Music fans had two days to prepare for the death of Levon Helm. They probably would’ve preferred more. Helm died this afternoon — peacefully, his family said — of cancer at 71.
“All his friends were there, ” his guitarist, Larry Campbell said, “and it seemed like Levon was waiting for them. Ten minutes after they left we sat there and he just faded away. He did it with dignity.”
Here’s the Fresh Air interview with him from 2007.
And here’s Weekend Edition’s 2006 profile of Helm’s “Rambles” at the farm in upstate New York.
Why did Helm, his band, and his music resonate? Charles Pierce had it right in his article this week:
The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn’t even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find.
Then, Capitol released Music from Big Pink. It didn’t sound like anything on the radio. It didn’t sound like anything on earth. The lyrics were dense and allusive, as dense as Dylan’s, but drawn from a different place, a bleached-out roadhouse in Fort Smith, not a folk club in the Village, the kind of place where, as Levon once said, you had to puke twice and show them your knife before you could get in. You could hear all kinds of things in the music — white soul, field hollers, the sound a carnival makes on the outskirts of town when the sun drops behind the horizon and all the lights come up. It might have been recorded in 1938 for all anyone really knew.
“He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock,” Pierce wrote.
Those were the days, whippersnappers. Those were the days.