I’m no rock critic. Hell, I’m no writer, either. But I feel compelled to write about Levon Helm today. He’s been on my mind all week, and I can’t let go of him yet. I’ve been feeling a bit sad that all of us had to.
If you’re not a music fan like I am, you might not know who Levon Helm was. But somehow, I doubt it. Especially since there’s been a tremendous outpouring in the media since his death last week.
Levon was undeniably one of the most talented rock drummers of his generation. From what I’ve read about him, he was also one of the kindest, everyday humanitarians that the community of Woodstock, New York — and far beyond — had ever known.
He grew up in Arkansas — an immediately obvious fact, once you heard that soulful twang in his voice while he sang, or more accurately, “saing,” of fallen Confederate soldiers or of women who’d broken his heart.
Levon was one of the founding members of The Band. If you’re not familiar with their history, they started out as Ronnie Hawkins’ back-up band in Canada, then as Bob Dylan’s studio and road band, and for a glorious time, became very much themselves — one of the greatest musical groups in rock history.
Levon was a lot more than that to his family and friends, I’m sure, but to music lovers like me, a young girl growing up on seventies FM radio, he played one of the funkiest backbeats known to man. It amazed me that he could sing so passionately and keep such a fine beat at the same time. My spine shivered and vibrated when I heard him sing, and the sorrowful twang of Levon’s Arkansas-marinated voice on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” will stay with me as one of my earliest, and most powerful, musical memories. When I was little, I used to think that Levon’s voice in “Dixie” was that of a ghost — the actual ghost of Virgil Caine, somehow, come back to lay down tracks in a studio someplace and tell his story. That’s how real and honest and piercing he was.
My mother remarked more than once that I must have been reincarnated from a sixties soul. Maybe so. I do love my Frye boots and my bootcut jeans. (Yes, I know the sixties were about much more than apparel.) Maybe my adult ADD comes from a bad acid trip forty-three years ago, one that I still may be on. (At least that’s what I’ll tell my husband this week when he asks why I forgot to go to the cleaners.) Maybe, in a former life, I sat in the front row at Woodstock when The Band took the stage, crackling at the bounce of Levon’s sticks and the call of his voice. It feels that powerful when I hear their music — like it’s coming from someplace I’ve visited and known intimately, but can’t say exactly when.
I’m a frustrated hack of a writer. I’m also a terrible singer and a half-assed guitar player, who takes in music like air, and who often wishes she’d been a drummer. When I was in fourth grade, I asked my father if I could learn to play the drums. Mind you, kids, there was no Sheila E back then. There was Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, John Bonham — insanely talented drummers who I admired. But looking back, there was a flash and a defiance to them, and an almost arrogant insistence that you perk up and listen to their dominant solos.
I’m not even sure I could have picked Levon out of a crowd back then — or any of the members of The Band, for that matter. Contrary to the rise of rock ‘n roll, there were no solos, and no egos. Just layered harmonies and filled spaces of glorious sound. I didn’t understand it as a little girl. I just knew that it reached me. Levon’s thuddy, woody sound on the intro to “Up On Cripple Creek” was one of the most soulful things I’d ever heard in my little life. I’d smack something, anything — a table, my thighs, the car dashboard — whenever I heard it.
No matter how much I tapped and uh-unhed, my father said no to the drums, quickly and swiftly. We lived in an attached house in Queens, for God’s sakes. And he didn’t need that noisy sh-t when he got off the Manhattan express bus. I could see as much behind his glasses while he searched my face, wondering why this quirky little girl of his wanted a drum kit. Didn’t matter if I drove him insane, drumming on tables until he’d reach out for my frantic hands and hiss, “Stop!” Didn’t matter that I was completely lost in it, hearing something different altogether than the conversation taking place or the show blaring from the TV screen. Didn’t make any difference. The answer was still no.
I was given an acoustic guitar instead as a compromise, and I’m forever grateful that they encouraged me to take lessons. My parents bestowed the gift of music in many other ways, too. There were always records on the turntable in our house, and radio stations on in the car, and no complaints about the volume levels I took my music to in my bedroom. I will always be thankful to them for such an upbringing.
But I’ve still got the heart of a drummer. And I’m still moved on a primal level by musicians like Levon Helm.
When I learned that Levon passed away last week from a recurrence of throat cancer, which he — and everyone else — thought he’d beaten a few years ago, it hit me in the gut. It just did.
