Levon Helm, it seems, represents more to me than I might have thought. I find myself unable to just acknowledge his death with the usual, respectful “RIP” posts of video clips on Facebook and Twitter. I suppose it’s because he was more than just a member of the Band, a group with an important place in rock music history. He was a terrific artist, and his pure expressive vitality spread into more than one medium. Most of all, he was authentic. More on that in a minute.
Helm’s huge influence as a singer, drummer and all-around musician is widely and rightfully hailed, not least by Jon Pareles in his New York Times obit. The man’s wonderful acting turns in a handful of movies is (perhaps understandably) getting somewhat less play.
What mention there is of his acting usually highlights his first movie appearance, playing the titular father of Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. Of my few memories of that film, one of the clearest is Helm sitting inside the family’s house after returning from work. He stares blankly ahead, motionless, the exposed skin of his hands, neck and face blackened by coal dust, with a single rivulet of blood running from one nostril over his mouth and down his chin.
More recently, Helm appeared in a brief but unforgettable role in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005). The film’s star and director, Tommy Lee Jones, presumably had known Helm since working with him in Coal Miner’s Daughter a quarter-century earlier. By then, the ravages of the throat cancer that would eventually kill him were quite evident (although he would apparently regenerate somewhat in subsequent years). Skeletal and raspy, he played a blind hermit encountered by Jones and his captive, Barry Pepper, as they flee from the law toward the Mexican border. When the good-ol’-boy lawmen eventually ask Helm’s character if he’s “seen anybody come through here lately,” he hollers, “I ain’t seen anybody in over thirty years!”
Levon Helm acted the way he sang: plainly, direct from the unvarnished root of himself. He wasn’t a trained actor, he was the kind of actor who played people who themselves were untrained. Despite the artifice of cameras and crew around him, Helm was one of those face-value who didn’t “act” per se, he’d just be. He was simply not capable of being inauthentic.
He would always be primarily a musician, of course — indeed, would need music to stay afloat. As fate would have it, the United States’s absurdly expensive health care system threatened to bankrupt even the famous Levon Helm after a few rounds of cancer treatment in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s. He opened the barn of his country house in upstate New York for “Midnight Rambles” where he and musician friends would play into the evening. Locals would attend, chipping in a few bucks to take in the music and do some dancing.
Helm referred to these periodic events as a variation on the old Rent Parties that country folk used to organize to avoid losing their lodgings, just as he was in danger of losing his house to pay medical bills. But hey — like the Republicans and Tea Partiers say, hands off our health care! Obamacare and its insurance mandates are an unconstitutional government takeover of the health care system! Even as mild as it is, with no public option, and if people (or even famous musicians) are losing their houses because of medical bills, they should be glad they’re losing their houses in America, the land of the free, motherfuckers! …But I digress.
Let’s get back to remembering a great artist. It was the raw, elemental authenticity I described earlier which imbued songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek” with the folkloric essence that captivated countless music lovers. For my example of choice, it made him one of what must be a mere handful of people not named Bruce Springsteen who could sing “Atlantic City” as if he’d written it, and it had been his all along.
So here is the late, great Levon Helm singing that very song in 2008, accompanied by Midnight Ramble regulars including his daughter, Amy.