Levon Helm, drummer, singer and guiding light of The Band, died Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
I'd sing him a song, but I can't sing. Hours after his death, I heard a song on the radio that he recorded not too long ago. To me, it's his elegy. I've wrapped my memories of him around the lyrics to that song. It's the best way I could figure to mark a sad occasion and commemorate the kind of man I believe he was:
“There’s a sorrow in the wind / Blowin’ down the road I’ve been / I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun . . . “
When you put on a Band album, his are the songs that stop you in your tracks and make you grin (c’mon, Jemima, surrender) and make you want to dance on a wood-plank floor under an endless Western sky the way they did in the square dance scene from “My Darling Clementine.” If the Beatles were pot and the Stones were coke, The Band was moonshine. Moonshine is a distilled spirit, and no one distilled the spirit of the day more purely than Levon Helm.
“But I cannot look back now / I’ve come too far to turn around / and there’s still a race ahead that I must run. . . “
After The Band broke up, sadly and acrimoniously, Levon took what might be called a re-mastered Band on the road in the early ‘80s, without guitarist Robbie Robertson. His tour barely rated a “Random Notes” notice in Rolling Stone. The Band was done, kaput, the wise men of the industry decreed.
But no one told Levon, or if they did, he didn’t believe them.
I first met Levon on the eve of that tour. I was more fan than newspaper reporter and more nervous than I care to remember. I knocked on the door of his spacious log home on a leafy lane in Woodstock at 3 p.m. No response. I kept a’knocking. Levon finally came to the door. He’d been asleep. I was still learning musicians don’t live in a five o’clock world.
I’d never met anyone as gentlemanly as Levon. He put me instantly at ease. He wanted to know about me. About my family. He took me on a tour of his property. We watched silently as a deer and her doe came out to a salt lick he had in his yard. I left his smiling presence feeling like I’d made a friend. And convinced I didn’t have a story -- I’d done all the talking.
“I’m only halfway home I got to journey on / To where I’ll find the things that I have lost / I’ve come a long, long road still I’ve got miles to go / I’ve got a wide, wide river to cross . . .”
The industry honchos didn’t know it, but Levon was just getting re-started. His solo sales weren’t great, but he never stopped recording or touring. He wrote his autobiography. Gave Robbie what-for. Kept playing for all he was worth.
Then came the bad news. Throat cancer. He couldn’t sing.
But he could still drum, and then some.
I spoke with him again during those dark-seeming days, at a home-town gig in 2000. Levon Helm and the Barn Burners. I say dark-seeming days because the darkness I’d been anticipating never materialized. He played a rollicking set with a crackerjack crew of young guns. His daughter Amy broke a few hearts with her singing that night, as was her wont.
The place was barely half-full, even after Butch, his road manager, had papered the hall.
After the show, he almost convinced me that he remembered me. He was still the gracious, friendly guy I’d met 20 years before. Having pocketed my press pass for the evening, I’d only wanted to say hello and thank him for a lifetime of wonderful music. But he was eager to speak, even though it hurt to do so. Mostly, he wanted me to understand what a pleasure and a blessing it was to be playing in a band with Amy.
He didn’t need to explain. He radiated fatherly pride. Gave her all the credit for his recovery.
I left the place feeling honored by his attention and feeling like a thief for stealing words from him that he could put to better use someday in a recording studio. His wan pallor and gravelly voice told me he didn't have many words left to him.
But as I and the rest of the world would soon come to understand, Levon Helm was an easy man to underestimate. During the next dozen years, he re-created himself, gave the lie to the old adage that there are no second acts in American lives.
Those were the years of the Rambles, inspired by the traveling music shows of his Arkansas youth. Almost single-handedly, Levon was showing anyone who’d ever doubted his resilience that he was back, and back with a vengeance, re-defining what it meant to be a star after the stadium gigs are gone, doing it on his terms and doing it generously by sharing the stage with friends and family. Doing it without even leaving his own backyard. His three-straight Grammys were icing on the cake of a career that had outlasted and bested entire record companies.
And then the bad news returned. The worst news.
His family left this message on his website Tuesday:
“Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.”
“I have stumbled I have strayed / You can trace the tracks I made / All across the memories my heart recalls / But I'm just a refugee won't you say a prayer for me / Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls”
After all the journeys he shared with all the people who ever heard him sing his song, the Arkansas gentleman has left us standing in a station, watching helplessly as that inescapable mystery train pulls away.
“Wide River to Cross” by Buddy and Julie Miller
Here's a link to Levon's version of this song.
He didn't write it himself, but he was a great interpreter, as anyone can tell you who's ever heard his version of Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," among many other modern and traditional classics.