Friday, April 20, 2012

Levon Helm, drummer for The Band, dead at 71

The death of Levon Helm, drummer and singer for influential 70s rock group The Band, is a significant loss for the rock n’ roll community. But in the many decades that have passed since The Band’s heyday, Helm’s cultural significance is not as widely acknowledged as it once was. It is with that in mind that we present to you five essential — and maybe little-known — facts about the legendary Levon Helm.

1. He played backup for Dylan
In 1964 and 1965, when Dylan decided he wanted to go electric, he recruited The Hawks — an early incarnation of The Band that included Helm, along with Ronnie Hawkins and future Band members Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel — as his band. So disenchanted was Helm with the negative reception Dylan received on the tour that he took a two-year hiatus from music after it was over.

2. He didn’t much like The Last Waltz
Martin Scorsese’s portrait of The Band may be one of the most widely celebrated concert films of all time, but Helm was not a fan, suggesting in his 1993 biography This Wheel’s on Fire that Scorsese and Robertson conspired to make Robertson look like the leading man, with the rest of the Band merely his supporting players. He pointed out that Hudson and Manuel received little screen time, while also claiming that nobody in The Band — aside from Robertson — received any money from the film’s VHS and DVD sales.

3. He didn’t much like Robbie Robertson, either.
For the reasons listed above.

4. He paid for his cancer treatments by hosting the Midnight Ramble
If you already know about the Midnight Ramble — occasional concerts Helm put on at his home in Woodstock that featured performers as varied and lauded as Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Hot Tuna, Kris Kristofferson and Jimmy Vivino (of Conan fame) — you might not know that their original purpose was to help Helm pay for his cancer treatments. Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer in the ’90s, and underwent a laryngectomy and radiation treatment. He was unable to sing until 2004; The Midnight Ramble toured for much of the 2000s.

In Susan Black's book Elton John in His Own Words, Elton says of "Levon": "It"s about a guy who just gets bored doing the same thing. It's just somebody who gets bored with blowing up balloons and he just wants to get away from it but he can't because it's the family ritual." (thanks, Alexander - London, England)
The name "Levon" came from Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead singers of The Band. Elton and his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, were big fans of The Band.
This is a great example of Taupin's complex, often obscure writing style. He and John made a great team because Elton could interpret his lyrics very well, giving life to the characters in the songs.
Since this runs 5:37, Elton's record company wanted to cut this down for the single so that more US radio stations would play it. Elton refused, insisting it be released full-length.
The actual New York Times page 1 headline that included the phrase "God Is Dead" is dated March 24, 1968. The phrase also appeared in a major (page 3) article on January 7, 1970. Smaller pieces dated January and April 1966 that feature the phrase in their headings can also be found. None were on Christmas Day, but the January ones are close! (thanks, Tony - Westbury, NY)
The cover art for the album was hand-embroidered on a Levi's jacket. On the back, the track listing was hand-stitched. This kind of artwork has become scarce in the age of digital design.
Jon Bon Jovi covered this for the tribute album Two Rooms. Elton played piano on some of Bon Jovi's recordings. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada)
Sir Elton and his partner David Furnish became parents to a son born on Christmas Day 2010 to a surrogate mother in California. They named him Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, which is why the baby boy ended up in this Songfact. It is assumed the name "Levon" was chosen because of the song's line, "He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day."

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