Levon Helm, Our Shining Pride

“You’re my pride, Loretty. My shinin’ pride.”

That was my introduction to Levon Helm. Perfectly cast as Ted Webb, father of Loretta Lynn, in the superlative 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. (Put it in your queue. Just do it.) In the above-quoted scene, Levon, in his acting debut, calls up a complicated mix of love, dismay, and resignation to convey a father’s singular pain at letting a fiery 13-year-old (!!) marry a 22-year-old force-of-nature wingnut he does not care for. With only a few lines to get the job done, Levon lets us inside Papa Webb’s thorny knowledge that keeping his eldest daughter home (with seven other kids) will kill her spirit, which he respects with a depth even Loretta won’t understand for years. The affection for this spirit is what lets her go, and it is what gave the world Loretta Lynn. It’s a love scene that has nothing to do with romance, and Levon nails it.

I was 15 years old when I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter, and ignorant of any kind of love other than the hormone-y, adolescent variety. Fumbling towards musicianship, I was familiar with The Band not as personalities, but simply the men behind the catchy but lyrically trippy “The Weight,”in frequent rotation on WQXI in Atlanta. Someone told me Ted Webb was Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer. You know – the cool hillbilly guy in a constant alpha-male duel/duet with Robbie  Robertson in The Last Waltz. The one who sings his ass off while at the same time laying down the country funk.

Oh yeah. That guy. Click.

I was just learning. Of course I had no idea I’d one day shake this guy’s hand in his home as he thanked me for working at a nearby preschool, nor could I have imagined  I’d make music with him, as part of Elizabeth Mitchell’s impromptu band during an afternoon Kids’ Ramble. The Kids’ Ramble was one of the many occasions Levon and his people raised funds for local public school district Onteora’s music program. Needless to say, I frequently conjure the memory – one of my top five musical recollections – of his joyful jack-o-lantern grin on me as I threaded my bass to his kick drum on the Lou Reed song “What Goes On,” while Liz, her daughter Storey, and husband/co-conspirator Daniel Littleton rocked, and families danced around us.

We have lost Levon, and the community grieves en masse. As I write, memorials are being planned in Woodstock. Of course, memories are flowing. My son is one year younger than I was when I sat in a dark theater and took in Levon’s instructive, moving performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter. But while I give props to that resonant bit of acting (even more potent now, as I am increasingly Papa Webb, less Loretty) the regard I feel for Levon’s Ted Webb is nothing compared to my awe for Levon the musician, and my respect for Levon the community man, a guy who kept coming back from adversity, swinging those tough, gnarly arms, giving and giving, and smiling ever more broad as time nipped at his heels like the goddamn dog that it is. (Seriously – do a Google search; the older Levon Helm gets, the more he smiles.)

Which brings me to: Levon is one of the few members of the rock and roll firmamanet who made me unafraid to grow old, because he did it with such style, dignity, fun, fierceness, and even sexiness. He left behind a unique template that I will struggle to follow.

While I appreciated Levon and The Band as I moved through adulthood, their music finally sunk into my marrow not long after my family and I moved into a 1910 Victorian a few towns over from Big Pink. This was 2002. By then I’d been a musician most of my life, and I’d sat around plenty of campfires and/or in the light of the Waffle House jukebox, slaughtering “The Weight,” but after getting that mortgage, things got serious with me and The Band. Sometimes music calls to you, and so it was with the Across The Great Divide box set, which asserted itself as I was negotiating some very grown-up problems; I needed adult blues poetry and ramshackle funk to help me settle into homeownership, parenthood, and joy-tinged-with-resignation, i.e. – the next chapter of my life. Levon and Co. fit the bill perfectly.

