Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm (1940-2012): Then and Now

In light of Levon Helm's passing last week from cancer at 71, Susan Green and John Corcelli recall moments from his musical life – then and now.

The audience at 1969 Isle of Wight music festival

While thumbing my way from London to Edinburgh on the A1 Motorway, I met a British fellow hitchhiker named Christopher who was only going as far as Sheffield. When we’d driven that distance aboard a clotted cream lorry that stopped for us, he more or less invited himself along on my already scheduled jaunt to the 1969 Isle of Wight music festival a week later. We also discussed issues of war and peace.

"I'm sort of fed up with being American,” I told Christopher. “Vietnam and violence on our streets and police brutality. Over here, you seem so much more..."


"That too. I was going to say ‘tranquil.’ You're lucky to live in a tranquil society." I gestured at the expanse of wide roads and verdant pastures around us. "You produced John Lennon, for instance. `Give Peace a Chance' came out last month. I listen to it a lot at home.”

"Haven't you ever read Shakespeare?" Christopher asked. "The whole bloody history of England is...well, bloody."

"But at least you're not fighting with anyone now."

"There's some blokes over in Belfast who might differ with you on that point,” he suggested.

Susan in Scotland, summer of 1969
But Scotland was calm. After a wonderful trip through the Highlands, I met up with Christopher again at Waterloo Station in London, as we had prearranged, to catch a train going south. We both seemed to feel a little awkward, having progressed from casual, accidental travel companions to something that was not quite a date. At Portsmouth, a ferry took us to Fishbourne and, near the dock, we caught a quick train to Ryde and then a bus that took us a few miles away to the festival site. "I've actually got a ticket to Ryde," I proclaimed, recalling that the Beatles spelled it as “ride” but thinking maybe the song alluded to this particular journey. (Paul McCartney has claimed it does, though Lennon apparently insisted “ticket to ride” was the translation of a German term for a clean bill of heath issued to prostitutes in Hamburg.) The festival, at the Isle of Wight’s Woodside Bay, attracted more than 200,000 rock fans, which would have been fine if the weather had cooperated. Instead, it was cool and rainy all weekend. "This is not unusual for us at the end of August," Christopher said.

Despite the inclemency, many revelers stripped naked and frolicked in the ocean waters. Barely keeping warm in our sleeping bags, Christopher and I spent a chaste night on the ground in a gigantic tent with about 1,500 people, some of whom preferred to socialize till dawn. Food was another matter. There were long lines at all the concessions, not to mention the portable loos. Hungry and without much sleep, I found myself becoming cranky.

At least there was the music, provided by some of the top performers of the day: The Who, The Moody Blues, Joe Cocker and such on Saturday, and then, on Sunday, Tom Paxton, Richie Havens, Bob Dylan and The Band. Others on the bill, like Bloodwyn Pig and Fat Mattress, have since been lost to history. Conversely, appearing at dusk, New York folkie Paxton gained a place in the annals of the counterculture that night as a surprise smash with savvy protest anthems like “Vietnam Pot-Luck Blues.” In an era of freak-out theatrics, an unfussy persona – wearing a cap, he evoked early Dylan -- and accessible songs appealed to the rag-tag crowd that chanted his last name during a four-minute standing ovation before a third encore.

Unfortunately, that final evening also brought endless delays. Word circulated there were more invited guests – I was thrilled to learn that list included three of the Rolling Stones and all the Beatles except Paul – than could be accommodated in the small VIP section in front of the stage. Apparently, arguments ensued among the celebrities, while the soggy, excited crowd of ordinary citizens grew increasingly impatient. John Lennon later noted to the press that everyone appeared to be “waiting for Godot or Jesus.” The festival had been heralded as Dylan’s big comeback after a 1966 motorcycle accident kept him out of the public eye for a few years. But the mood grew ugly. People yelled and started throwing things at the stage. (In his 1993 memoir, This Wheel’s On Fire, The Band’s drummer-mandolinist-vocalist Levon Helm described the projectiles as “beer bottles, fruit and clods of earth.”)

The Band: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson

I’d been at numerous Dylan concerts since 1961. So, he was not who I most anticipated that weekend. Apart from a chance to hear (in person) The Moody Blues’ primal chorus about heartbreak on “Nights in White Satin,” my chief focus was The Band. When they came out as Dylan’s warm-up act, however, the Brits did not appear to be familiar with them. (Helm would write about the disappointing summer of 1969: “No interviews, no publicity, really, and we’re still a mystery.”) The crowd’s ill-tempered attitude continued even as I enjoyed the 45-minute set by Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson that began at 10:30. I was fascinated by the quintet of skinny guys who had donned old-fashioned hats for what would turn out to be an iconic Elliott Landy photo on the back of their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink. (In his book, Helm called it their “neofrontiersman image.”)

This was the rock ensemble that spoke to me more than any other at the time. I adored Arkansas native Helm’s Southern twang among a cluster of Canadians. When he belted out the lyrics on Robertson’s’s “The Weight” – inspired by the surreal films of Luis Bunuel – I didn’t necessarily understand all the symbolism but sure could recognize a soulful soul when I heard one. Maybe I was growing weary of the psychedelic zeitgeist, fast becoming just another path to conformity, no matter how groovy. The Band’s look and sound were so earthy yet ethereal, especially when Manuel sang “In a Station” with that high-pitched delivery of his: “Isn’t everybody dreaming?/ Then the voice I hear is real./Out of all the idle scheming,/ Can’t we have something to feel?”

