Last Tuesday was not a good day! As I was getting ready to leave for work, my daughter called to tell me her mother had died. A half hour later, on my way to the store, my car died and then burned up. Two hours later, a friend called to tell me Levon had only a couple of days to live!
As bad as the other stuff was, hearing the news about Levon was like getting sucker punched in the gut! He was so full of life, and after seeming to beat back the cancer, it seemed like he could never die, but death comes to us all, eventually, and April 19th was Levon’s time!
My 35 year relationship with The Band started back in 1978, when Emmett Grogan’s cousin introduced me to Rick Danko. Rick and I became fast friends, and after that, whenever Rick played, I was usually there! We talked about making movies and music together, but after the first night, when we sang together, Rick and I never did get a chance to work together. We sure did have a lot of good times though! After a while, it was inevitable that Rick would introduce me to Levon, Richard, and Garth, and I also became fast friends with Richard, and particularly Levon.
We saw each other often, over the years, and when I decided to move to the Hudson Valley, Levon told me where he thought were good places to live. During a very bad time in my life, he helped me out immensely, because, he said, “That’s what friends do”. When I was recovering from said traumatic event a few years later, I told Levon that he was my role model in my recovery. After all, he had recovered, it seemed, from so many traumatic events – cancer, bankruptcy, The Barn burning down, Rick and Richard’s deaths – and now he was on the road that brought him three Grammys and a major career comeback, before his untimely death last week. He was inspirational, in so many ways! Levon was the kind of guy who’d slip you a hundred bucks if he ran into you and thought you needed a helping hand!
His down home folk wisdom never ceased to amuse me. Who doesn’t love and understand a phrase like, “Even a blind chicken gets a peck of corn once in a while”? He had the ability to cut right to the heart of the matter with a simple phrase. His sense of humor always made me laugh and we always had a great time together!
And musically, he practically invented what became known as Americana music. He embodied it! On any given night, you could hear Blues, Rock n Roll, Country, R n B, Folk, and Dixieland music at one of his shows, but it all blended into Band/Levon Helm music. Only the cream of the crop can cover all those bases authentically – The Beatles, The Stones, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, Bob Dylan, Elvis. You get the picture. He was in THAT kind of company! And they all knew it! Clapton broke up Cream after he heard The Band, and, in his book, writes of wanting to join The Band when he came to Woodstock! Bruce Springsteen said of Levon, “You get used to hearing versions of the thing. Levon IS the thing!”.
The band he put together in his final years is every bit as good as The Band, and it would be so sad to see it end here. The Levon Helm Band deserves to live on!
Anytime an American icon passes, it’s a sad day, but when it’s an old personal friend and a man who gave so much to the world, as Levon did, it’s hard to get through the day! His charity work was mammoth. He was always doing benefits for schools, fire fighters, cops, political candidates, and other worthy causes. His Kid’s Rambles touched the lives of many.
I’m just glad he was able to have the resurgence he did before the end. The three Grammys, the Americana Music Association awards, the high paying gigs, and the mobs of adoring fans. At least he went out on a high note! The sad part for me is that I never got to say goodbye and I’ll never see him again. Never hear that Arkansas accent tellin’ it like it is. Never hear that one of a kind voice sing “Rag Mama Rag” again. Never hear him lay down a backbeat with simplicity and grace.
But I will have my memories! Memories of the private times we shared, the Rambles, the kindness he extended to everyone, and the music. The glorious music! The music that will live as long as there are people to hear it! Godspeed my friend!
THERE WILL BE NO LIVE MUSIC PICKS THIS WEEK. THE MUSIC DIED AGAIN LAST WEEK WITH LEVON HELM. NOT TO WORRY THOUGH, THE MUSIC WILL BE REBORN NEXT WEEK
Fred Perry is the owner of Reservoir Music Center on Route 28 in Kingston, and founding member of Alt-Country supergroup, The Brooklyn Cowboys, is from a 3rd generation musical family and lives in the Hudson Valley, where he does what he can to promote live music.