Levon Helm, Dick Clark dead; how the Times tells its readers what to think, without telling them that it is telling them what to think; and a discussion of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”

Levon Helm, the drummer of the Band, its only American member (he was from Arkansas, the rest were all Canadians), and its lead singer on many of their best songs, including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” [lyrics] has died at 71.

Released on July 1, 1968, a year after the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” [the Band’s first album,] “Music From Big Pink” was “rebelling against the rebellion,” Mr. Helm wrote. There were no elaborate studio confections, no psychedelic jams, no gimmicks; the music was stately and homespun, with a deliberately old-time tone behind the enigmatic lyrics. Sales were modest, but the album’s influence was huge, leading musicians like Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead back toward concision….

By [1969], the Band was well into recording its second album, simply titled “The Band,” which would include the group’s only Top 30 single, “Up on Cripple Creek” [also with Helms singing the lead]. The album was universally hailed…

Nearly to the end, Mr. Helm spent his life on the bandstand. “If it doesn’t come from your heart,” he wrote, “music just doesn’t work.”

A rebellion against the Rebellion: The Band in Woodstock in the late sixties

The Times’ obit mentions that Helm “hated” Martin Scorsese’s movie of the Band’s 1976 farewell concert, The Last Waltz, because it made the group’s lead guitarist Robbie Robertson the star while downplaying the other members. I agree entirely. Scorsese for some reason became fixated on the image of the prancing, narcissistic Robertson as “leading man” and turned the rest of the group into his almost anonymous backup musicians. It was one of the main reasons the movie did not work.

Also, Dick Clark, the emperor of Rock ‘n’ Roll, is dead at 82. Notice the Times’ consistently condescending tone toward Clark throughout the obit, acknowledging his talent and success while always presenting it in a way to belittle him. I don’t carry any particular brief for Dick Clark, but it is to be observed that the Times, imitated by other liberal organs, has a highly developed technique of telling its readers, not through honest and clear speech, but through the subconceptual method of tone and word choice, of whom they should approve and especially of whom they should not approve. You might call it passive aggressive journalism—involving an aggression which the aggressor can deny.

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Kathelene M. writes:

In honor of Levon Helm’s passing: here is “I Shall Be Released”—Bob Dylan and other musicians in the Band’s 1976 farewell concert.

LA replies:

This Dylan song can seem amorphous and mystical in the negative sense, especially as it became a kind of countercultural anthem and meaningless through overuse. But the lyrics are coherent and profound, especially the first verse:

They say everything can be replaced
They say every distance is not near
But I remember every face
Of every man who put me here.

The modern world tells us that everything is fungible, nothing is of real value, everything can and should be replaced—our spouse, our culture, our religion, our history, our sexual nature, our race, everything. It is the view of atomistic liberal man, forever creating himself out of his preferences, not dependent on any larger world of which he is a part. The singer is saying, No, this isn’t true. Things have real and particular values and they cannot be cast off and replaced by other things. And, though we seem to be distant, we are connected. I am connected to all the men, the creators and builders and poets and philosophers, and my own relatives and friends, who have come before me or influenced me, who created the world in which I live.

Kathlene M. replies:

Thank you! You’ve summarized it so beautifully. I know this song has been overplayed and thus trivialized but to me the song has a spiritual quality, especially when I think of friends who have passed away over the years. I grew up in the Midwest where the Band was played a lot on the radio and so many of their songs are nostalgic.

Michael Reagan writes:

If you’re going to link to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in reference to Levon Helm, please do your readers a favor and link to the video of the “Last Waltz” version of that song. Great performance by Helm in what is considered one of the best live concerts ever.

(And do yourself a favor by selecting the highest video quality 1080, expanding the screen and turning up the volume.)

Thucydides writes:

You wrote “it is to be observed that the Times, imitated by other liberal organs, has a highly developed technique of telling its readers, not through honest and clear speech, but through the subconceptual method of tone and word choice, of whom they should approve and especially of whom they should not approve.”

