Rock & Roll Heaven is A Little Fuller: My Summer Playing With Dylan and The Band (RIP Levon Helm)

I have a confession. I always liked ABC. I liked Martin Fry’s voice, and the slick production. Here’s a link to “Be Near Me.”  Seriously, Martin Fry is debonair as hell, even if everyone else in the video must cringe at their hair and clothing choices.

I grew up in the 80’s. The music du jour was “New Wave,” or “Synth Pop.” Bands like Soft Cell, Human League, and Thompson Twins ruled the charts. I never bought Thriller or Purple Rain.

So much of the music was just synthesizers and drum machines; it struck me as artificial and somewhat sterile, like the cocaine everyone was doing back then.

When I was in high school, I played in a band. It was more a consortium of friends who had musical instruments, really. The drummer and keyboardist/bass player had talent. I had a 100 watt Fender Twin Reverb amp. What I lacked in talent, I made up for in tube-driven volume.We played a dozen times or so, then went our own ways. We were just guys playing blues and rock for the sheer, distorted hell of it: making noiseful joy. 

Back then, in our radio market, we had Top 40 stations and Classic Rock. When I was in eighth grade, I switched to Classic Rock, and I never went back.

There were some contemporary rock bands I liked okay: Triumph, Journey, Rush, et alia, but none of them made me want to pick up my Telecaster and play. 

Then I bought “Before the Flood,” a live album by Bob Dylan and The Band. This two-record set was just right. I picked up, plugged in, and played along. The summer of my junior year, that was my favorite album. I’d stand up, and play along with each cut, just like I was onstage with them. I’m sure my playing wasn’t spot-on, but it came from my heart.

Of course, I’ve never even seen Dylan or anyone in The Band in person. But I was jammin’ with them nonetheless.

The Band was talented, to be sure. Robbie Robertson is a fine guitarist; Rick Danko was excellent on bass, and the dual keyboardists, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, added a fullness to The Band’s sound. But the heart and soul of The Band–at least to me–was the drummer, Levon Helm.

Levon had a voice that had to come from the southern part of somewhere. His drumming was steady and sure, but that voice. It was full of kudzu and clay, of long humid nights with fireflies and cicadas, of moonshine whiskey and cigarettes and hard times.

THAT was the sound I wanted. I had live albums by CCR and Neil Young that I blasted as well, but I kept coming back to “Before the Flood.” The Band drove Dylan to be better, and Levon Helm drove The Band to be better, to keep it real. Robertson and Danko were the pin-up boys, but Levon Helm, folding his tall lanky self behind the drums, he made the band immortal.

I was thinking today that I couldn’t tell you what chords went with what song. I bet if you put a Telecaster in my hands, and played that record, muscle memory would get my fingers where they needed to be.

ABC and friends were coiffed, dressed to the nines, and spent more on hair products in one day than Levon Helm did his entire life. I love ABC’s sound, but I don’t feel it in my heart. It’s not me.

Somewhere in the center of my being, in one of those little boxes that define us, there are humid nights, a loud guitar, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” sung by a guy who always meant it.

RIP, Levon Helm. Thanks for carrying The Weight so wonderfully. .



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