It’s safe to say that an aging rock musician, whose arguable heyday was thirty-five years ago, doesn’t have much interest in being a cancer crusader. Old people are “supposed” to get cancer, especially after a lifetime of hard living and three packs a day. The price of fame, perhaps. So it goes.
But Levon Helm isn’t your average dinosaur from a long-gone era of classic rock. And he wasn’t even old when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. And the price of his fame is about much more than a cancer diagnosis, and seems to be caught up in the tortured and well-documented dissolution of his relationship with his one-time brother and Band mate, Robbie Robertson. But that is a story for another day.
Today, four days after an evening with Levon and his band, I am busily untangling what it is about him – his musical energy, and his cancer story – that moves me so, that has hooked into me in such a profound way.
I fully admit that I came to Levon through the back door – several of them, actually. Early in my musical education, The Band was just another artist on “The Big Chill” soundtrack, and Robbie Robertson was the (alleged) author of a few tunes that appeared in the “Great Songs of the Sixties” songbook that I religiously studied in my days as a passionate but not very skilled piano player. But in those days, Levon, who I would later come to understand as perhaps the essential life force behind his complex and ingenious Band of brothers, was unknown to me.
Fast-forward a few years, and my obsessive love of U2 led me to discover Robbie Robertson’s early solo records. His raspy voice and musical atmospherics drew me in, and not knowing any better, I quickly assumed he was The Band’s primary creative genius. (Plus, who can resist that scarf in “The Last Waltz?”)
When Mike and I moved in together in 2000, we developed an unexpected tradition of coming home from an evening’s revels, popping in the DVD of The Last Waltz, and watching selected scenes and performances. We got to know Neil Young’s coked-out craziness, Van Morrison’s unitard pantsuit and Neil Diamond’s giant sunglasses. For lovers of rock and roll, there are few pleasures greater than the performances assembled in Scorsese’s film. It is truly musically orgiastic.
But it wasn’t until we attended a 25th anniversary screening of The Last Waltz, and I saw Levon’s energy depicted on the big-screen for the first time, that I really began to understand what he was about. Behind his kit, singing his heart out, he was someone truly extraordinary, communicating an incredible joy and passion through his music.
What I didn’t know at the time, as I sat mesmerized in 2002, was that Levon had been diagnosed with throat cancer several years earlier. So much of what I have learned about him has been after the fact – his decision to undergo extended radiation rather than recommended surgery, a decision presumably made with the hopes of saving his voice, but which ended up destroying it anyway; the fact that he began his Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock as fundraisers to cover his medical expenses; that his musician daughter put her own career on hold to return home to take care of Levon while he underwent treatment. In the end, fame aside, Levon Helm was just another human being facing cancer, trying to figure out a way to stay alive.
Over the past ten years, I have immersed myself in the massive Band catalog, and developed a deep affection for Levon’s singing and playing. One of the things that initially attracted me to The Band was the presence of so many distinct singing voices, and the way they blended, swapping verses and lead lines – from one track to the next, there is an ever-changing tone and texture, depending on who’s out front. That being said, there has always been something about Levon’s voice, high and clear as a bell, and the way he was able to belt it out while simultaneously pounding out some of the fiercest drum lines in rock history, that has hooked into me. Watching him sing and play is like watching ecstasy in motion.
Cancer and radiation destroyed Levon’s golden voice, and he has worked diligently to restore it to a workable form. He’s recorded albums and plays constantly – usually at his home base in Woodstock, but once in awhile (as last week outside Philly) he takes his show on the road. What a blessing, then, to watch him play Wednesday night, a huge, infectious smile on his face the entire time.
But we were not to hear that voice. Levon didn’t sing last week; he didn’t even speak. He smiled and acknowledged the crowd all through the show, and even in silence was the essence of graciousness. The closest we came to hearing his voice, though, was the trace of a hoarse whisper as he counted down intros on a few of the numbers. Beyond that, nothing.
It was a shock, and a disappointment, in an otherwise joyous and remarkable evening. Levon has assembled a truly phenomenal group of musicians, including his daughter, led by the perversely gifted Larry Campbell. Gorgeous vocal performances were in abundance. But Levon’s voice was not among them. Perhaps his vocal chords were just tired, and he didn’t want to diminish the quality of the performance. Perhaps he’s had a setback, or just a cold. Regardless of the reason, though, the silence was deafening.
You might look at Levon Helm today and see a frail old man, a ghost of his formidable former self. But when I watched him the other night, I just saw another cancer survivor, robbed of an essential part of his identity, living with joy and vigor, shouting to the world (however wordlessly) about how much he has left to say.
The day after the show, high on the magic Levon and his band created, I came across an interview with Levon from 2007. In response to a question about how hard it was “as a singer” to have to deal with a disease and treatment that ravaged his voice, Levon smiled and said, “I never thought of myself as a singer. I always thought of myself as a drummer. As long as I can keep playing, I’m happy.”
Thankfully for all of us, Levon continues to play his drums with a skill and feeling that is undiminished by time or illness. He plays like no one else, spreading joy and beauty with every beat. But to me, his voice always sounded like something straight from heaven, or some other very happy place. So I hope that Wednesday night was an aberration, and that we’ll be hearing him sing again soon.
In the mean time, his journey through cancer and his resurrection as a changed but still brilliant musician, provides a lesson for us all.