In 1976, after supposedly signing off with the most famous farewell concert of all time, The Band played on. Firstly, without Robbie Robertson; then, following the death of Richard Manuel, they limped further on: missing not only their chief songwriter, but also a third of their vocal prowess. Many things made The Band unique, but their ability to shuffle between - and combine - the talents of three astounding singers was something else, frankly. As a three-headed beast of exemplary vocalists, they had been in a class of their own.
I saw them in 1996, when they were well past their best, admittedly; but there was still a palpable joy to be gained from seeing Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson doing what they liked to do best: they would probably have said, the only thing they knew how to do. When Danko died three years later, in December 1999, even the most ardent fan could no longer pretend that The Band existed in any way at all. A further complication was that Levon Helm, the sole surviving singer of any consequence, was grievously ill with throat cancer: a condition that, even if it didn't beat him, would almost certainly silence him.
It turns out that, for fifteen or so years, it did neither. Helm refused to be slowed: he released albums, he played regularly with an energy that not only belied his condition: it made him look more or less invincible. Or, at the very least, admirably stubborn.
So, after various internet rumours, it came as some kind of shock when it was announced yesterday that he was in the final stages of his battle. I say some kind of shock because he seemed unstoppable; and yet, I'll never forget what a close doctor friend told me years ago: that cancer wins in the end.
It may seem unpalatable to some that, in today's world, we tend to conduct massive, international, Twitter/YouTube-driven, preemptive grieving sessions for someone we don't know. I can't explain why this news affects me as hard as it does: only to say that no group has ever meant as much to me as The Band does; and for them to be finally silenced is, in the words of their most famous song, a load.
Photograph by Elliott Landy
EDIT: Levon Helm died the day after I wrote this, on April 19th 2012.