

    Sort of the way George Harrison worked with the Beatles- You had to step back and see what he contributed to the song itself- not solos- the song.

    Levon Helm's version "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" isnt getted played in Los Angeles because it isnt "PC"

    That is simply pathetic

  2. Didn't know they were not playing that. That's terrible.