Levon Helm, summer of 1969
Even though an entire generation had awakened, paradoxically everybody was indeed dreaming back then. The Sixties existed as part glorious reverie, part nightmare. And both states of mind were infused with mysticism, as Robertson perhaps divined when composing “Caledonia Mission.” The song reportedly refers to the musicians being busted for some nebulous reason by the RCMP near Toronto; in Helm’s recollection, “a little problem we had with the law a few years earlier.” The line that always resonated for me, once a devotee of the I Ching: “You know I do believe in your hexagram./ But can you tell me how they all knew the plan?”

The plan for the festival was not going very well. Three hours late, Dylan finally emerged at 11 p.m., dressed in a cream-colored suit, with short hair and a slight beard. He did a one-hour set backed by The Band that incorporated “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35.” Despite a brief encore, this gig failed to satisfy the masses expecting an extravaganza, possibly even one that would be followed by an all-star jam. His departure from the stage was accompanied by jeers and boos. Helm would later tell reporters that the brevity of their performance could be attributed to an (incorrect) assumption that the fans were too fatigued for more: "Bob had an extra list of songs with about eight or ten different titles that we would've gone ahead and done had it seemed like the right thing to do. But it seemed like everyone was a bit tired. The festival was three days old by then.” They really do stone you when you’re trying to be so good, I guess.

Then came the scramble to get off the island. To no avail, organizers pleaded over the loudspeakers for the audience to spend another night. "And freeze me bleedin' arse off again?" someone near me yelled back, as the midnight multitudes squeezed onto buses that took us to the Ryde train depot. When Christopher and I stepped off in Fishbourne, it was clear why there had been pleas to stay on Wight. Trains kept mindlessly unloading passengers onto an already crowded ferry dock, although the boat was nowhere in sight. Aspiring passengers at the edge were in danger of being pushed into the dark waters of the Channel.

souvenir handbill
Several policemen were at the scene. "Don't let any more people off the trains!" a few members of the mob called out to the Bobbies, who just stood by uselessly. "We should not be getting crushed to death at a rock festival," I nervously mused. "Especially not in England.”

“Happens at our football matches all the time," Christopher noted.

"I feel like I'm going to faint," I said, eyes closed.

He suddenly came up with an interim solution to give us some room to breathe. Elbows locked, Christopher and another young man nearby put their hands on each other's shoulders, creating a little impenetrable cocoon of air. I stood in the middle.

A ferry finally appeared. The crowd surged. We found ourselves part of the contingent that somehow made it on board. "Will I ever see you again?" Christopher asked me when we eventually were saying goodbye at Waterloo Station.

"I dunno," I replied, as ”This Wheel’s on Fire,” the Dylan tune sung by Helm, popped into my head: “And after ev'ry plan had failed,/ And there was nothing more to tell,/ You knew that we would meet again,/ If your mem'ry serves you well.”

Not so much, it turned out. In subsequent years, I never did see Christopher again but would catch various incarnations of The Band, with Dylan and without him, in Montreal and Vermont, as well as solo acts headed by Helm or Danko. As a journalist, I once interviewed the latter rocker, who was drunk and making crude misogynist comments about Emmylou Harris. But even his individual indiscretion could not ruin my enduring appreciation for five skinny guys in old-fashioned hats whose art truly gave me something to feel.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.


Levon Helm at Massey Hall on March 4, 2011

It seems fitting that Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band; his steadfast meter and driving shuffle anchored the group in every genre of music they explored. As the only American in the group, who's other members hailed from Southern Ontario, Levon's distinct Arkansas roots were in every word he sang, even if the lyric was penned by Robbie Robertson most of the time.

His death this past Thursday afternoon offered a few moments for remembering his big band's appearance in Toronto last year, on March 5th. He played at a packed Massey Hall with an enthusiastic crowd of loving supporters backing his every move. It was a solid concert with tons of music that graced the Levon Helm pallet: country, bluegrass and rock n roll, all played with authority and inventiveness, and led by musical director, Larry Campbell. In 2008, an earlier performance was perfectly captured on the album, Ramble at the Ryman (Vanguard, 2011). The energy and enthusiasm for the music is palpable, very much mirroring what I witnessed less than three years later. It won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.

The Toronto concert was also a love-in for Levon, one of the most favoured members of The Band, whose Southern temperament and gentleness distinguished him from the other members of the group. It was his voice behind such important recordings such as "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," "Ophelia," and "The Weight," all performed with such conviction that you believed every word he sang was the truth. His passionate vocals soared every time, and even though his voice was only half of what it was after radiation treatments for cancer. The man still belted it out with feeling as if he'd never sing again which, sadly, came true on April 19, 2012.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. His documentary about Wallace Hartley, bandmaster of the Titanic was broadcast on the CBC’s flagship current affairs program, The Sunday Edition. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney

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