Levon Helm was a drummer who didn't come to my attention, in terms of shaping my sound, until I had already been playing drums for 15 years and was in my mid-twenties. Sure, I had heard the hits of THE BAND hundreds of times on the radio, and listened to several of their albums before this moment of awareness occurred, but I had never recognized the subtle genius of the drumming of Levon. Like the late Al Jackson, it wasn't so much WHAT Levon played, it was HOW it was played and almost as importantly, what notes Levon didn't play. It was the spaces he left between what he played that made the sound so soulful.
By the time I was in my early 20's, I began down a road that would shape the rest of my drumming life, up to this point. Before that journey, I was a "busy" drummer. I listened to all kinds of music, and in the early years of college I continued with orchestral and jazz band music. But on my own time, it was harder rock or r&b that had my fancy.
But then I met an LA bluesman who played guitar and who had recently moved back to Houston. I played with him off and on for many years thereafter. Back in my mid-twenties, he played me songs by drummers he liked and of course one of those was Levon. The Weight , Cripple Creek and Dixie in particular. Over and over.
And so that started me on the road to "less is more", and Levon was a master of that method on the drums. Ever since then, I've stolen licks and attempted to steal licks from many other similar drummers, ranging from the classics like Al Jackson to more contemporary drummers like Abe Laboriel, Jr. I've amassed quite a collection of the studio work
Levon was known for many things. He even worked on offshore rigs for a couple of years before heading back to THE BAND and Woodstock. An actor, a masterful singer, a multi-instrumentalist, a family man, a long term cancer survivor, a businessman running his Midnight Ramble, and so much more.
Lately, his singing had been of great interest to me. I tend to go on listening jags that can last for weeks or months or even several years, where I listen to repeated catalogs and specific songs of certain artists. There are always more than one artist involved in this rotation, and often times music of several genres.
None of these genres that I listen to are of recent vintage.
For example, for the past few months, I've been listening to The Last Waltz, Guns and Roses Appetite for Destruction, the more or less complete works of The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and some Dean Martin favorites. Yeah, there's other songs thrown in there, and the frequent youtube video of one band or another sent to me by a friend, but by and large I often study, if not be compulsive, in listening to certain songs to figure out something.
I've been trying to learn The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, by arranging a guitar part. It's a hard song to do justice to with this solo guitar arrangement, but the lyrics and structure of the original are brilliant. As a southern man directly descended from Civil War veterans, I wonder if that's how they felt at the time? It's a bleak portrait of the changes in one man's family and life, yet it resonates with anyone who has had a loss because of a war, and in this case, North or South.
Levon's vocals on Dixie are stirring, moving, full of emotion and excellently delivered. There is no one else who can sing that song with the intensity and identification that Levon did. Levon WAS Virgil Cain(e) and he was storytelling about his life.
I hope that Levon's family and friends find comfort in the things that he taught strangers like me about drumming. It's always horrible to lose a loved one, particularly to any form of cancer, and my prayers are with Levon's people for peace.