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An Ode to Levon Helm's "Masterpiece"

The news has been plastered pretty much everywhere: Levon Helm, best known as the drummer and occasional singer with The Band, is near death — or, in the words of his family, "in the final stages of his battle with cancer."

One of my bands plays a cover of The Band's 1969 single, "Up On Cripple Creek," which I sing. It's one of the highlights of the set for me, because I typically screw around and mimic Helm's raspy, incredibly Southern-sounding voice and inflections on several verses, especially, "Good luck had just stung me / to the race track I did go," etc.

But what's even more fun than trying to sound like Helm is listening to the real thing -- especially the incredible job he did on two other signature Band tunes — "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

His delivery on the latter had some listeners thinking they were hearing an authentic relic of the Civil War — even though the song was written by the group's Canadian guitarist, Robbie Robertson, more than 100 years after the fact.

But for me, Helm's greatest moment with The Band is their cover of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" from Cahoots (1971). While it was already common for other artists to improve upon Dylan's recordings of his own songs (The Byrds, The Turtles, Jimi Hendrix, pretty much anyone), Helm's performance on "Masterpiece" is truly one of a kind.

The recording captures his essence — his accent, his phrasing, his rasp, his originality. He changes the melody — and the lyrics — when it suits the song. Note how he dives to the bass register with "and a-wastin' time" at 1:50 then soars way up there with "mighty kings of the jungle" at 1:53, summing up the verse in majestic fashion with the beautiful "Someday everything is gonna sound like a rhapsody" at 2:22.

Helm's looming death will represent another major loss to the fading classic rock community. It's all inevitable, of course, but it's still a drag.

Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World.