In 2007, New York Magazine called Levon Helm “the coolest singing drummer of all time.” Of course, that had been true for decades, as anyone who had ever heard the Band or watched The Last Waltz could attest. But he was also one of the most long-lasting. Which is why it was particularly sad and surprising when news broke yesterday that the 71-year-old Helm was in the final stages of a long fight with throat cancer.
For an outfit composed of mostly Canadians, the Band remains one of the most true-sounding American music groups there ever was. Helm, born in Arkansas, was its sole Yankee (though a southern one) and it’s his voice that takes lead on “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
In 1998, though, it seemed that it was all at an end. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to undergo intense treatments and then relearn how to sing. As our reporter wrote in ‘07:
It didn’t take me long to understand why Helm’s mafia is so protective. He’s excessively private, until he’s in front of you. Then he has no boundaries at all. He lifted his chin and showed me a neat square patch on his throat, with three tiny black holes in a line across it. It’s a radiation scar. “They make a mask for you, and there’s places for bolts in the back, and they bolt you to a table,” he said slowly. “They shoot the radiation beams through those three holes. This happens every day, five days a week. It only takes five minutes after you get on the table. It’s fairly quick. But I would have to be very careful and make sure my nose was blowed, and I could breathe real good. ’Cause you can almost panic in that kind of position, and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t get off that table.
Broke and saddled with medical expenses (“You can’t afford to pay your bills and buy your medicine — you’ve got to give up one or the other,” he said), Helm declared bankruptcy but also began his Midnight Rambles, the popular guest-star-laden biweekly jam sessions held in his barn and recording studio up in Woodstock, as a way of raising money. He’d been drumming at them for about a decade and singing at them for eight years. All that time, he showed every person in attendance that there was only one thing that could stand in the way of a wonderful life, and he had yet to encounter it.