Thoughts about Levon
I don’t think the death of any of my musical heroes has hit me as hard as losing Levon Helm.
There’s something more personal, more immediate about letting him go. I’m a word guy, so I’ll try to put a few together and say what I mean.
I grew up in a pretty neutral slice of suburbia. We did what a lot of suburban kids do. Drink. Smoke pot. Listen to Led Zeppelin (this was the 90s, mind you). At a pretty young age, I wrapped my identity around the music I listened to. I was inspired by the 60s, listening to Dylan, Hendrix, the Dead and modern day jam bands, particularly (God forgive me) Phish. I hit the big shows, the festivals, the bongs, the pipes, the baggie full of dull grey, musky-smelling mushrooms.
It was a decadent and fun time in my life. I had a lot of freedom, little responsibility. I felt like a lost child of Woodstock (or so I liked to imagine myself).
Then things started to crack. I watched friends turn into glazed-over, dreadlocked hustlers. The camaraderie of getting high with strangers started to ring false. The whole neo-hippie thing started to feel like an act, an excuse. Rebellion without a cause—or a purpose, other then hedonism.
Then I found Music from Big Pink. It was different. The music was rich-sounding, soulful, virtuosic without being at all showy. It was funky, pleading, twangy. The guitar solos were few, muted, understated. The vocals were a little soul, a little country, and all Americana.
And at the bottom, a delicate, lilting but driving beat. Someone once said Levon was the only drummer who could make you cry.
The Band’s music wrestled with history, responsibility and guilt, then broke through to raucous, raw-boned freedom. And at its heart was Levon, the pulse. The town crier. The backslapping stud. The voice of regret.
I wanted to have a beer with him. Jam with him. Try out songs on him. I got more serious about my own music, what I did with my vocals and my guitar. I put bands together and played in bars (the trick for finding a good drummer: use the phrase “play like Levon Helm” in your craigslist ad.)
Time went on, and I became a full-on Americana guy. To this day, I’m constantly chasing down some thread in American music…I gorge myself and I just can’t get full.
But always, without hesitation, I call the The Band my favorite band and name-check Levon Helm’s resurgence with Larry Campbell as the most important thing that’s happened in the last decade of American music.
The music he made just sticks to me. I can’t get sick of it, can’t love it too much.
I had the good fortune of seeing Levon play a couple times, including an outdoor show in Woodstock at a small venue. The whole band was there, horns included. Larry and Jimmy Vivino slashing on Gibsons. Levon was in full voice.
It was a revelation, from the moment they ripped into Ophelia. Pure joy.
I think of Levon taking the stage, shuffling out in his work shirt, clean-shaven. Acknowledging the crowd with a gracious nod of his head. He looked like a master craftsman. And he played like one.
Levon lost his voice a long while back. I thought it was gone, and I’m sure many others did too. But it wasn’t, and he made a comeback that couldn’t have been more pitch perfect.
We might not have gotten the gifts he gave us in the last few years. He could’ve taken the low road, chosen surgery over years of chemo. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
He fought to get his voice back, and when it came, he sang like each song would be his last.
It had to end, I suppose. My heart is broken that it did. But I’ll always be grateful for what he gave, and I’ll never forget him.