Music News

At the Helm

Drummer Levon Helm spent a lot of years smoking a lot of cigarettes, so it wasn't the biggest shock in the world when, in 1997, doctors told him he had throat cancer. But what the white-jacketed men and women of New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center did to rid him of the renegade cells clogging his gullet certainly took him by surprise.

"I didn't really have a lot of surgery other than just exploratory stuff," Helm says from his Woodstock, New York, home. "What they mainly did was 28 of those radiation treatments, and, boy, that stuff is hot! But it works, you know; it's just a miracle. We live in a wonderful age, and there's some folks down at Sloan-Kettering who're guardian angels. You can fight back and you can win. They'll help you."

But the battle took its toll. Prior to his affliction, Helm possessed an indelibly American speaking voice -- one capable of evoking much of the country's history, from its pioneer beginnings to its modern essence, with every syllable. Director Phil Kaufman is among many who recognized the power of this instrument. For 1983's The Right Stuff, an adaptation of a Tom Wolfe novel about the early days of the space program, Kaufman wanted a narrator who could merge native heroism with aw-shucks modesty simply by opening his mouth -- and the man he chose for the job was Levon Helm.

The radiation bombardment changed all that. Helm was unable to speak for around a year after it began -- "I could whisper, that's all" -- and when the ability to converse aloud finally returned, it did so in a guise he hardly recognized. "It don't hurt to talk now," he says in what's left of his voice, a boisterous, sharply accented rasp with an occasional metallic timbre at its core. "It's just kinda like when you're hoarse -- like that hoarseness you get in your voice? You just have to talk through it. You have to kinda force your voice a bit more."

Singing isn't agonizing, either -- but it's not pretty. The man whose crooning, by turns elegiac and rowdy, stamped "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and many other numbers by the Band, an act as unique and influential as rock has produced, can't carry a tune anymore, or even pick one up. When trying to sing, he concedes, "I just don't know where it's gonna go!" After a mad cackle of the sort he unleashes regularly, he adds, "I might get into some comedy music, you know, because I'll aim for a note and that damn thing'll take off! Yeah, boy."

As this response implies, Helm isn't spending his time moping about the lousy hand he was dealt. He's simply happy to be alive -- so much so that the mutating of what he refers to self-deprecatingly as "my thin-ass voice" doesn't seem like that big of a deal. "I'm so lucky, because my first love is playing drums. I never did want to be no singer, you know -- and I never was, really!" The cackle again. "But I still want to be a drummer; I'm still aiming for that. I don't play first chair yet, but by God, I'm still in the game."

Helm's squad these days is the Barn Burners, a blues combo that features lead singer/harmonica player Chris O'Leary, guitarist Pat O'Shea, bass fiddler Frankie Ingrao and Helm's daughter, pianist/vocalist Amy Helm, of whom he's fiercely proud. "This ain't no case of Amy taking advantage of Pops playing music for a living," he says. "This ain't no charity case, 'cause Amy can cut the mustard."

The ditties Amy and the rest of the Barn Burners deliver aren't new. "We only do classic tunes by one of the classic players, you know," Helm says. "Muddy Waters or somebody like that. And I love to do it, because I always wanted to play the blues. That's kinda what my little contribution to the Band was. That sorta bluesy sound that the Band has? You can blame most of that on me. And it don't never get old, 'cause it gets you up and moving. Blues music is the most danceable music of all, you know? It's not too fast and it's not too slow, and you can kind of catch up with it. It's got that long kind of a stroke to itself, and you'll kinda stretch your foot out there, you know, and you'll wait for that backbeat to drop, and when it finally does, it feels so nice.

"When people say the blues is dead, I don't know what the hell they're talking about," he goes on. "Because blues is where the fundamentals of music are. Whatever you want to play, whether it's country or rock and roll or anything, you could do a lot worse than learning the blues. And that's us: still learning. We try and play them better than we did last night -- and we played them pretty good last night! But we're going to play them better tonight, yes sir. We're going to sing them better and get more in the middle of the note and be more on pitch and in tune. Just better."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts