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by Eric Kohn
April 20, 2012 10:38 AM
4 Comments
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Martin Scorsese Reacts to Levon Helm's Death

wfuv via Flickr. Creative Commons License. The Band drummer Levon Helm at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008.

The music world took a major blow yesterday with the passing of Levon Helm, the famed drummer for The Band, who died after a prolonged battle with cancer at 71. For years, Helm hosted a prolonged jam session known as the Midnight Ramble, in which the lively musician and numerous guests played into the night. In later years, Helm brought the Midnight Ramble to the spacious recording studio of his Woodstock home to raise money for his throat cancer treatment. For those (like myself) lucky enough to have attended these sessions, the intimate venue was an unparalleled showcase for musical talent.

Nobody explained the Midnight Ramble better than Helm himself in Martin Scorsese's memorable portrait of The Band, "The Last Waltz." You can watch that scene here. A lifelong fan of the group's work, Scorsese provided Indiewire with the following statement about Helm's passing:

The late Jim Carroll once said that Levon Helm was the only drummer who could make you cry, and he was absolutely right. Levon’s touch was so delicate, so deft, that he gave you more than just a beat – he gave the music a pulse. And his high, ringing voice was just as soulful. His bandmate Robbie Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for Levon to sing, and I’ll never forget how moving it was to watch him sing it during their final performance at Winterland, which is one of the high points of the movie we made from that show, The Last Waltz. Levon was a gentleman, a consummate artist (and, I might add, a wonderful actor – his performance as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter is rich, understated, and very moving), and he loved music as deeply and truly as anyone I’ve ever met. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with Levon, and I am one among many, many people who will miss him.

4 Comments

  • rachel | April 28, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    I agree with you Jev and Jerry. Look closely at his comment, and recall the big rift between Robertson and Helm over the rights of many of The Band's songs. Robertson contends that he has written several, if not all, of The Band's songs. Helm, in This Wheel's On Fire, maintains that many of the songs were co-written with himself, Hudson, Danko, and Manuel. Helm had a very unique perspective about the way bands should function. He never wanted to place any one member at the forefront because he felt strongly in each member’s participation in all facets of the musical process. This also included each member’s access to fame: Helm felt all members should share the “famous spotlight.”

    Robertson’s narrative around the song rights issue still asserts (and has been asserting ever since the dawn of this issue) that he did write all of The Band’s songs. Scorsese's comment, "His bandmate Robbie Robertson wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for Levon to sing, and I’ll never forget how moving it was to watch him sing it during their final performance at Winterland, which is one of the high points of the movie we made from that show, The Last Waltz," supports Robertson's narrative.

    Here's what's really happening in this quote: Scorsese has reiterated, again, what Robertson has also been saying for many years: Robertson wrote all of The Band’s songs. I understand that Robertson has in mind to write a memoir—he claims growing up part Native and having aunts who told him he was full of stories (again to support his narrative about his ability to write songs) prompted him to do so. In an April 11, 2011 Rolling Stone article, writer Matthew Perpetua, says Robertson has signed a contract with Crown Publishers and the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group.

    Essentially what this means: Now that Helm has passed and can no longer voice his dissent regarding this matter (unless Hudson does), Robertson can continue to get away with claiming he wrote all of The Band’s songs. He has got years and years of comments that support this, as does he have Scorsese to support this also. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

  • Mazdak | April 24, 2013 3:16 AM

    Robbie has never said that he wrote all of songs of The Band. Wish you people do a little research. Check out the credits for the first two albums. there are songs credited to Manuel to Danko and Dank and Bob Dylan (This Wheel's on Fire). There are also songs like Whispering Pines in the later albums that are credited to Manual. So the bone of contention are really two songs, the Band's biggest hits and sellers, and don't forget they were The Beatles. These two songs are The Weight and Dixie. It's all about money and jealousy. The way the Band worked in terms of songwriting is no different than any other band. You think Bill Wyman never contributed in any way to a Stones song? come on, now. The proof is this: songs like The Weight show a unique vision and that vision is evident in Robbie's later works, whereas Manuel's style is totally different. You can't manufacture a song like The Weight. Also, where is all the songs that Levon Helm wrote after Robbie's departure? Robbie went on to write a ton more songs. The other guys had to hire a songwriter to write for them.

  • JEV | April 20, 2012 10:50 PMReply

    "Helm called "The Last Waltz" -A DISTASTER! So far nothing I have read for the exception of his own words can explain this further. I perhaps speculate it was all the Robertson "show-boating" going on not only in the Film but within The Band. The constant fighting between taking the credit and not. Levon leaves us that haunting and dramically truthful voice of his own pain and southernly gentleman he was. JEV - Orlando

  • jerry | April 20, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Levon hated Scorsese and the whole experience of making their movie together. Read his account of making the Last Waltz in his blindingly honest book, This Wheel's On Fire.