Levon Helm died yesterday afternoon.
I don’t go in much for citing creative influences (I think it’s all a bit more complicated than saying “so-and-so did that which made me do this”) but Helm was definitely one of the big ones for me, not only in his work ethic and attitude towards collaboration but also, more simply, in the way I (try to) sing. I don’t mind admitting that when I struggle with a new song I sometimes use one of his numbers to fill the temporary gap (the latter section of The Bedlam Six’s “You Can’t Run From My Love” was actually The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” for a few days before I settled on the vocal line that eventually made it onto the record!).
I generally tend to resist the urge to pass comment about old musicians passing away, to be among the first in that gruesome dash to claim for oneself (and one’s blog) a piece of the public mourning. So often it is someone most people had forgotten even existed in the first place, so specific to “their era” were these celebrities. Every day facebook and twitter fills up with faux hysteria and old youtube clips of these so-called beloved artists, people beside themselves with that peculiar brand of online emotion reserved for social media (“OMG… gutted that the guy who played the original Milky Bar Kid has died, sooo sad”).
But Levon Helm is different. At least he is to me. His performances on classic songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at the height of his fame is, I think (perhaps controversially), the least of his achievements. But I’m not going to write a biography here (I imagine plenty of those will be popping up over the coming days), I think it’s enough to say that he was a hardworking musician all his life who collaborated with some of the greatest practitioners in the rock, folk and country genres.
The distinctive thing about him is that unlike so many of his contemporaries he was putting out great records right up until the end, indeed he just won another grammy award earlier this year. For me 2007’s Dirt Farmer is an absolute masterpiece and one of my favourite albums. I actually listen to it more than I listen to The Band’s eponymous brown album. Can you think of another musician who came to fame in the 1960s who goes on to release their best stuff fifty years after their so-called peak? I can’t. Levon Helm makes me feel so optimistic, that maybe we don’t have to endlessly trade off the stuff we played in our twenties, that we can keep improving, keep surprising people, keep the doubters at bay.
It is for this reason I think people’s sadness at Helm’s death is completely genuine, not just a spurt of nostalgia like the one that followed Davy Jones’ passing earlier this year. I think his cancer deprived us of some really great future albums. He was mid-tour when it happened, he obviously wasn’t keen on slowing down.
I met Levon and his daughter Amy very briefly in 2005. It was New Year’s Eve and I was living in Philadelphia at the time. I’d taken a perilous bus ride up to Woodstock with my partner to attend one of the Midnight Ramble Sessions in Helm’s barn. The roads were icy and a blizzard was raging. At one point the car in front swerved and clipped the side of us before spinning off the road into a ditch but we pressed on into the night, everyone has somewhere to be on New Year’s Eve and our driver was no exception. After changing coaches in a tiny town called Paradise we were deposited in a rather nondescript bus stop in a deserted Woodstock. The place feels like a toytown and, at this hour, a ghost toytown. We headed to the nearest bar to ask directions and ended up chatting to a rosy cheeked man with a huge grey beard and prodigious belly who pointed us in the right direction (I later found out this guy was in the 1970s band The Dharma Bums – I even found pictures of him with Garth Hudson and the Dalai Lama – Woodstock is a weird place!).
From there we hitched a lift to Levon’s place up in the woods, the heart of upstate NY bear country. We were a bit late and the music had already started. It was his first concert after a long battle with an early bout of throat cancer. This was the first time he’d sung in public for five years and he sounded great, that distinctive voice a little thinner now but the passion and grit still there. Among the group of musicians he’d assembled for that intimate session was the last surviving member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra. It was a night I shall never forget as long as I live.
Farewell Levon Helm, one of the true greats.
FIRST PUBLISHED APRIL 2012