Friday, April 27, 2012
Monday, April 23, 2012
Levon Helm passed away this week at the age of 71. He was the lone American in The Band, perhaps the most influential Canadian rock band of all time. He was an innately soulful drummer who eschewed the flash and crash of so many of his peers in the late ’60s and ’70s, earning the eternal respect, if not awe, of every drummer I’ve ever known.
Why? The only example you’ll ever need is his groove on “Up on Cripple Creek”—not only is that song incredibly funky, but the reason it’s so beautiful and perfect is that he doesn’t hit his cymbals once. He doesn’t need to. Most drummers employ cymbals as punctuation marks; everything Levon played was so inherently eloquent that there was no need to dress it up.
The Band is an enormous part of rock music history (they made the Beatles jealous); specifically of American music history (they invented the genre now known as Americana); even more specifically, of Southern Ontario and Toronto music history. Levon was the link that his Canuck pals had to the musical traditions of the deep American south that they were so fascinated with. Levon grew up watching carnival shows, gospel music, blues, R&B, backwoods country music, Elvis Presley’s first tour—anything and everything. He came from a world that seemed a century away in 1968, the year Music From Big Pink came out, a year full of modernist flurry, psychedelia and political assassinations.
The rest of The Band were also gentlemen out of time, but none of them grew up amidst the cultural riches that Levon did. Together they made music at once rooted in tradition—which, really, is not hard for anyone of any time to do, regardless of trends—but that also sounded like nothing else, past, present or future. It was, and is, weird music, made by a group who had played every dive along the eastern seaboard backing up a B-list rockabilly star, and then large theatres with a beloved artist considered The Voice of a Generation. Left to their own devices, they got up to entirely different mischief.
It’s hard to separate the music of The Band from the legend that comes with it. Like their peers the Grateful Dead, however, if you don’t get The Band, you really don’t get The Band. (And I, for one, have never got the Grateful Dead.) If you don’t, you stand in opposition to the orthodoxy of critical verbiage about their legacy, including dubious claims about Robbie Robertson’s “surreal” lyrics (really?) or about how Richard Manuel is every bit as soulful a singer as Ray Charles (again, really? I’ve always wondered if any African American writer would dare to agree).
Most Band newbies start with The Last Waltz, which is inspiring and often exhilarating—and yet just as often bloated and self-important. Martin Scorsese’s film is revered, and yet Levon thought it betrayed almost everything The Band was built on. It was Levon who fought to get Muddy Waters in and Neil Diamond out, and it was Levon who left the experience angrier than ever at Robbie Robertson, for whom Levon thought the whole project was a giant ego trip. It didn’t help that, as Levon points out, Scorsese portrays the rest of The Band as mumbling, dazed bumpkins, and Robertson the sole genius.
Levon spouted off about this and much more in his 1992 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire. There are very few rock autobiographies worth reading, but Levon’s is near the top. Not because of the dirt he dishes, including plenty of venom directed at Robertson. Instead, it’s because even at his most bitter, Levon is still a perfect Southern gentleman, unfailingly polite even as he’s tearing strips off people (mostly Robertson) he feels hindered The Band from fulfilling their potential. I haven’t read the book in over 10 years, yet I remember it vividly, especially his portraits of growing up in Turkey Scratch, Alabama, of meeting and touring with Ronnie Hawkins, and of life at the height of The Band’s fame, watching the group fall apart in a series of bad deals and addictions. If you want to understand why Levon is revered, you need to not only hear him play, you must read his book; it’s as much a part of his appeal as anything he ever put to tape. You don’t even have to like The Band to love it.
Likewise, there are some pure objective truths about The Band’s music. On “Up on Cripple Creek,” the alchemy they weave together is incredible—especially Levon and keyboardist Garth Hudson, as we see on this clip.
Now strip away the rest of The Band, and just look at Levon. He broke the mould for rock drumming, introducing jazz and funk into roots rock and soul in ways that none of the other drum-hero showboaters (Moon, Bonham, Peart, etc.) would ever dare; even jazz lover Charlie Watts never dared get too complicated for the Rolling Stones. Levon took what the Motown drummers began and twisted it inside out until it was syncopated bliss, until it sounded like life was, indeed, a carnival. Look and learn.
In one of the most fascinating stories to emerge the week of Levon’s death, Robbie Robertson told the press that he visited Levon in the hospital, days before his death. There’s no sign the two had talked since they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the 1988 Juno Awards; Levon sat out the 1994 induction of The Band to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, specifically citing old wounds with Robertson as the reason. Levon’s book suggests that there was little, if any, contact between the two since the release of The Last Waltz 10 years prior to the Juno ceremony. And yet even Robertson’s statement seems carefully worded: “I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together.” He doesn’t actually say they spoke; he says that he sat with him. Was Levon conscious at the time? Did he carry his grudges to his death? Was this some way of Robertson making peace with himself more than it was about Levon?
No matter, that’s the business of two men and no one else’s. The only other surviving member of The Band now is Garth Hudson, a man whose musical brilliance is matched only by his eccentricity, and who continues to make music regularly with anyone who asks, high profile or otherwise, including Neko Case, the Sadies and Doug Paisley. Robertson rarely makes music anymore.
In the end, it was Levon that people would flock to see, travelling from far and wide to attend his Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, N.Y. It was Levon that fans wanted to know, wanted to witness. And it is Levon, the American, the catalyst to creating one of Canada’s greatest musical entities ever, that we will all miss the most.
For the finest obituary of the man I’ve seen this week, I refer you to Jason Schneider’s piece for Exclaim. I co-wrote Have Not Been the Same with him; I strongly recommend you read his other music book about The Band and that generation of Canadian groundbreakers, Whispering Pines.
Monday, April 16, 2012
I’ve never been one of those geeks; though I appreciate that scene, I’m maybe five years too young for it for that stuff to have any particularly nostalgic pull. And if I’m going to listen to an Elvis Costello record, even though I love the early singles I usually reach for King of America or Blood and Chocolate. I like Lowe’s one big hit, “Cruel to Be Kind,” as much as anyone, but I never dove in much deeper than that. My loss.
His second wind, starting with 1994’s The Impossible Bird, had made him a whole new wave of fervent fans. I didn’t catch up until I heard 2002’s aptly titled The Convincer. That album opens with the song "Homewrecker," where Lowe’s chocolate-covered croon savours every word of the opening a cappella line: You look like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth—there is then a long pregnant pause over a single sustained organ chord—but I know it would. It’s incredibly sexy. Staring at Lowe’s handsome visage on the album cover, butter isn’t the only thing melting in that song—so is my heterosexuality.
Lowe’s 2011 album The Old Magic comes on the heels of a comprehensive career compilation (Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe), a reissue of 1979’s beloved Labour of Lust, and vinyl reissues of recent work. And up against that legacy, it still holds up as one of the strongest collection of songs he’s ever written and performed.
I had the privilege of talking to Lowe for Maclean’s magazine: the full Q&A is here. Read that first before you continue here.
Below are some deleted scenes from the conversation. Nick Lowe and his band play the Phoenix club in Toronto on Monday, April 23.
When I was 18 and left home to join a band, it was out of the question that you would be doing this into your 30s. It was a ridiculous concept. But when I was a youngster, I always wanted to be old. I always liked older people’s music. When I was a kid I could never make myself sound old. I felt I had to wait around until I was able to sing something that had a bit of weight to it.
You also turned grey quite early, didn’t you? It looks like it in the video for "Cruel to Be Kind."
I did. I got a streak in the front and I thought, man, that looks good. Happy day! Unfortunately, it got more and more white until finally the whole lot went. It didn’t fall out, though.
Did any manager or record label try to convince you to dye it, and squeeze yourself into tight jeans?
No. They wouldn’t have got very far if they did.
I knew that you were at one point Johnny Cash’s son-in-law and that you remained close after your divorce and that you wrote "The Beast in Me" for his first ’90s comeback album. But I only realized recently that he covered your songs as early as 1980.
Yes, he did a song of mine called "Without Love." He made it his own, and now I do it like him. The old songs you do, it’s funny how they change without you realizing that you’re changing the way you perform them. You only realize it when you encounter the original again.
What, if any, kind of stock-taking did you do when the recent reissues came out? Do you ever listen to your records? Were you forced to?
I was forced to. When I listen to the old records, I could hear really good ideas, but I’d think, ‘Why did you do that bit?’ And especially, ‘Why did you do it again, later in the song?!’ I could tell I was young and in a hurry and got the thing finished. Whereas now, I’m much more intent on stripping it down.
I’ve heard you say that you purposely underproduce your recent albums so that the songs stand on their own and some brilliant ear will recognize their inherent genius and cover the song. How often has that actually happened? I know that Rod Stewart did “Shelly My Love.”
I’ve had some good covers over the years.
Off the recent records, though?
No, unfortunately. Englebert Humperdinck did “You Inspire Me”—though it was a particularly unfortunate version. (Laughs) But, you know, thanks, Englebert! A lot of younger people do my more recent stuff, but they’re not big hits. And then of course, songs like “Peace, Love and Understanding” have been covered—well, not hundreds of times, but…
Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of times, you mean.
Well, yes, in one particular case!
I’ve heard you say that you don’t write in character or do personal songs. But come on, surely you must.
I don’t. I will stick in something somebody said, but I never really go out to explain, “Then she did this, and can you believe it.” I can tell when people are doing that and it goes in one ear and out the other. The minutiae of people’s situations doesn’t interest me. I like hearing a familiar object viewed from an unusual angle—that’s more my approach. But I do know what I’m singing about: I don’t put my diary to music, but I know what it feels like to be mistreated or to feel blue or to feel extremely happy.
So nobody listens to a song like “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” and thinks, maybe he is letting things slide?
I suppose that one I certainly dug into some personal experience. But there again, it’s viewed from a distance. I am a hack, a Tin Pan Alley hack.
Your last album, from five years ago, is called At My Age and has several songs about being surprised to fall in love again: "Hope for Us All," "Better Man." You had just recently remarried, and surely people are going to look at that and read a lot into your personal life?
I suppose so. If they do, they do behind my back. I don’t encounter much speculation. I don’t think people who like what I do are looking for insights into my personal situation. I think it’s just good tunes—if they think they’re good, which I hope they do.
You’ve been close to big things since the beginning: your first band, Brinsley Schwarz opened for arena rockers in the '70s, and obviously you produced Elvis Costello, and you are old friends with Huey Lewis, who had the biggest band in the U.S. in 1985, when he did a song with you. What did you learn about what you didn’t want from their experiences?
I never really wanted fame, other than when I was a kid starting out. I thought I wanted that. We had an experience with my band—which is quite well documented—when our management got us a gig at the Fillmore East and they chartered a plane of journalists and flew them to see this show, where we were on a bill with Van Morrison, who was on fire—he had just released Moondance. And everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was awful and incredibly embarrassing. I’ve had occasion to fall to my knees and give thanks for that experience, because it gave me an early lesson in the vagaries of chasing fame, and how it’s much better to try and tread the fine path between keeping your head down, keeping your head just below the parapet enough that you can pop up every so often when you want to tell people something, and people won’t forget who you are, but they also won’t be nudging you in the supermarket and peering in your basket to see what you’re eating. I never wanted any of that. Huey and Elvis absolutely love it, they thrive on it. I never wanted to be public property. I was more of a snob. I thought I was a bit better than that!