Tag Archives: Levon Helm

Day tripping at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

8 Jan

Propeller Head Jesus

Propeller Head Jesus

I am a museum geek. Give me admission, and I’ll tool around the galleries until the lights dim. This is enormous fun for me but not so much for my companions. Years ago when my partner and I went to Florence – a city with 72 museums – she humored this behavior for about three days, at which point she put her foot down. “If I have to go to one more museum and see one more painting of Jesus with a propeller on his head, you’re walking back by yourself. To San Francisco.”

It’s a lot like me and rock music. Just mentioning a musician turns on a spigot of trivia, unbidden and unstoppable: “Oh, you like the Black Keys? They’re from Akron, Ohio, you know, the birthplace of Chrissie Hynde, the Waitresses and Devo. You know, Devo was actually a seriously subversive band. The name is short for “de-evolution” reflecting their disillusion with the direction of society. Mark Mothersbaugh, you know, has scored a bunch of Wes Anderson films, and just did The Lego Movie, and … wait, why are you leaving?”

Put rock and roll together with a museum, and it’s my idea of heaven on earth. However, asking others to come with me would usher them into a bowge of hell. So, on the second day of 2015, I drove myself from Detroit to Cleveland to revisit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on my own.

R&R Hall of Fame

Cue the angels singing and the doves flying: at the front door of the Temple of Rock & Roll

The last time I went there was 2011, with my son and younger daughter (then nine years old) in tow. They were great sports, but ultimately they got their fill just as I was getting started. This time, I wanted to be there from open to close, giving myself permission to wallow in whatever I fancied.

As much as I carp about their induction choices, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is well curated, beautifully laid out and engagingly interactive. They make the most of video and audio to augment the collection of instruments, costumes, posters and paraphernalia on display. For instance, the Early Influences listening station near the front of the main gallery features the forefathers and foremothers of the genre, coming from blues, gospel, country and jazz, providing brief biographies, photos and choice examples of their songs.

I got to know a few of these folks better during my visit, including Louis Jordan, who certainly gave Little Richard some ideas …

… and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, whose Texas swing inspired Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” with this song:

After a couple of hours tooling around the exhibition hall in the lower level, I grabbed a sandwich then got comfortable in the Hall of Fame theater showing the video highlighting each year’s inductees through 2013. Given there are more than 304 inductees in the past 29 years, this takes a while, even as they gloss over some of the greats to keep things moving. In my opinion, 2011 was their best year for showcasing artists who run the gamut of what rock music can be. My particular favorites from that year:

Dr. John, who you can see here doing “Iko Iko” in concert with Ringo Starr and some of the best side men of the 1970s: Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, 2/5 of The Band, Billy Preston … boo howdy!

Tom Waits, who knew he was an acquired taste from early on, as spoofed in his appearance in 1977 on Fernwood 2 Night:

Leon Russell, who played elegantly powerful piano for everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Harrison without losing his Okie weirdness, which is on full display in his Homewood Sessions:

Sorry … the trivia spigot just went full blast again.

More than six hours after I arrived, I was back on the road home, sated after gorging on music all day. And the thing is, if someone would offer to go with me, I’d be back on 75 South to 80 East in a second, to see what more I could explore.

Let me know when you’re up for a road trip. I’ll pay the tolls on the turnpike … although I’ll control the stereo.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need even more evidence of how great the Class of 2011 was? Tune in at 12:47 in this clip from the 2011 induction broadcast to see Alice Cooper – bloody tux and all – trade verses with Darlene Love on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” How I adore rock and roll!

A time I remember oh so well …

19 Apr

Levon during his days with The BandLevon Helm, the drummer and one of the three singers of The Band, passed away after a long, long struggle against throat cancer. I’m taking this news harder than I would have expected. The guy’s voice just made me feel at home.

My first awareness of The Band’s music was through Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Even as a six year-old, I thought it was a strange song for a woman to sing. I knew full well she couldn’t be Virgil Caine and she couldn’t be a “working man” like her father. But she was so pretty and she performed it with such sunniness, I loved to sing along – especially since she mentioned Richmond, my home town. Wow, I lived somewhere famous!

A few years later when I heard the original version, my first reaction was that those Band guys turned a great Joan Baez tune into a real downer. My misunderstanding of the meaning of the song continued through high school, where I played clarinet for our school’s Marching Rebel Band.  When our team got a touchdown, we’d play “Dixie” and wave the Stars and Bars. When we lost, we’d sing “Dixie” as a dirge on the long bus ride home, followed by a reverent version of Ms. Baez’s boppy tune.

As they say, ignorance is bliss.

I was born and bred in the Confederate capital city, and the Civil War is Richmond’s place in history. The gigantic statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and the rest up and down Monument Avenue are immovable symbols of a lost and ignoble cause. I know full well that what we used to coyly call “the War Between the States” was a battle to preserve slavery. Waving the Confederate Flag as a symbol of school pride, as we did every Friday at our football games, was at best naive and at worst, racist.  It’s difficult to think about as an adult because I feel like such an idiot in retrospect.

That’s why I understand the import and feel the impact of The Band’s song so deeply. The art of Robbie Robertson’s lyrics and Levon Helm’s delivery is that it strips the Civil War of its romanticism but not its humanity. Virgil Caine’s story is one of futility and loss: “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” Heavy stuff for a hit record; bittersweet, beautiful and necessary for this Southerner to hear.

Rest in peace, Levon, and thank you.

See you on the flip side …

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