Photo by Chris Paul
Levon Helm passed away yesterday at the age of 71. A few days earlier a small press release issued by his family confirmed the worst of our many fears, informing us of his dire condition and asking for prayers that were answered in the thousands.
Given the time to reflect before his passing, I thought of the chills that went up my spine every time I heard him sing “Oh the streets of Rome.” I thought of the time two years ago when my wife and I saw him in Westhampton Beach, his voice too frail to sing on mic, but still, he couldn’t help but softly mouth the words to nearly every song, so strong was his will. And man-oh-man, so wide was his smile at the end of that show.
Above all others though, my lasting memory of him will be of the time my father, brother, wife and myself made the trip up to Woodstock to see a Midnight Ramble in the late winter of 2007. I don’t think its hyperbole to throw around words like privilege and pilgrimage when thinking about our trip to Levon’s barn on that cold March night. It was intensely personal. I’ve spent my whole adult life chasing the proverbial concert dragon, and while the tickets stubs have piled up, precious few compare to the experience I had from the moment we pulled up the long dirt driveway in front of the barn until the moment we drove back down many hours later.
The first thing that struck me when we entered the barn was “My god, we really are in this man’s home. ” We were ushered into a small room with a table that held a potluck spread of cookies, bread and veggies brought by the ticketed few. Next to the room was a narrow corridor that led to a flight of stairs. The expanse of the studio beckoned at the top of the stairs with exposed wood beams and high rafters framing the scene. Only the instruments and a Persian rug, mere feet from the first row of metal folding chairs delineated the area for the band and the area for the fans. Everything about the set up radiated warmth, a communal table for people to share food and the closest connection between fan and band possible. The lights that lined the top of the barn didn’t simply illuminate the space around the stage. They glowed with an otherworldly radiance. I can’t imagine a scenario like this ever being replicated somewhere else, and even though a few artists are following the ethic of the Midnight Rambles by establishing a home venue, this was his house for god’s sake.
Levon’s band came on after two opening acts. They opened with “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” a cover of the blues artist Chuck Willis who passed away in 1958, one year after Helm began his career with Ronnie and the Hawks. I have memories that play like fever dreams of the highlights that came after that. Larry Campbell playing the organ intro to “Chest Fever” on his guitar, Jimmy Vivino grimacing as he led the band through mournful rendition of “Tears of Rage,” and Levon and his daughter Amy trading verses on “The Weight” to close the set. It’s the Chuck Willis cover that comes into sharper focus though as I play that night back in my head today and begin to dwell on Levon’s legacy. There are now very few left who can draw the line from Willis, to Elvis, to Dylan, to The Band, to Springsteen to My Morning Jacket. Few who connect the blues artists who planted the seed for rock ‘n’ roll, to the groups of the seventies who cemented its foundation, right onto to those who carry the torch to this day.
To a degree, the Midnight Rambles were about that: A review of American music from the 1950’s to present day, conducted by a man who experienced that whole gamut. They were about the passing of the torch from musical generation to musical generation. They were about having a space where artists like Hubert Sumlin, Norah Jones, Jim James, John Medeski and Allen Toussaint could pass through, separated by generations and genres but united by a common musical language and Levon. They were about passing the torch from father to son, as I never would have been there that night if it weren’t for the lessons in music I learned from my Dad. Ones garnered mostly by osmosis from what he played in the house and later on when I selectively stole his cassettes and began schooling myself in my teens.
To this day, long after I spent nights in my teenage room trying to figure out what “Before the Flood” was all about, when I want to listen to something that I know will put me in a good mood, The Band’s rendition of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is it. Dylan’s tale of touring Europe has always meant more to me through the lens of the melancholy and yearning that Levon’s vocal captured so well. I don’t think I have ever understood why though. I would simply crank it through the car stereo (always caught by surprise when the fade in wells up so loudly, so quick) and sing along as loud as I could, an instant good mood around the bend. What I now get is that it’s about understanding that moving forward through all of the bumps of life and staying grounded are so vital because salvation may very well be around the corner if you push through. I think if you were ever able to ask Levon what he had learned from hosting the Midnight Rambles he might have arrived at the same conclusion.
“Someday everything is gonna shine like a rhapsody!”
The true measure of Mark Lavon Helm’s soul is that he chose to spend his last years inviting people into his home, surrounded by family and friends who also happened to be incredibly talented musicians, all for the express purpose of lighting them up by making good music and passing the torch from one generation to the next. Masterpiece: painted.
We could all be so lucky.