I had seen some great acts on this stage: the screaming of Janis Joplin, the great horns of Chicago, the electrifying guitar of Jimmie Hendricks, and the explosion of Tina Turner, who by the way, made Mick Jagger look like a wet frightened electrified grasshopper in comparison, but I had never been transformed as I was that night, the night I went to see Bob Dylan’s “Band.”
Every summer, many years ago, the University of Southern Illinois put up a big tent, and gave concerts when I was growing up. All the greats came, but there are moments, as every artist will tell you, when the gods aline and the music is transformed into some kind of fairly dust. It doesn’t happen often…maybe only a few times in a musicians life..but when they do, you do NOT forget it.
I was in the third row, in a crowd of some 10,000, when I saw him…Levon Helm. The name fit them perfect: The Band. They were almost from another time in America, like they had stepped out of some old time Southern plantation…and so different from the rest of the groups by their sheer ordinariness, that you couldn’t help but wonder—How in the world did that wonderful full bodied sound come out of guys who look like your brother, or your mechanic down the street? The fact that they didn’t play the “Star” scene made them all the more attractive.
And I can picture clearly, everyone in the front rows, jumping up and down…to RAG MAMA RAG. I was no exception.
I can’t remember any of my thoughts from yesterday, but I can remember my thoughts at that moment of utter happiness so many years ago. At the time, I was trying to figure out just what WAS it that made this sound so joyous? I decided…as I watched the band reacting to the crowd who were all in sheer ecstasy…the smiles on their faces…that it was the drummer that was the cause. He was the magic genie that pulled that original American sound together.
At that moment I knew..I wanted to be Levon. I had seen every drummer and studied them carefully throughout my life as a drummer: and most are known by the “drum solo.” There was the ungodly drum solo in Inna Godda DaVita…repetitious: There was the impressive “chops” of the drummer from Chicago in “I’m a Man” nice to watch..but like you watch a movie. While Wipe Out was the norm to which drummers judged themselves, it left me bored.
But Levon did no drum solos. He just laid down the most remarkable feeling that JUMPED off that stage and left you jumping in your seats. There was no way he could compete with a Buddy Rich, or a Billy Cobham, or many of the other famous drummers, but there is something cerebrally ecstatic about the simplicity of a steady beat. Levon’s drums talked to your heart in the most simple way. You did not want to leave that sound…your body would fight you ever step of the way. You literally FELT his drums. I can’t explain it.
The only other drummer that had that unexplainable talent was in my drummer’s mind, Gene Krupa. And Levon could sing…it was twang, and it was to the point, and it was fun.
The song Rag Mama Rag (Listen to video) is a great statement about women. Was he complaining that his mistress was on her period and didn’t want to have sex? Or was she just always bitching about something?
Who cares? It’s one of my favorite songs.
Levon was a great drummer. Right up there with the unappreciated Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts. I tried my best to be like them. Not the show off drummer, but the heart of the band. I realized I could never compete with the great drummers everywhere, but I could do what Levon did. Feel, the music, enhanced the music of the other musicians, and make people dance.
The heart beats strong. And you’d better dance while you can.
I paid the price with hands so big from years of drumming, my son once said I had the hands of an eighty -year- old (I was 29 at the time)and he was right. I can see my veins now punching out like an old prizefighter. Not pretty for any girl…but there you go.
Levon died last week, but …it’s okay. He’s still here. He’s singing to me right now.
Now, enjoy RAG MAMA RAG…and wonder…Who in the world would think to play a tuba in a rock song?
Only The Band. They were one of a kind.
(The Bourbon is 100 proof, it’s you and me and the telephone….!!)