Most of the tributes to Levon Helm (who just died at 71 after a long fight against throat cancer) rightly focus on his remarkable career as a musician. I thought I would highlight his short but memorable list of movie credits: narrator and sidekick to Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and in particular his superb work as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. His Arkansas-bred drawl and charisma never failed to light up the screen whenever he took a role. Any man who could hold his own with Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard was no joke.
Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s On Fire is hands-down the most entertaining rock bio I’ve read, and I only wish he’d recorded an audiobook version in that inimitable storyteller’s voice. As someone who could never quite swallow Robbie Robertson’s self-important pronouncements in The Last Waltz, I trust Helm’s take on the breakup of The Band far more than anyone else’s. Nobody disputes Robertson’s place as chief songwriter for The Band, but there’s also no question that the heavily workshopped songs on those first two Band albums (in which Robertson shared songwriting credits) are the ones that sustain the group’s mystique, while the Robertson-only songs on subsequent albums are a far cry from their predecessors. And if Robbie was the sole genius at work in The Band, why has he failed to record a note of music that matters in his post-Band career? I think Helm’s lasting bitterness was justified.
All that’s done now. Helm had a fine late phase in his career, garlanded with Grammy awards and sparked by plenty of fine music. I only wish I’d been able to catch one of his Midnight Rambles.