It took about two years for Levon and me to meet. My family and I gradually settled into our new country life, enrolling our son Jack in Phoenicia Elementary (part of the afore-mentioned Onteora), shopping locally, finding our folks. It seemed everyone had something up-close-and-personal to say about Levon; about the fire that had consumed his house, about his band, his continued rocking at local bars, his daughter Amy’s new group Ollabelle, his autobiography, his cancer and the subsequent loss of his voice, and finally, come 2004, his Midnight Rambles, a nighttime concert series in the barn/studio adjacent to his (rebuilt) home, begun as a means to pay off his medical bills.

By then, I was working as a teacher’s assistant at School Of The New Moon in Mt. Tremper (apparently, bartending and playing in bands is great prep for wrangling tots) and word on the two-lane-blacktop was that firemen and teachers got in free to the Rambles. By the time the scuttlebutt filtered down to me, it was around Thanksgiving, 2004, and the ticket price, if memory serves, was $100. It was potluck, too, with everything from epicurean delights to M & M’s, depending on who showed up. (The food was always good and plentiful, it turned out.) If my preschool teacher’s assistant status didn’t cover it, I was going to fork over the dough anyway and eat my weight in M & M’s. (Holly did pay. And it was the best C-note she ever spent.)

We’d heard the Rambles were shaping up to be must-see events, with local luminaries like Donald Fagen, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian frequently dropping in, and music extending into the wee hours. Shenanigans were afoot, old school man-mischief, people walking away grinning like Cheshire cats. I’d been assured Levon was in excellent form, cancer can kiss his hillbilly ass, and although he was not singing due to radiation treatments, elder bluesman Little Sammy Davis was handling the vocal duties admirably. When word got out that Howlin’ Wolf’s guitaristHubert Sumlin and Ollabelle were booked, Holly and I were strenuously advised to get a babysitter for Jack and get our butts over there.

When I said, “I’m a teacher,” the door guy not only let me in gratis, he slapped me on the back, and welcomed my wife and me to a sold-out Ramble. Excellent beginning. Guys were gathered around burn barrels, helping people park. Inside, it was packed, but just enough to be warm and comfy. Downstairs was schmooze and merchandise, with Levon’s many framed photos and posters on the walls, and comestibles in what once had been a garage. Very homey. In those days, upstairs seating in the high ceilinged barn/studio was a bit more laissez-faire, with folks plopping down cross-legged in front of worn Persian rugs on the small stage. I think about 150/200 folks could get in. Balconies had been built around the edges of the performance/recording area. The hum of equipment and the smell of warm amplifier tubes permeated the air alongside the familiar stank of sweaty, excited people.

Ollabelle‘s T-Bone Burnett-produced eponymous CD was freshly out, and the band had a bit of the golden buzz. All five members came across as pure naturals in the stage lights, laying down a deep-dish blend of folk, soul, and rock and roll, immediately winning everyone over. It was my first time seeing Amy, and I was struck by how her moves sometimes resembled her dad’s when she played mandolin. 

Speaking of her dad, I spotted him during Ollabelle’s set, walking around, shaking hands, embracing audience members, nodding in approval at the music, grinning wide. But he was so skinny, so… slight. I’d not seen him since checking out The Last Waltz at a midnight movie decades ago, so I was expecting him to be older, but… I was worried. I wondered if he’d actually be getting behind the kit.

Then he did. And that was magic. Like Disney-style magic. As soon as he picked up the sticks, a glow emanated from him, expanding his presence beyond his body, across the stage and into the room. It was breathtaking. In all my years as a musician and a fan of bands, I’d never seen anything like it. All his frailty was gone, and first the band, then the entire room, filled with energy.

All of Ollabelle responded, but Amy in particular connected to her dad, and he to her, in a rare, wordless stage communication. Their eyes met and before I knew it, someone put a microphone in front of Levon’s face and he opened his mouth and sang.

Pandemonium. No one saw that coming.  The surprise and subsequent communal joy resounded off the walls. As intense as the atmosphere already was, it ratcheted up a couple notches. Levon and Amy duetted on a few tunes, both of them laughing and smiling like: welcome to the miracle. I recall thinking, I heard his singing days were over. But they were not. Radiation can kiss his hillbilly ass.

