Backstage in South Florida: Pondering the Loss of Two Legends, Dick Clark and Levon Helm

Categories: In Memoriam
220px-Dick_Clark_American_Bandstand_1961.JPG
courtesy of Wikipedia
Music vet and
New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions and observations about the local scene. This week: In memory of icons and institutions. 

It's been a hell of a week in terms of losing legends. Two of them in fact. Gone suddenly, though we knew it was inevitable, I suppose. And a third hanging on by a thread. A terrible week indeed.

Not surprisingly, Dick Clark's passing garnered the most notice. After all, the guy was iconic. He had a steady presence for the better part of the past 60 years, first as the amiable host of TV's first music showcase. This was prior to Ed Sullivan's showcasing the first wave of rock 'n' roll's emerging superstars and, of course, the 24/7 surge of MTV, and then later as a veritable television institution whose empire spread to award shows, game shows, a production company, and, inevitably, that New Year's Eve countdown from the heart of Times Square. 

He was so compelling a presence in that final arena that neither the horror of 9/11 nor a stroke could keep him away, even though when his speech slowed and he had to struggle to reclaim a semblance of his old self, it became almost too painful to watch.
Yes, Dick Clark was a trooper. And despite the tragedy that confronted all of us after 9/11 and the personal setbacks that he suffered after his stroke, he remained unceasingly reassuring. Early on, his clean-cut image in the early, heady days of American Bandstand gave parents reason to realize that rock 'n' roll was OK, that their kids were safe in his keeping. And up until this week, he gave us all hope -- that is, the generation that grew up with him -- that youth could indeed be eternal. He was, after all, America's Oldest Teenager, youth incarnate, a man who promised that aging was not inevitable and that if one held to the dreams of youth, he'd never grow old. 

Except that he did. And sadly, we now know we will too. 

I met Dick Clark nearly 20 years ago at the opening of his short-lived American Bandstand Grill in Miami's Bayside Shopping Center. With his perpetual, ever-ready grin, he mingled freely with his guests and graciously agreed to sign autographs. I still have the 45-shaped invitation, on which he signed his names and offered salutations to my two young sons, Chris and Kyle, hanging in my music room. I suppose it could be worth something on Ebay now, but whatever I'd get wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the worth of those memories alone. 

If that wasn't enough to absorb, we also just we lost Levon Helm. Naturally, Levon's legacy won't reap the kind of accolades accorded Clark, but he's deserving of them all the same. 

The authentic heartland picker who found himself in the company of a bunch of boys from our neighbor to the north, he was the authentic personification of the Americana sound that the Band brought to rock. Yes, there had been others before -- the Byrds specifically and, to an extent, Buffalo Springfield -- but until the Band arrived, first in the company of Dylan and then on their own with the one-two punch of Music From Big Pink and their eponymous sophomore set, no one had procured a down-home, back-porch approach with such authenticity. They even looked the part, with their weathered visages, overalls, and thread coats posing stoically on a country road up there in Woodstock, as if to say, with all humility, country rock has arrived. 

Levon, the drummer, mandolin picker, and frequent lead singer, gave voice to those rambling narratives, singing the songs that originally summed up their sound -- "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Ophelia," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in particular. Watching him keep the beat back there on the drum kit and sing, head turned toward the microphone, one got the full sense of what the music was all about, the rustic resilience of those timeless tales and the lessons learned with them. 

Indeed, though he faced crippling medical issues in the final years of his life, Helm's sheer determination never kept him far from the fray. After his voice weakened to a mere rasp, he fought back and sang stronger. His Midnight Rambles at his home in upstate New York became a new tradition of sorts, a gathering of both veteran and upcoming artists who were proud to build on the roots-rock sound he helped establish. 

Even when illness forced him to the sidelines, he was an indomitable presence, a father figure not only to his daughter, Amy Helm, who continues his legacy in her band Ollabelle, but to musicians and fans alike who seized on the sound of his heartland traditions and embraced all they echoed. 

So, here we are days later, looking back at the passing of two figures who meant so much and praying desperately that a third, Robin Gibb, the Bee Gees brother, will somehow pull through. The music died twice last week. How terrible that it should die again.


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