Levon Helm, RIP: Appreciate His Legacy in 15 Tracks

Helm performs at the Fillmore East in 1969 / Photo by Elliott Landy/Redferns
Helm performs at the Fillmore East in 1969 / Photo by Elliott Landy/Redferns
WRITTEN BY
Richard Gehr

FIVE SONGS THAT COULDN'T EXIST WITHOUT HIM

1. Rolling Stones – "No Expectations" (1968)
One history of '60s music sees things moving along nicely in a heady, futuristic, psychedelic direction until the Band brought everything to a screeching, check-yourself stop with Music From Big Pink. Take the Stones, who followed up the weird and ambitious Their Satanic Majesties Request with Beggars Banquet and this dusty country blues.

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2. The Beatles – "Get Back" (1969)
Ringo Starr, rock's other great beat-chasing drummer, sounds a whole lot like Levon on this watershed single produced by Phil Spector. Its character-driven verses about a guy named Jojo, who leaves his home in Tucson, Arizona, and Loretta Martin, a woman who is really a man, are as close to a Band classic as anyone else would ever record.

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3. Elton John – "Levon" (1971)
Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin wrote this whooping, driving tune to honor the drummer, and damn what a tribute. It sketches the life story of a "good man" who is born, raises a family, and dies — accompanied by banging piano and some passionately sawing strings. Decades later, Sir Elton would middle-name his son Levon, too.

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4. Uncle Tupelo – "Looking for a Way Out" (1991)
As harmonizers, Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Levon-esque drummer Mike Heidorn were the '90s equivalent of Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. The Tupelo trio, of course, evolved into Son Volt and Wilco, but their entwined voices on this slacker anthem — "There was a time / That time is gone" — are imbued with the Band’s timeless sense of longing and quest for redemption.

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5. The Hold Steady – "The Swish" (2004)
According to lead guitarist Tad Kubler: "Me and [frontman] Craig [Finn] were just sitting around watching The Last Waltz when Craig said, 'Dude, why aren’t there any bands like this anymore? Let’s do this from now on.'" Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel are name-checked in this dissolute and surreal rocker.

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