Levon Helm changed my life

The Band was the first rock group I paid any close attention to. While growing up in the 1960s I was as obsessed with AM radio as any other white suburban American kid was; or maybe even more so. At the time music wasn’t really something that boys my age and in my socioeconomic milieu were supposed to be focused on. Most of them were more into baseball. I liked the Mets, but I loved the Supremes. In fact, I pretty much loved anything on Motown, having been mesmerized by the older black kids who hung out in front of my elementary school in the morning before class started, dancing to 45s. I would go to sleep at night with my transistor radio under my pillow, just loud enough to hear but low enough so my parents didn’t know. I would slowly turn the dial through the AM spectrum searching for Motown songs. I liked the Beatles, too, but by the time I was old enough to appreciate music on a visceral level they were ubiquitous. I couldn’t tell you why I preferred Motown. I just did. When Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” came out, I widened my obsession to soul music in general.

When I entered junior high school I got an FM radio for Christmas. In the late 60s FM radio became a mild adjunct to the counterculture, at least in the New York metropolitan area. I loved the clearer sound of FM, but none of the stations played Motown. Few, in fact, played Top 40 at all, so in a sense I was indoctrinated into “rock” by technological imperative: though I preferred the music on AM, I wanted to listen to FM because it was available. Stations like WNEW and WLIR played album cuts, and a lot of it bored me. It’s not as if I didn’t know about rock. My older brother was quite into it. He was mainly a Doors fan, but he also had some Cream, some Moby Grape, a Lee Michaels album I thought was pretty good. By this time The Band had already put out an album, Music From Big Pink, but I don’t remember them playing it on any of the FM stations I listened to. They did play a lot of Dylan, though, whom I didn’t particularly care for: too a-melodic, too much pointless verbalizing.

The Band first caught my attention visually, not aurally. They were on the cover of Time several months after their second, self-titled album came out, as representatives of what the editors called “country rock.” It wasn’t a photograph of the members, but rather a very stylized drawing. My grandfather received the magazine, which I never read, but one day when I was at his house it was sitting on the coffee table and I opened it. The pictures of The Band, the ones taken in upstate New York, the famous ones in black-and-white by Elliott Landy, spooked me. These were musicians? At the time, I did not aspire to the counterculture. Hippies scared the shit out of me. I was pretty much a bookworm, heavily into science fiction at the time, and my favorite pastime was hanging out at the bookstore at the (appropriately named) Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington, Long Island. Right next to the bookstore was a head shop with radical posters in the window and the exotic scent of incense wafting out the door. There were hippies in town–or, at least, people who were referred to as hippies (in hindsight, I know genuine hippies didn’t really exist any more, technically speaking)–but I had absolutely no contact with them. A lot of the artists I listened to on FM radio I knew were hippie types, and Woodstock had been a big deal the summer before, but these guys in The Band looked like undertakers in one of those old Westerns my grandfather used to watch on Sunday afternoons on channel 9.

I didn’t think of it again until several months later when I went on a school excursion and fell into conversation with a new girl. She had grown up in New York City and recently moved out to Huntington. Though she was only in 7th grade she had the makings of a hippie: long straight hair, jeans. It was only that year that our school allowed girls to wear pants, and most parents hadn’t let their daughters wear them to school yet. She was really into art and music, and I quickly developed a crush. Her favorite group was the Lovin’ Spoonful, though by that point they had broken up and John Sebastian was a solo artist. But she liked Dylan, too, and after talking to her for three hours straight on the bus ride back to Huntington, I decided I would become a Dylan fan. So I started twirling the FM dial to find Dylan songs, just as in elementary school I twirled the AM dial in search of Motown. I still didn’t get Dylan, but I read an article saying that The Band had once been Dylan’s backup group and that they were responsible for “The Weight,” a song I occasionally heard on FM stations and liked, though I had never paid close enough attention to know who played it before. (This is not just laziness on my part; a lot of FM DJs at that time were just too cool to back announce) So I did something bold. I went to Modell’s and bought The Band on cassette, because I didn’t have a record player of my own at the time, just a cassette player.

The fact that I bought the album on cassette is important, because the track sequencing was different than it was on the proper LP. Side one doesn’t start out with “Across the Great Divide,” the way it does on record, but with “Jemima Surrender.” When that song first started coming out of the little cassette recorder speaker I was baffled. The song starts mid-measure with a funky syncopated blues arpeggio played simultaneously on bass and guitar followed by a sloppy piano fill. And then the vocals come in: “Jemima surrender/I’m gonna give it to you/ain’t no pretender/gonna ride in my canoe.” Nothing unusual there, except that voice: frazzled, desperate, looney. And then in the next line, I saw the point: “If I were a barker in a girly show/tell you what I’d do/I’d lock the door, tear my shirt/and let my river flow.” I’d heard sexually suggestive lyrics before, but sung with that particular voice it was the dirtiest thing I’d ever heard…and it just got better. “I hand you my rod/and you hand me that line”; “Sweet Jemima won’t you come out tonight/the ground is so warm and the moon is so bright.”

I listened to the rest of the album, but kept coming back to “Jemima Surrender.” I just couldn’t get enough of it, and while looking back now I assume it had something to do with the blatant sexuality of the song, I already knew rock’n roll was about sex. But I also knew, implicitly, that pop music was performance. However deeply felt the songwriting or singing or playing was, there was a layer of artifice between the artist and me. This is not something I had thought carefully about, but as I listened to The Band over and over and over, I started to get it; not so much the sexual abandon as the pure feeling of expression and the way it communicated a personality. I wanted to know that personality, not as a star, but as a person who would feel this way about anything. And more than the playing on the album, which I came to recognize as being sublime, or the writing, which I came to accept as genius, it was the singing that brought this home to me. The Band, of course, had three vocalists, and though their startling interplay blew my mind, it was Levon Helm’s voice that amazed me the most. I recognized the black influence–and as my analytical faculties improved wondered how on earth you would call such pure rhythm and blues “country rock”–but this was just too weird to peg as mimicry, something you could tell with almost every other popular rock singer. The drawl was special enough, but it was the emotional quality of his style. The words meant a whole lot more when that voice was singing them.

Suddenly, FM radio made sense. AM radio, for that matter, made sense, too. Everything made sense, even things that weren’t really supposed to make sense (like “I Am the Walrus,” a song that fascinated me for that reason alone). Until Levon Helm sang about his loins I thought of music as I would ice cream or an Abbot & Costello movie, as something that gave me instant pleasure. Now I understood performance had meaning, and a whole new world of appreciation opened up to me. I stopped reading science fiction and picked up Catch-22. I started watching movies that weren’t comedies or monster flicks. I volunteered at a local repertory theater company to see plays for free. I even started looking at paintings and other visual art, out of curiosity more than anything. And I devoured music of all kinds. Under different circumstances, maybe the same thing would have happened through the example of a different artist, but I doubt it. Levon Helm still strikes me as a uniquely affecting singer, and nothing recently has made me feel my age as acutely as the sad knowledge that he’s now dead.

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One Response to Levon Helm changed my life

  1. pachiguy says:

    Beautiful, and I can quite understand why.

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