A couple of weeks ago I sent a text message to my friend Mark, an art teacher at FIT, to confirm that I was modeling for his Saturday class. I had been booked for that class many times throughout the semester and the frequent working together became a running joke between Mark and I. The week I texted him would be our final class of the year. My message, punched out in approximately six seconds, read as follows:
Mark . . I’ll see U Sat. @ 1. It’s our last waltz
Afterwards, I wondered why I had used the phrase “last waltz”. Then right away it hit me. Levon Helm, a founding member of the roots rock group The Band, had recently died and I, along with most other music fans, had been reading the tributes, articles, tweets, and listening to the songs. The Martin Scorsese directed film The Last Waltz documents The Band’s farewell concert, performed at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. It was referenced everywhere in the wake of Levon Helm’s death, and apparently slipped unconsciously into my text message to Mark.
Levon Helm was the sole American in an otherwise Canadian band, whose members included Ontario-born Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Excellent musicians all. And together they produced rich harmonies and muscular rhythms. But it was Levon Helm who filled the role of bringing the distinctive musical voice of the American South – its rough bluesy poetry and down home expressiveness – to The Band’s memorable sound. Let’s put it this way; if you need a “country” influence, there is just no substitute for a guy who hails from a place called Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. That guy was Levon Helm. And he was the real deal.
What I didn’t know until recently was that Levon Helm was deeply unhappy with the final cut of The Last Waltz. I saw the film years ago and enjoyed it very much. But after learning more about the film’s backstory and controversies, I realize that Helm’s complaints were quite justified.
After a hard-fought battle with throat cancer, Levon Helm passed away on Thursday, April 19th at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was 71 years old. No doubt he was drumming and singing on his way home . . .
For Music Monday, this is The Band performing “Up on Cripple Creek”, one of their signature songs, from The Last Waltz. That’s Levon Helm on drums and lead vocals, sounding great as always – soulful, authentic, pure. RIP Levon, Arkansas’ native son. You will be missed.