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My thoughts on Levon Helm

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My thoughts on Levon Helm

Geoff Wood

Levon Helm (far right) and The Band, photo from Rolling Stone

Levon Helm (far right) and The Band, photo from Rolling Stone

News broke last week that Levon Helm, lead singer and drummer of The Band, was in his “final stages” of fighting cancer and then it was announced early after on Friday that he had passed away.

While I’d known he’d been sick for some time, it’s still a sad and sobering thought to process. Though he didn’t know it, Levon Helm was an iconic figure in my life.

Back story

Even though I wasn’t born until 1978, I’ve always felt that the folk- and classic-rock music of the 1960s and 1970s was my music. I enjoy other types of music - modern rock, indie folk, frat rock, occasional pop hits, etc (heck, I wound up third row at a Jay-Z concert at SXSW this year) - I’ve always most identified with the style and message that came from that earlier time.

It’s the music my parents enjoy and I remember it always being the staple for long family road trips (I could recite the words to Country Joe and The Fish’s “Don’t Give a Damn about Vietnam” live performance at Woodstock from an early age). My mom is a real life Elyse Keaton (though she chose ministry rather than architecture) and my step-dad probably would have had a similar start in life had he not missed that part of his youth while in the Navy during the aforementioned war (as he’ll remind us whenever discussions of the ‘60s come up).

At whatever point in life I started to get serious - and opinionated - about the music I listened to (early in high school, probably) my favorite group quickly became “The Band”. The simply, yet confusingly, named fivesome that hailed from Canada with the exception of their lead singer/drummer, Turkey Scratch, Arkansas’ own Levon Helm.

Getting to know The Band

I can distinctly remember many nights in high school driving around the streets of my hometown just to pass the time and and singing along to Music from Big Pink with my best friend Nick. The first concert real concert I ever saw was The Band, or at least the reincarnated version of it who visited C. Y. Stephens Auditorium in Ames in 1996. Nick and I went on our own, convinced our parents that we should skip school take a college visit to Iowa State and spent all day in the town that we would both move to a year later.

I remember that they did not play “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at the show and it bummed us out enough that we asked the merch guy about it. He told us some line about there being a copyright issue between The Band and Joan Baez (which may or may not true). We knew about Robbie Robertson but didn’t know about his split from The Band twenty years early (hey - we were dumb kids) and the merch guy filled us in on the details (which I do know is true). We ended that show by following the groupies out to The Band's bus (again, we were dumb kids) and wound up getting some girl to take the CD cover/liner notes from Nick’s copy of The Last Waltz onto the bus to get it signed. It worked and I’m pretty sure that Nick still has it somewhere.

At some point afterwards I went to the library and checked out Levon’s autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. It’s a great rock-history read and it filled me in on the details around the merch guys latter story (and obviously much more). Levon’s disappointment and hurt over Robertson’s motivations in leaving the group comes through well in that book and is convincing enough that I can’t even take a statement like this at face value (35 years later).

His impact on my life

Levon Helm’s music is the music I played for the girls I dated in high school (yeah - probably not a great choice, they weren't into it) and at one point in my Eagle Scout honor speech that I thanked “Bob, Levon and the boys...”* for something as inside joke (at least Nick thought it was funny).

I had planned on naming my future son after Levon but my wife was quick to squash that idea back when were still dating (the son we eventually had - now nearly 3 years old - will likely thank her for that if/when he reads this in the future). She did allow me to name our first dog after him, which any new couple can tell you is more of an honor that it seems at first blush. That pup, now 9 years old, is registered with the AKC as Rozihill’s Up on Cripple Creek but is known to our family as simply “Levon”. Oh, and the first Christmas present my wife ever bought me was an out-of-print hard cover of Levon’s autobiography.

Going forward

The Band and Levon Helm don’t hold the same place in the national consciousness of music history that their friends and contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Eric Clapton hold but that doesn’t make them any less impactful. Their music shows up in popular culture from time-to-time and likely passes by most people with a “this sounds familiar but I can’t place it thought” (it always brings a smile to my face, though, that’s for sure). If anything, Levon’s death in this current age of social media has likely awakened an entirely new audience to the music of The Band (ie. "who is Levon Helm and why is he trending on Twitter").

The song I mentioned early - "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" - has more than 40 versions on Spotify alone ranging from John Denver to the Zac Brown Band. Joan Baez’ version is there as is one in German. If you don’t know The Band, or just want to hear some of their best music, check out this playlist that Rolling Stone put together on Spotify.

Also, watch the film The Last Waltz and enjoy it for it’s great performance even though Levon didn’t like the motivation behind it (you can read about that in his book) and you’re free to grit your teeth or fast forward through the Neil Diamond part (like I do).

A few good reads on Levon’s passing:

 *Bob Dylan, Levon Helm and the boys (Robbie, Rick, Richard, and Garth)