Levon Helm was voice of an earlier America
While Levon Helm’s death hit hard anyone who loved rock ’n’ roll, the sadness may feel universal but also very specific.
Everybody of a certain age (mine, and younger) remembers the first impact of that voice. It seemed to emanate from deep in the past and wield a strange healing power, especially as it hit us all at a bad moment of national torment.
At the dizzying dawn of a new, confused and conflicted America, that voice was a portrait of the old, proud America. He and The Band gave us back an America that didn’t shame us. The official grown-up America was a bigoted, lunatic bully that tried to kill us in Vietnam, on campuses and in ghettos here.
As an aside, that thuggish America seems to have triumphed again, despite the fleeting sense, back in the ’60s, that the forces of youth and change would win. It’s embarrassing, generationally, that our two boomer presidents were such appalling duds. Clinton gave us NAFTA, GATT and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, turning America into a dying Rust Belt, temporarily and artificially puffed up with a housing bubble that let bandits bleed us dry. Bush went to the gym, gave Cheney the keys and started two new Vietnams.
But I digress.
Going way back
The image of a better America that Levon portrayed with his voice was perfectly framed in The Band’s music, and Levon’s simple, steady drumming was a key part of that frame. It was more than just old-fashioned; it was all the way back. The Band made the sound our grandfathers’ grandfathers might have used to celebrate or to mourn, to seduce or to soothe — to tell our deepest and tallest tales. Look up “authentic” and the dictionary should show us Levon’s face. He and The Band sang of love and pain, fun and family but also famine and fate — that whole life and death thing.
As Bill Flanigan told us in an eloquent eulogy on CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” Bruce Springsteen told Flanigan, coming out of a Levon show, that “We get used to versions of things: Levon IS the thing.”
OK: I met him a few times, I’ll use his first name, thank you.
The first two times were backstage. One was at Saratoga Performing Arts Center when he was playing with the vastly underrated Cate Brothers, friends from Arkansas, when they opened for somebody: I don’t remember or care who. The other was at Union College, where a bunch of us waited backstage with a reconstituted version of The Band to play a free show, hanging out together in a dorm lounge. Levon was the somewhat reluctant center of attention both times. He was used to awe but he didn’t seem to like it much. He tried to put folks at ease, asking us about these places where we lived and where he’d come to play.
When I heard later that he had throat cancer, I remembered ruefully how he’d smoked nonstop in both backstage encounters and offered his cigarettes around to us, a Southern gentleman all the way.
I remembered there at Union how he and the boys decided things had dried off enough to play. They went onstage with as little fuss as their techs had, to set up their beat-up gear. It was just about the polar opposite, glory- and spectacle-wise, of when James Brown went to the stage there for another free show, wrapped in a cape and preceded by his valet Danny Ray and the Rev. Al Sharpton who pompously mimed pushing everybody back. The Band went on like carpenters taking up saws and hammers. And they were sublime.
Recalling Egg visit
The last time I met Levon was on June 29, 2007, when he came to The Egg for a show that hit me like this: “The venerable drummer and singer led a big band that proved fully capable of evoking the majesty, moods and might of The Band. Helm and friends blew expectations through the roof in a tremendous, deeply rooted show charged with feeling. Everyone in the crew Helm described as ‘the best players in New York’ played and sang as if honored to be with him. Helm played and sang as if honored by both their company and the music.”
Before the show, I had sat reading on a bench on the sunny Plaza, noticing a lean, wiry older gent approaching with a black lab on a leash. I asked him the dog’s name but didn’t really hear the answer as I realized it was Levon, though I managed to exchange the pleasantries of the day. It was a fine day to walk your dog, play some rock ’n’ roll with your friends, for your friends in The Egg.
I wish I’d told him, “Thanks, Levon, for giving me back my America.”
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.