Apr 25, 2012 Neil Benjamin Jr. Uncategorized
It was 2001, and the Grateful Dead’s iconic album “American Beauty” was blaring through the newly purchased sound system in the bedroom. The up-tempo beat of “Truckin’ ” was raging as Jerry Garcia threw on one of his signature guitar leads into the mix, prompting this teenager to fill with emotion and the drive to dance.
My father, the one who suggested I stop listening to three-chord punk rock and get into “music with a beat,” came in the room unsuspectingly and watched me air guitar as if I were Garcia. “Finally,” he told me, “you’re listening to some good music.”
That’s how it all began. Soon, I was a full-on DeadHead, never getting enough of the band that spawned the largest following music has ever seen. After a while, though, my father suggested I start broadening my horizons by checking out other bands from the era.
“The Band,” he said. “You’ll love them.”
“Pfft, I don’t need anything but the Dead,” I said with that smug, I-know-everything look that teenagers often have.
Eleven years and many albums later, I now know my dad was right. I still remember being in the car with him when “The Weight” came on the radio, immediately following a live rendition of the Allman Brothers Band instrumental “Jessica.” My brother and I were, politely, told to shut up. The windows were rolled up and the volume was cranked.
That’s when I “got it.”
The Band, an American institution in its own right, has become one of my favorites. I wasn’t lucky enough to ever see them live – they broke up for good in the 1980s – but I did see the Levon Helm Band numerous times in the last six years. Helm was the heart, soul and unique backbeat of The Band, and also did much of the singing. It was a trip, an experience, a ride back in time to when music was played on instruments and not through the newest computer software.
Dave Schools is the bassist for the popular jamband Widespread Panic, the south’s answer to Phish. His band tours incessantly – though they’re taking the year off to relax a little and see their kids grow up – and is currently a member of the Mickey Hart Band, which is on tour right now. On January 6, the group stopped by the Westcott for a night full of Grateful Dead originals and some cosmic new material. I had the chance to hang out with Schools and Hart, two of the most inviting musicians I’ll ever meet.
Schools, who’s from Virginia, took some time out of his busy schedule to grant me an interview last week. Coincidentally, he and I spoke literally moments after it was announced Helm had passed away. Schools remembers, vividly, being 13 when “The Last Waltz” was released in movie theaters. It’s a documentary of The Band’s final show, which included guest appearances by Dylan and Eric Clapton, among an all-star slew of others.
“We got together and rode our bikes to the theater to see it and I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect,” he said. “Then I went and saw it at least five more times in the theater. How did I not know of The Band before that? That’s the power of music, and that’s the power Levon had. He wasn’t doing it for commercial reasons; he did it because he truly loved the music. The Band did what they liked to do, and their music has staying power.”
Helm passed away last week of complications from cancer. Since 1998, he’d battled through numerous forms of the killer disease, nearly beating them all before succumbing. He was an innovator on the drums; a cathartic answer to much of the pop music of his era.
The Band, before it was known as such, was a group of backing musicians for other acts such as Ronnie Hawkins and the most influential folk singer ever, whose name is Bob Dylan. At one point, the group was known as Levon and the Hawks, showing who The Band really was at heart.
It was met with all-around sadness in the music community when Helm passed. He was a pioneer of sorts, hosting Midnight Rambles at his barn in Woodstock. They consisted of truly all-star lineups that would come together and jam for the lucky 300 or so who were able to score tickets. His passing leaves a gaping hole not only in the world of music, but also drumming.
Mickey Hart, a good friend of Helm’s and half of the Grateful Dead’s drumming core, has played with Helm on numerous occasions through sit-ins and shared bills. On New Year’s Eve going into 1984 in Oakland, California, The Band opened for the Dead at one of the band’s numerous NYE parties, ones which have grown to legendary and mythic status.
Hart took the time on Wednesday to reflect with me on Helm’s life and the impact he had on a generation of drummers who look up to the small-in-size giant.
“He was one-of-a-kind original,” Hart said. “He had a fierce backbeat, a rolling style that was completely conducive to the music he played.”
Schools said that Hart took the news with a very heavy heart.
“It hit him as hard as it will hit anybody,” Schools said.
Hart’s history with Helm goes way back to the 1960s, when both were part of the hippie movement, whether they liked it or not. Both were innovative drummers; Helm with his ability to blow you away with his beats, voice and heart and Hart with his rhythms from all over the world.
“He could play anything,” Hart recalled. “He had big ears; he listened real well. He wasn’t a soloist, but rather someone who could do everything necessary and woo you with his voice.”
In recent years, due to cancer, Helm’s voice was reduced to a whisper, but he still kept on truckin’, playing concerts with his band and touring way more than a man his age should.
To be 1960s cliché, he was groovy.
“When I think of him, I think of his groove,” Hart said. “He advanced everything he touched, and was influenced by everything he heard. He took powerful trance rhythms and implanted them in the American lexicon. He was a true legend.”
Though Helm is gone from the earth, he will live forever through the sounds he produced.
Hart joked that his eternal brother, Jerry Garcia, now has a drummer to jam with up in heaven.
Just imagine the pair, up on cripple creek, with Garcia strumming “Ophelia” while Helm provides the beat.
It’s magic in heaven. RIP, Levon.
Neil Benjamin Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.