Levon Helm Leaves Us, But His Spirit Lives On
Levon Helm: 1940- 2012
By Grant Britt
Photos by Grant Britt
You could tell something was wrong today, some important presence had left us. It felt like a chunk of the universe was missing, had broken off and gone spinning out of reach forever. Levon Helm left us this afternoon, and his passing has left a gaping tear in the musical fabric of the galaxy.
He didn’t have a license to practice medicine, but he had healing powers that were good for anything that ailed you. All you had to do was listen. Levon Helm had the ability to take on your pain, filter it, and present it back to you in a way that made you feel cleansed.
Helm was a survivor, a tough guy with a beatific countenance that belied his personal pain and suffering. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996, he was advised to have his larynx removed. The singer opted instead to undergo rigorous radiation treatments to save his voice. He was unable to sing for years, able to communicate verbally in a soft rasp. But in 2004, he started singing again for the first time at one of his Rambles at his farm in Woodstock, New York. By the time he recorded his’97 Grammy-winning album Dirt Farmer, he stated that his singing voice was 80 % restored.
If you ever saw Levon Helm perform, you shared an experience that was so uplifting it will stay with you for the rest of your life. It was truly a religious experience. His spirit was larger than life, and he willingly shared it.
At his’08 performance at Merlefest, when Helm was 68, his voice sounded as clear and sharp as it was at age 36 when the band performed its Last Waltz on Thanksgiving day, 1976 at Winterland in San Francisco. His performance brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance. But they were tears of joy that such a glorious voice and presence was once again among us, bringing back to life our memories of the seventies Band heyday when Levon’s force field seemed to surround us. The Band’s music was a celebration of life, a twangy Appalachia that rocked. Helm was the anchor, the time keeper and the chief story teller of a group that was the epitome of Americana, a country’s musical culture wrapped up in one untidy bundle that stirred your soul.
Words don’t pay the proper tribute to his passing. His spirit is still in his music, and thankfully there’s plenty of that left to help us soothe the pain. I can think of no better tribute than to play his music today and celebrate his spirit, today and every day.