When Ollabelle finished, Holly insisted on meeting Levon. I was shy, but luckily, she dragged me over to him, as is her wont. He was sweaty, but still in his music-enhanced state, vibrant, moving from person-to-person, touching people like a the wise rock and roll elder he was. I was dazzled and mush-mouthed, but as I shook his hand, I thanked him for his “teachers get in free” policy. To my amazement, he kind of bowed to me, Japanese-style, and, hand to his chest, thanked me for working with kids. He said he knew teachers did not get enough respect and anything he could do to remedy that, well, he was gonna do it. It was one of the only times we spoke, but those hoarse, heartfelt words echo around in me like a benediction from a holy man. Because that’s what they were.

Over the next few years I would come to know a few of Levon’s band and crew, his sentinels, his protectors, the folks who spun a circle of love around the man and helped him to wrench a surprising fourth act out of his life, a span of extra credit time in which Grammys glowed and the once-forsaken road beckoned. I am proud to have been a small part of this unexpected reprieve, when Levon used his windfall of time to bring music and much-needed attention (money) to those in need, those who suffered, those undervalued and taken for granted. He used his age and status to lift folks up in ways both material and spiritual, and it is one of the joys of my life that I can say I was there and privileged to be a part of it with the Kids’ Rambles.

Levon’s largesse is catchy, too. Just last year, his core band – Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy, and Byron Isaacs – played a benefit to help raise funds for my small-town library, which had suffered a devastating fire. Thanks in part to them, rebuilding will soon commence.

The last few times I attended Rambles, Levon didn’t do the rounds in the audiences. I reckoned he was pacing himself, saving it up for the stage, which consistently lit up with his presence as it had that first time. But the audiences had swelled and folks could be smothering, so I reasoned he needed his space prior to showtime. Then I saw him perform at the Apollo with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Larry Campbell, and Allen Toussaint as part of Elvis’s Spectacle, and he did not sing (Ray LaMonagne did). I put that down to his touring schedule. Or a virus. Or the crazy way he sat and played drums, wrenching his body. Anything but the  inevitable, which I’d started to believe he’d somehow avoided, like a musician in a folktale who has outfoxed the devil.

Why would I think that? Because I saw Levon do magic. And the kind of magic he performed still lingers among us, and will fill the air as we celebrate him this weekend and beyond, as his music plays on down the decades. I will be there for any celebrations this weekend, and I am certain wherever he is laid to rest will attract pilgrims far into the future. As for me, I will visit him often in my memories, as I grow old and try ever harder to be like him.

Rest In Peace, Levon. And thank you.

RBW, Paris 4-25-12

P.S. photo credits to follow…


5 responses to “Levon Helm, Our Shining Pride

  1. looselipsmelissa

    Deeply moving. Thank you for this.

  2. That is the best tribute to the amazing Levon I’ve read. Thanks Robert.

  3. Robert Johnston

    Cousin Robert, this is a beautiful tribute to an American musical treasure. I have been a fan of Levon’s since the late sixties when his band backed up Bob Dylan. Have been playing the old albums for the past week. I saw you with Levon and a group of pre-schoolers in a photo in a NYT slide show published last week and felt even closer to Levon with your being there, playing bass to his drums. Thanks for the wonderful walk through your memories with this great musician. RMJ Florida

  4. Thanks for this.

    I’ll forever kick myself that I never dropped the big bucks for a Ramble ticket, but I treasure the times I did see him, and the fact that as an Onteora parent I was able to witness his generosity up close. Remember how at that crazy Spectacle show (with Nick Lowe, Alan Toussaint, Richard Thompson, etc), Levon had the great good humor to “speak” his answers to Elvis’s questions by playing drums, sort of like Clarabell the Clown with his horn? I’ll miss him.

  5. Babs Mansfield

    Honey lamb, this is BEAUTIFULLY written. I’m both sad by the loss, and honored to live in the community he graced. Your voice is a big part of that too.

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