Bob Schwartz

Levon Helm

Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko

Levon Helm is dead at the age of 71.

The Band was one of the greatest American musical groups of its era. Great as in musically few better, American as in of and about America, which is strange because all but one of the members was Canadian. That was Levon Helm.

Levon was from Arkansas, son of a cotton farmer. Along with Ronnie Hawkins, he was an original member of The Hawks, which evolved into The Band with the addition of Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. As much as the influences came from every which where, as much astonishing musicianship and creativity as each member constantly demonstrated, this was an American band, an Arkansas band.

That was the key to The Band’s second album, The Band (1969). If The Band, the group, is unlike any other, The Band, the album, is even more unlike. At a time when synthesizing genres and styles was becoming normal, The Band stood out, and still does. These are songs about some sort of 19th century American South, played as if The Band had brought all their electric instruments and modern sensibilities back and forth in a time machine. Impossible to classify because it was created by Canadian rockers reborn in Arkansas, except for the one member who was actually born there the first time. That was Levon Helm.

No Levon, no Band. It’s that simple.

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went na na na…

Dick Clark’s Psych-Out

Dick Clark, who died this week, was a pop culture polymath and phenom. He became expert in so many aspects of emerging entertainment forms, inventing some, exploiting others, and almost everything he touched turned to gold.

Among the less celebrated but fascinating parts of his career are his work as an actor and a movie producer.

Acting was not Dick Clark’s strength, though he made more than a dozen appearances in movies and television, starting in 1960. In Because They’re Young (above), he plays a new high school teacher facing his own personal challenges. His struggles help him understand and get close to his troubled students—something the school administrations frowns upon. Clark followed this in 1961 with The Young Doctors, in which he plays one of them.

Movie production in the 1960s is where we see Clark’s instinct for exploiting pop culture. He produced three movies in 1968, and stars in one of them. In Killers Three he plays a North Carolina backwoods criminal who rips off some bootleggers, and ends up as a killer on the lam (most notably, Merle Haggard plays a sheriff, and composed his classic Mama Tried for the film). Savage Seven was a typical biker gang movie. But the crowning achievement of Clark’s career as movie producer is the hippie epic Psych-Out.

Critics and fans argue about whether Roger Corman-produced The Trip (1967) or Dick Clark-produced Psych-Out is the best of the psychedelic period movies. Both films share cast members, including Susan Strasberg and Bruce Dern; The Trip also has Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, while Psych-Out has Jack Nicholson.

There is no contest. Dick Clark produced the great dramatized on-location non-documentary about the last days of love in San Francisco. The plot is ridiculous, and ridiculously complex and fevered. It begins with Jenny (Strasberg), a deaf runaway, who comes to Haight Ashbury looking for her brother The Seeker (Dern), falls in love with musician Stoney (Nicholson), and ends up standing in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, her hearing miraculously restored.

We have a lot of major achievements to thank Dick Clark for, but just in case it gets missed, note that Psych-Out is surely one of those.