You have put your finger on what the Times is all about, and what much of its readership seeks. Rather than try to help its readership understand issues by providing facts in a non-tendentious manner, it seeks to prescribe the attitude to be taken. This enables intellectually lazy readers to feel intelligent without thinking anything through. Thinking they know the proper attitude to be taken toward something substitutes for actually thinking about it, which would require some effort. Further, it enables them to traffic in opinions, and seem knowledgeable to others, without fear of the embarrassment that might arise if they came up with a non-conforming opinion which they likely would not be able to defend. Part of the pretense of being knowledgeable is to have a stock of acceptable opinions on all sorts of matters about which the person in fact knows nothing.

Of course, the Times can’t just come out and literally say “Here’s what you should think about this”—that would be offensive to the sensibilities of their readership. Eager though their readers are to conform to correct opinion, it won’t do to be too obvious about the whole intellectually discreditable process, as it would puncture the pretense of culture.

This style of writing is offensive to any thoughtful reader who naturally prefers to learn facts and think things through for himself. Whenever I meet an uncritical enthusiast of the Times, I assume I am dealing with a person who, regardless of intelligence, is shallow.

It seems clear the management knows exactly what they are doing. A few years ago, they ran a series of radio ads featuring some earnest dunderhead saying “I like the way the Times shows me how to think about a story.” (Obviously, this is diplomatically softened from what was really meant; which was “I like the way the Times tells me what I should think about a story.” But the meaning is essentially the same.)

Michael Reagan continues:

And by way of comparison, check out the Joan Baez version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a cover which was actually more popular than the original version by Helm and crew.

In the clip, despite her excellent voice, the selfish narcissism of Baez leaks out in her introduction and again when she actually scolds the audience mid song. Most irritating of all perhaps are the changes she made to the outstanding original lyrics perhaps to make it more politically correct (assumption).

LA replies:

This is a live performance, and a markedly lifeless and poor one in my opinion. Her recorded cover of the song is much better.

Here first words as she comes on stage show Baez at her most obnoxious, the edgy egotistical (and, I’ve read, profane) Baez who was the other side of the sweet soulful Baez. The performance can never recover from that jarring introduction.

David G. writes:

I would simply like to add that The Band’s live album with a horns section, Rock of the Ages, is a masterpiece. Levon Helm’s vocals and Robbie Robertson’s lyrics on King Harvest Has Surely Come tap into something deeply American. The lines,

Scarecrow and a yellow moon, And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town, King harvest has surely come.

still raise the hair on my neck 30 years after I first heard them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Suo_oiz8N8 Thanks Levon. RIP.

Buck writes:

Shooter, a 2007 movie starring Mark Wahlberg as a retired world-class sniper who is coaxed into unwittingly helping a black op-running U.S. senator to assassinate a foreign dignitary and to take the blame; has a short scene with a go-to character who knows where all the bodies are buried. It’s a powerful short scene acted by Levon Helm. I believe it was his last. 2 min 10 secs.B

April 21

A reader in England writes:

I find the final verse of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (and it’s no coincidence that it is the final verse) even more profound than the verse you quoted:

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
There’s a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him crying so loud
Just calling out that he’s been framed.

I apply those lines not only to myself, but to several groups of people who love to portray themselves as ETERNAL VICTIMS. American Blacks in particular spring to mind. Ditto counterculture/white radical activists. Ditto feminists and women in general. Women love to play the victim especially in personal relationships. Last but not least, there’s the new kid on the block, the worldwide Muslim community in all its manifestations, with the Palestinians at the top of the list.

Since 1967 Jews worldwide are less and less into playing the ETERNAL VICTIM role (which is not to say there isn’t anti-Jewishness around the world).

Krishnamurti continually pointed out that each person (and his mindset) was responsible for the state of the world, and generally speaking I agree with that view.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 20, 2012 03:30 PM | Send

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