As a kid, I wanted to play drums like Ringo Starr, but I didn't want to sing like him. Ten years later, when John Fogerty made an album playing all the instruments, I wanted to sing like Fogerty, not play the drums like him.
Last week, we lost Levon Helm (1940-2012) of the Band, who rocked the skins and sang at the same time, probably better than anyone has done it before or since. Don't tell me about that guy in Rare Earth--I know from experience that singing and playing simultaneously is an unusual but not really an exceptional skill. The truly remarkable and glorious thing about Levon is how he fit in so well with the others in the Band. As a musician, he was not one bit of a showoff. At the same time, Helm's gruff way of seizing the moment provided a stunning contrast with the group's other vocalists, the sweet singing Richard Manuel, and the tragic-comic Rick Danko.
Levon didn't write songs at the time, but he was Robbie Robertson's most forceful interpreter, carrying on the southern tradition of rock'n'roll (as he hailed from Arkansas) with raving authenticity. The others, coming from Canada, still managed to sound more believable than most of what was on the radio in 1968, when Music From Big Pink was released. At that time, with Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (released in December 1967) leading the way, pop music was coming out of a freaky period and into something more honest, at least from my vantage point. The Band's ensemble playing and singing, and Levon's deep, dry drumming brought a new realism to the era. It's said that when the British group Fairport Convention started working on their traditional folk and rock fusion Liege and Lief, they woke up in the house they shared every day to records playing...the music of the Band.
I am still in awe of what Levon did on the first two albums, Music from Big Pink and 1969's The Band, the remarkable live LP Rock of Ages (recorded on New Year's Eve, 1971-72), Northern Lights--Southern Cross (1975) and his recent solo albums. The Band reconvened in 1993, without Robertson, and made fine records as well. There, Levon's drumming is as groove-filled as ever, and who would have guessed that he could take En Vogue's pop-R&B hit "Free Your Mind" (from The Band's High on the Hog, 1996) and make it sound like a Levon Helm song? Who was the most exuberant musician on Bob Dylan's Before the Flood (recorded live on the Dylan & the Band tour, mostly in February 1974)? That huge, rolling beat could come from no other place.
Levon's work just got richer upon his death, because it has a quality that can never be re-created. And I'm assuming that you know the Band's music, or else you wouldn't be reading this. If not, it's something that can be retrieved fairly easily. Thank you,
Working in the library continues to be a most enjoyable experience for me, and I am really moved by being in the children's section at some very choice times. It makes me think of my girls when they were barely walking and talking way back when.
Recently, I was marveling at a conversation between two young boys as I was putting books back on the shelf. They were playing with toys and building something together. One of them said, "I know you have a lot more experience with this than I do." I about fell off my...well, I wasn't in a chair. The two moms, who had just met, were standing by and beaming at how their sons were cooperating. As they left, one mom said to the other, "See you at MIT in a few years."
Often I hear utter crap when I'm in the kids section of the library--and it primarily comes from the adults. Why would someone want to pass poor English on to their children? They do all the time: "Do you want these ones?" (ouch!) instead of "Do you want these?" and "Where's it at?" (what the...?) instead of "Where is it?" Someday, on some planet somewhere, parents won't be speaking like fools.
For whatever reason, Gina and I have started watching the "Mad Men" TV series via DVDs, starting with the first season (2007). We have been more than impressed. Are we the last people in the world to get into this show?
Going back to the early 1960s (where "Mad Men" starts) doesn't seem like a big leap backward to me, and yet it's backward in every way: the first thing one notices is the incredible amount of smoking going on (if you suddenly get the urge to see A Hard Day's Night again after many years, you'll experience the same thing); and especially the treatment of women, whether it be in the Sterling Cooper offices on Madison Avenue
or elsewhere. The manner in which the women on the show (reflecting '60s American society as a whole) are belittled, harassed and objectified reflects a troubled nation back then, or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant today--or whomever is attacking Planned Parenthood this week. Wait a minute...perhaps life in the U.S. is de-evolving.
"Mad Men" seems to be an accurate portrayal of the times and is a good way to measure how far we've come, generally speaking. I love how the program recreates the sights and sounds of the era without relying on gadgets, although those kind of things (the carousel slide projector, for instance) often stand out.
Perhaps the most striking moment for me so far in these detailed character studies is one that relates to my life growing up. I recall a big campaign to keep plastic bags (the long ones that cover dry cleaning items such as skirts, pants and shirts) away from young children in the late 1960s. But in the initial season of "Mad Men" (set in 1960) this particular lapse in judgment had me laughing out loud. It's when the character Betty Draper (January Jones) witnesses her two children chasing each other around the home, and one of them has pulled a plastic bag over her head. Rather than becoming concerned about the safety risk to her daughter, Betty scolds the child, because she has probably left an expensive dress of Betty's on the floor in order to use the plastic bag.
It's stuff like that which adds to the brilliant writing and acting we've seen so far
(Jon Hamm is often amazing, as are many others). It's a part of our history that has
thankfully begun to erode, but a fascinating period for sure. Four thumbs up for