Levon Helm died a couple of weeks back, and last Saturday, over 2,000 people came to his home in Woodstock to celebrate his life. It’s hard to write in memory of a person whom you never met, but even though I only saw him in person once, I miss him.
It is nearly impossible to find a picture of Levon doing anything but smiling. He played the drums smiling, he played the mandolin smiling, he sang smiling, and every time he and his band got a standing ovation he would beam that sweet ol’ grandpa smile like he couldn’t believe that all these people liked his music that much. Oh, shucks.
I was fortunate enough to see Levon and his band a couple years back at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. It was musical bliss, every song poured out from the soul. Levon’s voice, tattered by cancer, was strong, from the opening horns of ‘Ophelia’ to the last refrain of ‘The Weight.’ A musical menagerie of songs was on display that night. ‘Chest Fever, ‘Long Black Veil,’ ‘Rag Mama Rag,’ ‘The Shape I’m In,’ stalwarts from the days of the Band, were joined by Bob Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ ‘Tennessee Jed,’ a raucous ‘Mardi Gras Day,’ a touching ‘Ashes of Love’ and a whole lot more. Each member of the group got their chance to shine that night, with Levon and his drums tucked away in the corner, where he could keep an eye on things, smiling the whole time. A legend that made every performance magical.
Levon was the soul of American music. The Band personified and cemented American roots music to mainstream audiences, but Levon was the only actual American. He was the backbone, he was the rhythm, the soul. Robbie Robertson’s guitar, Rick Danko’s haunting vocals, Richard Manuel’s piano, and Garth Hudson’s mystical organ (and whatever else he could get his hands on) took listeners to new heights, but Levon was the soul. Everything was out there for every performance. Listen to him belt out every word on the Band’s cover of ‘Don’t Do It,’ or his southern wail on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and you’ll get it. His snare drum always shot off a little louder and with a little more spirit.
This is a guy who beat throat cancer and came back to win three Grammys. He enthralled generations. The world will not be the same without him. Music will not be the same without him.
One of the songs on Levon’s Grammy-winning Electric Dirt is ‘When I Go Away.’ Here’s a verse from it:
“Don’t want no sorrow
For this old orphan boy
I don’t want no crying
Only tears of joy
I’m gonna see my mother
Gonna see my father
And I’ll be bound for glory
In the morning
When I go away…”
Maybe you didn’t want it, Levon, but there’s plenty of sorrow down here right now. Although the next time a storm rolls through, if the thunder is a little louder, and the lighting a little flashier, then I think its safe to say that Mr. Helm is up there, all smiles, still drumming for us from beyond the grave.