At Chester's, Berkeley, on June 29, we will pay tribute to Levon Helm, drummer/singer/mandolin player with The Band who just passed away April 19, 2012.
I have a personal connection to this group. In 1969, after a period of traveling, I found a place to live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, with friends who had a spare bedroom. I moved into their flat on Yonge Street up above a corner store. I had little else besides my record collection. I was listening to Big Pink constantly, the first album by The Band, a group of Ontario guys who got their start just down the street from us. The Band began as the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkin’s backup band at the Yonge Street club, Le Coq D’Or.
The Big Pink record opens with the song, Tears of Rage. It moves dirge-like, not with a catchy melody like one of my other favorite tunes on the record, We Can Talk About it Now. “I want you to know that while we watched, you discovered no one would be true,” they sang. Bob Dylan and Richie Manuel, the Band's pianist who co-wrote Tears of Rage, must’ve already learned this hard philosophy from worldly lives spent traveling city to city. The Band had also been across the ocean with Dylan on that pretty rough 1966 tour through England, the tour where Dylan got booed for “going electric,” although Levon himself was not the drummer on this tour.
These were men who were wiser than I. When I first heard the song Tears of Rage, I was a baby bird barely out of the hometown nest, naive about the duplicity of human behavior. When I found out about the lying, cheating world for myself, it was a discovery that hit me rather hard.
Levon's most famous lead vocal performance on the Big Pink album is The Weight, "Take a load off Fanny... you can put the load right on me." It was a released "single" for the group. Although it did not chart very high, it is remembered to this day, covered over and over again, an integral part of the Band's legacy. The songwriter, Robbie Robertson, said about The Weight, refering to the filmmaker Luis Bunuel, "Buñuel did so many films on the impossibility of sainthood. People trying to be good in Viridiana and Nazarin, people trying to do their thing. In ‘The Weight’ it’s the same thing. People like Buñuel would make films that had these religious connotations to them but it wasn’t necessarily a religious meaning. In Buñuel there were these people trying to be good and it’s impossible to be good."
If there's a list of things to do somehow left behind, crumpled up in a dark, dusty corner of the apartment from my days on Yonge Street, the first item on the nearly illegible note would read, “Listen to Big Pink for words to ... ;” I was trying to decode it, looking for direction like in lines from Wheels on Fire, “Just notify my next of kin, this wheel shall explode.” Within a few months I was in a van, bound for California on the Great American Highway, Route 66. A second life opened out before me. From mountain to plain to desert, to mountains again, I was travelin’ on, leaving the pain of my first life behind, and I was singin’ my heart out.
(See http://www.amazon.com/voyages-ancestral-islands-poems-prose/dp/1448637279 for Dave Holt's book, Voyages to Ancestral Islands.)