Levon Helm Is 69... and Badass

Rocks Off is having a little trouble looking his "2009 Year of the Rhino" wall calendar in the eye this morning. He trusted it implicitly until Tuesday, when a friend pointed out that in saluting Stevie Nicks, Miles Davis and Hank Williams Jr. on their birthday, he left out former Band drummer Levon Helm, who turned 69. Considering how much Band Rocks Off has listened to since Helm turned 68, and how many times he's watched The Last Waltz, this is just this side of unforgivable. So, naturally, it's all Rhino Records' fault for not putting it on its calendar.

Helm, born in Arkansas in 1940, was hardly the first among equals in the Band - not while sharing the stage with Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. But besides the lone American, he was the group's anchor, and the main voice on its most recognizable songs.

Helm sang lead on "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and opens "The Weight" before, on Rocks Off's favorite version of the song, yielding to first Mavis and then Pops Staples. (It's from The Last Waltz, but recorded on an L.A. soundstage instead of the Band's farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving night 1976.)

His time in the Band also gave Helm, who played Loretta Lynn/Sissy Spacek's  father in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, ample material for one of the better rock and roll autobiographies ever written, 1993's This Wheel's on Fire: The Story of Levon Helm and the Band. In more recent years, besides surviving throat cancer, Helm has hosted the "Midnight Ramble" open jam sessions at his Woodstock, N.Y., homestead, appeared in the films The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Shooter and In the Electric Mist (as Confederate general John Bell Hood), and released the albums Dirt Farmer (2007) and this year's Electric Dirt.

Helm is scheduled to play this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival in October, and although Rocks Off seriously doubts it, we really hope he books a Houston date just before or after that. It would be nice to see him without becoming a dirt farmer ourselves, but if it comes to that, we'd be more than happy to.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray