Dick Clark’s dead, and Levon Helm’s dying

And to channel Lewis Grizzard, I suppose I should say I don’t feel so good myself.

I was sad this morning to read that Levon Helm is in the last stages of cancer. Virgil Caine himself! Not only am I a huge fan of The Band (I saw them live with Bob Dylan in ’74!), but he’s the most awesome, naturalistic actor I’ve ever seen. Remember him as the coal miner himself in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”? You’d have thought they had dragged him right out of the mine, he was so real.

My favorite role was the flight engineer Jack Ridley, Chuck Yeager’s best buddy in “The Right Stuff.” Sample down-home dialogue:

Chuck Yeager: Hey, Ridley… you got any Beeman’s?
Jack Ridley: I might have me a stick.
Yeager: Well loan me some, would ya? I’ll pay ya back later.
Ridley: Fair enough.
Yeager: I think I see a plane over here with my name on it.
Ridley: Now you’re talkin’…

He was also the narrator, because he came closest to having that aw-shucks Yeager quality that the job required:

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

And now, this afternoon, I hear this:

Dick Clark, the music industry maverick, longtime TV host and powerhouse producer who changed the way we listened to pop music with “American Bandstand,” and whose trademark “Rockin’ Eve” became a fixture of New Year’s celebrations, died today at the age of 82.

Clark’s agent Paul Shefrin said in statement that the veteran host died this morning following a “massive heart attack.”…

Clark landed a gig as a DJ at WFIL in Philadelphia in 1952, spinning records for a show he called “Dick Clark’s Caravan of Music.” There he broke into the big time, hosting Bandstand, an afternoon dance show for teenagers…

I first saw “Bandstand” on local TV in Philadelphia. I lived across the river in Woodbury, N.J., in 1960-61, and used to watch all those “big kids” talking about which songs had a good beat and were easy to dance to.

All these years, and he never got old… but time eventually took its toll.

33 thoughts on “Dick Clark’s dead, and Levon Helm’s dying

  1. David Carlton

    Here’s what’s really depressing: I mentioned Levon Helms’s plight at the beginning of class (at Vanderbilt. On the history of the New South.) and none of my students knew who I was talking about. I actually had to explain to them why The Band was so important. I’m old.

  2. Silence

    Not everyone can make a fortune through payola and ripping off poor and uneducated black musicians either.

  3. Mark Layman

    I did not know Levon Helm was the narrator for The Right Stuff. Thanks for that nugget. Have you ever read Ralph J. Gleason’s Rolling Stone story about The Band’s debut at Winterland? Back when rock journalism meant something.

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ David Carlton–I’m 52 and I had no idea who Levon Helm is and only the faintest idea who The Band is and no idea why they are/were important….

  5. Brad

    Wow. Maybe you’re just barely too young. They were never top-40 popular. They started as Bob Dylan’s backup band, then went on their own, calling themselves what they were called when they backed Dylan — The Band.

    You know “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” right? It’s the best song I’ve ever heard about the Civil War. Anyway, Levon Helm is the guy who sings it. He’s singing it in the picture above, which I grabbed as a screenshot from this video.

    “Sings it” doesn’t quite describe what he does. It’s more like he EMBODIES it…

  6. Maggie

    Brad, check out “End of the Line” with Wilford Brimley and Holly Hunter for another outstanding Levon Helm acting performance. “That’s some sportsmanship there.”

  7. Libb

    Robbie Robertson is my favorite member of The Band and I’m a big fan of his solo work after leaving the group.

  8. Doug Ross

    I’m 51 and in the same boat as Kathryn. I didn’t know of The Band until much later in life when the Scorsese concert movie had been out for a while. I do have The Weight in my downloaded music… love that song.

    As for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,”, the version I remember is Joan Baez’ from 1971. It may have been one of the first 45’s I owned. For you young folks think of a 45 as a CD with one song on each side 🙂

  9. bud

    Ditto with Doug and Kathyrn.

    I recently asked my kids if they knew what a 45 was. They thought it might be some kind of beer.

  10. Brad

    Joan Baez (whom I also saw in concert at about the same time) sang it beautifully, the way she does everything. But I had 2 problems with her version:
    — That beautiful voice is wrong for this first-person song. Not just gender, but accent and diction. Whereas you believe Levon IS Virgil Caine.
    — She gets the words wrong. She says “so much cavalry came” instead of “Stoneman’s cavalry came.”

    How’s that for being pedantic?

  11. Phillip

    Doug, I remember that Joan Baez single of “The Night they…” I think I even own it and it’s probably still in my mom’s attic with all my other 45’s. Being your same age, Doug, I too was a little too young to really know of the Band in their heyday…but came to know them just a few years later when I finally saw Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” the film from which the still Brad posted is taken, and still one of the greatest concert films of all time, in my opinion. Speaking of the “The Weight,” Doug, that’s hands-down my favorite from The Last Waltz. (BTW Mavis Staples is still going strong, and is performing at Spoleto next month.) Here’s the link from the film.

  12. Brad

    And even though it wasn’t original to them, you should listen to their cover of “Long Black Veil.” Even though they hadn’t quite fully developed their instrumental style at that point (in 1968), it has the atmosphere that would be typical of their later work.

  13. Brad

    I first got into The Band when I was in Hawaii going to the same HS as Burl. There was a cover story about them in TIME, and the description I read there of a hard-to-describe band intrigued me enough to go out and buy “Stage Fright.” Next I bought “The Band,” and so on…

    Before I bought that first album, I had never heard their music. This was 1970…

    Wait. I just found that TIME cover, and I see it’s from JANUARY 1970. I was still living in Tampa then, and didn’t get to Hawaii until that summer. But I associate first listening to The Band with Hawaii.

    Maybe I didn’t read that issue until it was several months old; I don’t know…

  14. Brad

    “The Weight” is one of my favorites, too — and a good intro for someone wanting an introduction to The Band. So is “Up on Cripple Creek,” which is one of the few you ever hear on the radio.

    Some other (somewhat more obscure) favorites of mine, coincidentally all from the same album:
    King Harvest
    Jemima Surrender
    Unfaithful Servant

    Another widely-known classic: “I Shall Be Released.”

    It’s hard to describe The Band’s music (so you just have to hear it). I’ve seen it described as “country rock,” like CCR, but that’s inadequate. It IS rural-sounding. And old-timey, sometimes biblical. And very autumnal. The color scheme of their eponymous album is a perfect fit — solid brown, with black-and-white photos.

  15. Burl Burlingame

    The Band was simply one of the most important musical influences of the last half-century, marrying rock, blues, country and folk into a unique sound — a sound you’d recognize today because so many musicians have absorbed it.

    If you care at all about American music The Band is important.

  16. `Kathryn Fenner

    umm, I can tell you why Philip Glass is important and recognize his music, ditto John Cage, Steve Reich, (two of whom have a very close connection with a regular commenter on this very blog!)…I just don’t know much about popular music after World War II. I just never got into it, other than the stuff my girlfriends were listening to (Partridge Family, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, etc.).

    Now, I can sing most of the verses to Gershwin and Cole Porter standards, and the choruses, of course….I’m trapped between Downton Abbey and Mad Men…

  17. Brad

    If my notion of postwar popular music was the Partridge Family, John Denver and Neil Diamond, I wouldn’t listen to it, either.

  18. `Kathryn Fenner

    My husband and I, both born in 1960, think all y’all hump Boomers–those in high school classes say 1968-1973, need to get over yourselves. Sure, your pop music was vastly better than the dreck that preceded it Late 50s, early 60s was the nadir of the genre, but often your arguments for “what makes it great” are “because I listened to it in my youth.” Most popular music is like fast food.

    I’m off to work on my Beethoven–now that’s good stuff.

  19. Silence

    I only know who Philip Glass is because they parodied him on “South Park.”

    Let’s lay off of the Partridge Family, I still harbor a fantasy crush on a young Susan Dey. Also Cathy Baker from Hee Haw.

  20. Burl Burlingame

    Pop music is the cultural lubricant of all the world’s societies. I’m actually quite in awe of much of it. But that means I can appreciate rap, but I don’t have to like it.

  21. Silence

    “I’m off to work on my Beethoven” -‘Kathryn

    Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

    Alex Delarge approves of your choice.

    Will you be heading to the Korova for some Moloko with your droogs, then maybe going for the old suprise visit? and some of the old in-out?

    Real Horrorshow!

  22. bud

    I’m a disco kindof guy. Like the Beatles too (Doesn’t everybody). But I find Dylan and some of the other 60s groups a little offputting trying to pretend to be somehow cultural. It’s just elitist crap really. Give me good old fashioned fun music any day. As the late Dick Clark might have said, “Does it have a good beat you can dance to”?

  23. Brad

    How about some Moloko made with that veshch with knives in it, to sharpen us up?

    Wait for me, Oh my Brothers, whilst I don my platties of the night!

  24. Brad

    Bud, I’m of that generation that came along when dancing wasn’t the object of music, relatively speaking. It was for listening. Roughly 1965-1975, between the early-60s discotheques and the rise of (horrors!) disco. We danced some when I was in junior high (65-67), but after that it was about the listening. I mean, there was still dancing, but it wasn’t the main point.

    And Kathryn is wrong if she believes that it was “great” because it’s what we heard when we were young. Sure, that intensifies its nostalgic effect, but I think you can demonstrate with some degree of detachment that that same period was one of extraordinary creativity on many popular fronts.

    There were so many genres just exploding:
    British pop groups and their American imitators (what everyone thinks of first)
    Various metal forms arising out of the above, with bubblegum and pop going in other directions
    Folk, evolving from acoustic to electric, in numerous directions (Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel are very different)
    Varieties of soul, from Motown to Memphis
    Latin (Spanish variety), spanning a broad spectrum from Herb Alpert to Jose Feliciano
    Latin (Brazilian variety), from Girl from Ipanema through Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66
    Old folks/Rat Pack-style — Dean Martin and others reached broadest audiences ever on TV
    Crossover country — spanning a wide spectrum from Glen Campbell to Johnny Cash, enjoying wide popularity not seen before or since
    Even Broadway show tunes — the variety shows made Broadway tunes better known than before or since, and there was an explosion of shows still in revival
    White blues — big overlap with British groups here, but Paul Butterfield and others sort of stand alone

    Then there are all those bands and individuals that can’t be easily categorized — Warren Zevon, Randy Newman (late in the process), David Bowie, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Linda Ronstadt…

    I just can’t think of a time when so many kinds of music were so huge, and reaching such a diverse audience, with so much energy and creativity exploding out of every one of them.

    Can you?

  25. Brad

    And silence, yes — that would definitely make one of my Desert-Island Top Five Album Covers of All Time.

    In fact, I wonder — does the music of Herb Alpert appeal to me because of the music itself, or because I was exposed to that album cover while in junior high?

  26. Silence

    I think Herb Alpert’s music has it’s own appeal. He may have been more influential as a record exec though, than as a musician.

  27. Bob Lewis

    Damn well told, Brother Brad. Levon Helm was a natural talent applied in several disciplines. He WAS The Band and, by extension, Virgil Caine. He WAS the grim, gaunt Kentucky coal miner in the Loretta Lynn biopic. He WAS Jack Ridley. He was what he was and it was more than good enough. Had he been a writer, he could have been the next great Southern author, spoken of as we do Styron, Harper Lee, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams. But the secret to his genius is he did only what fulfilled him. And it’s a mighty legacy he has left us.


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