When Dexter Gordon passed away in 1990, Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom penned an article boasting he owned every one of the jazz saxophonist’s albums while simultaneously lamenting the majority of his readership probably didn’t even know who Gordon was. Instead, Albom took the opportunity presented by Gordon’s death to tell his readership they were stupid, uncultured louts who probably knew all the lyrics to Madonna’s hit singles. Madge, you may recall in those days, was still somewhat of an enfant terrible. It was an apples v. oranges argument, in other words, and somewhat fatuous on Albom’s part.
This brings us to the media storm surrounding the death of Dick Clark and the comparative cricket chirping attending the passing of Levon Helm. The former was a marketing-savvy promoter who broadcast rock, pop, and disco infomercials into America’s living rooms every week for decades. No harm there, as parents were assured by the smooth-talking, youthfully handsome, hip yet terminally white-bread host that rock music wasn’t really all that dangerous. Yes, the longhairs wielded electric guitars like blade-brandishing barbarians laying siege to Rome, but they were held back from complete victory by adhering to the strictures enforced by lip syncing to their current three-minute chartbuster. No room for unmanufactured mayhem here, Mrs. Cleaver.
As for the latter, Levon Helm, he was everything the hipster critics wrote about him in the past and will continue to write about him well into the future. He may not get props and shout-outs from Ryan Seacrest and Tony Orlando on The Today Show or Good Morning America as did Dick Clark, but, rest assured, Helm left an indelible mark at the crossroads where American folk, country, blues, and rock’n’roll intersected. He was Bob Dylan without the media baggage, Hank Williams without the whiskey-stained Cadillac, Robert Johnson without the pact with the devil. I swear, you could’ve cut the guy and he would’ve bled music.
I never witnessed a live performance of the original lineup of the Band, the group Helm helped pilot to acclaim and one of the greatest influences on the best music that came thereafter, but I was fortunate enough to attend a concert back in 1983 performed in Chicago by Helm and fellow Band-mate Rick Danko. The sound was spotty, and Helm was sharp with the sound technician, telling him from the stage, that it “sounded like we’re playing in a washtub” in that Arkansas drawl. It was chilling, but effective. The sound improved, not by much, but the sheer talent on display was nothing short of astounding.
The same could be said about the numerous times I was fortunate enough to catch live performances of the reconstituted Band without Robbie Robertson. At which point, it must be asked, was there ever another band featuring three world-class singers such as Helm, Danko, and Richard Manual? Doubtful. And now the three obscenely gifted men have all shuffled off the mortal coil. One can only hope their earthly voices reunite once again for a heavenly chorus.
But perhaps that’s overly sentimental. There’s plenty of recorded material and concert memories to tide the world over in the absence of Helm and his musical brethren from the sheer brilliance of the Band’s Music from Big Pink, the magnificence of the group’s self-titled sophomore effort, and the wickedly sprawling tapestry of the Bob Dylan collaboration, the Basement Tapes, to the intermittent genius of the band’s subsequent efforts and Helm’s solo career.
Dick Clark’s legacy is important, mind you, but not nearly as enduring or historical as that left behind by Helm in this writer’s humble estimation. But the memories of both men should at the very least receive equal attention however much I doubt Helm would’ve given a tinker’s cuss for an encomium from Matt Lauer. Just so. Both men made entirely different contributions to the world of music and certainly provided very different musical memories for the world at large and me in particular. It’s Dexter Gordon versus Madonna, and all four emerge as winners.