The news came out of Woodstock on Tuesday, from his wife and daughter, that Levon Helm was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. When I first read it, I had to close the door to my office for a few minutes. I couldn’t quite figure out why it shook me up so. It’s not like I ever met the guy. I saw him perform live only once. But he’s unique among my musical icons, if you can call them that, insofar as I feel like we’d relate to one another. That we’d have something to talk about, that he wouldn’t be too uppity to say a few words, and that it wouldn’t just be polite conversation. That a man who grew up in a town called Turkey Scratch would be all that you’d expect – easy going enough to sit down and have a beer with you and tell stories for hours, no matter who you were. By all accounts, he was. I’d conned myself into thinking we’d been old friends.
At that moment when you realize that The Band sings The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek, it occurs to you that you’ve been a fan a lot longer than you’ve known. But my first experience with The Band, the moment that I had a realization that the band I was loving was none other than The Band, occurred in my sophomore year of college (So late – for shame!). My roommate at the time had “discovered” them recently, and honored his discovery by playing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Over and over again, at top volume, for a couple weeks. No exaggeration. I’d say he played it ad nauseum, but I can’t recall it even getting old.
And it didn’t get old when, each year, AD would call us together at Thanksgiving to celebrate and fellowship in a law school classroom, of all places, to watch the Last Waltz. Ironically, Levon hated that movie. But for me, and probably a lot of other folks, it’s the first glimpse you have of this man, and the spectacle of him crooning as he bangs the hell out of those drums.
When I finally saw him play live, at the Ramble at the Ryman in 2010, I was two weeks away from graduating law school. It was one of those late April days – sunny, not too cool, not too hot, air heavy with the fragrance of blooms and electric with life – that is the truest blessing of a southern Spring. A group of us grabbed dinner and headed downtown to worship. A perfect storm of circumstances that set it up to be a magical night, no matter which guests he brought on stage. The voice wasn’t what it had been before his surgeries, but it was still beautiful. As AD said to me on Tuesday afternoon, even afterwards, he never lost his inflection, that sound that makes it so immediately clear who is singing up there. But the voice sometimes faltered, so singing duties shifted throughout the evening. Still, he was grinning from ear to ear the entire night. Truly, I can’t recall a moment when he wasn’t singing or grinning. Or as this reviewer put it, looking like a proverbial pig in the shit. They closed the night with a cover of I Shall Be Released, and then I walked out and down onto Broadway with a crowd full of people who were quiet with the recognition that the night had been a special one, even by Nashville standards. For me, it still makes The List.
He left us yesterday, so we’ll honor him with today’s jam. We picked The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but if you are satisfied with one song right now, you’re a better man than me. To that end, here’s a great spotify playlist from Rolling Stone to keep you listening for a while longer.
Ramble on, old friend.