I remember hearing about the rambles once his cancer had gone into remission. My children were babies then, and I thought I’d have more time to buy a ticket to the show. I realize now that I should have loaded them up in the car right there and then and gotten on the thruway.
So when I read that his family was holding a public memorial yesterday at his home in Woodstock, I loaded my kids up in the car and got right on the thruway. It was impulsive. Some might even say silly. I didn’t give a sh-t. My ten year-old daughter had been a mess of worry all week, thinking about things that really shouldn’t matter to her ten year-old soul. Hey, standardized state testing that’s getting my little girl all lathered up? You’re high on my sh– list. If you were tangible, I’d cut ya.
I’d had enough. I wanted to lose myself in the Catskills. I wanted my kids to get out of the goddamn routine. I wanted them to remember that life is there to be grabbed and tackled and embraced, and I wanted to impart to my children some of what had been given to me, by people like Levon Helm.
Selfishly, I wanted to thank Levon in person, because my spine had shivered and vibrated that much whenever I heard those songs. Still does, thirty-some-odd-years later. (Don’t get dirty about that, people. With music, it’s as pure as light.)
Most important, I wanted to testify to his survivors with my children in tow. In my own simple way, I wanted them to know by our presence that I’d carry his music forward, and that I was grateful for what he had given us. I wanted to be counted among the thousands who would be doing the same. Not for myself, but for their own healing.
My husband texted me regularly yesterday from his office in Manhattan. Where was I now? What was I doing? What were the kids seeing? I loved my husband for that — for supporting a spontaneous effort to connect with others, and for his eager agreement that our children should be witness to it. I love him for a lot of things, but I really loved him for that yesterday.
We waited in line near the Woodstock Playhouse to get on a school bus to head over to Levon’s. Everyone waiting in line was calm and kind and sad. Women who were my mother’s age dabbed at their eyes with tissues. They’d known him as a friend or a fan, they said. They’d been his neighbors. They’d seen him perform at free concerts at a nearby farm, they’d watched him join the Sunday drum circle on the Woodstock Village Green, or they knew him from the free drum lessons he’d given to kids in the community. Emphasis on the word “free.” It seemed like he was known just as much for being the guy next door, as the resident who would perform at a local school fundraiser, or support the cultural well-being of Woodstock, as much as he was for being Bob Dylan’s drummer.
My kids picked dandelions and talked to people in line. They made a toddler laugh on the bus and became fast friends with him.
We arrived at his home and were welcomed by family members and friends, who were remarkably gracious in the midst of their grief. Even his dogs were welcoming, and greeted each group who came off the bus. My children loved Muddy in particular, a brindle pit bull mix whom I’d remembered from photographs on his website, when I checked it earlier that day for directions.
We walked into the barn where the rambles took place, and my children learned more about his life. They pointed to his Grammy awards displayed behind glass, and marveled at his achievements. I’m sure they were important to him, after years of hard work and herculean efforts to bring his ailing voice back, and they were well-deserved. But I was sure to point out the pictures that lined the walls — pictures of talented musicians, of smiling locals and of family — who surrounded him and were grateful for his music and his “giving back” to the Woodstock community. I’m guessing that those meant a lot to him as well. We paid our respects in his studio, where he lay in state next to his drum kit, and we made our way out so others could come in.
I wanted my kids to see firsthand that goodness is valued, that music is the very stuff of life, and that life is worth holding on to and fighting for. I wanted them to see what remained of a man who followed his heart and passions, and did good deeds for others without thought of reimbursement or praise. These were lessons to be learned. Not which answers they’ll need to know for those little bubbles on the test form.
We spent the rest of the day in Woodstock, which my hippie wanna-be daughter truly enjoyed. Should I be nervous that she asked to stop in a head shop — ahem, I mean t-shirt shop — to look at tie-dye? I think not. She sang “Don’t You Do It” all the way up in the car while I blasted it on the radio. Maybe she’s been here before, too, and was second muddy row in Woodstock, all those years ago, when The Band took the stage. Maybe we thumbed a lift together back there on the thruway in 1969.
Yesterday, I set the curriculum. We weren’t going to worry about multiple-choice and writing prompts, or about predetermined blocks of time to answer and respond. We were going to life’s classroom. I’m so grateful that Levon Helm was one of my teachers, and yesterday, I know he was my children’s as well.
Mr. Helm, I won’t ever forget you. And I thank you, from the bottom of my shivering spine. Rest in peace.