My first and only brush with Karaoke was singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with some Marines. It wasn’t always pretty, but it had feeling. Sort of like Levon’s voice. It broke, pleaded, and crackled in places, but there was never any doubt he was telling you a story you needed to sit down and listen to, son.
I’m about to be 40, so there’s never been a time in my life when Levon’s music wasn’t there. Some of my earliest musical memories are from The Band. It was a while before I really embraced the music. For a long time I didn’t think American music was okay– even though Levon was the only one who actually was American. I ran to the Brits for a while, picking up albums from Joy Division and The Style Council. My turn away from post-punk and New Wave was due to falling head-first in love with Seattle grunge and jam bands like Widespread Panic. Suddenly, synthesizers and dance music sounded self-conscious and pretentious. The harmonica, banjo, and bottleneck guitar players of home all sounded new and real. A book of Bob Dylan lyrics my friend gave me as a half-joke was consulted frequently. (And still is. Chuck and I used it just the other night to settle a debate over whether or not Dylan wrote a certain song.) When I finally made my way around to watch The Last Waltz, I wondered why I’d wasted so much time getting there.
It’s hard to listen to Levon passively. He implores you to listen to his story, whether it’s about a poor dirt farmer, coal miner, or Confederate soldier. The music doesn’t seem to belong to any particular time. Everyone knows a song he sang or played drums in even if they don’t know it’s him. I personally schooled a couple of Marines in The Way of Levon. I wonder if they also remember the night Levon got them to take a Rebel stand, if only for three minutes.
This is only one of what will likely be thousands of tributes to Levon Helm. There are only a few people I will allow myself to get full-on sentimental for. Today I’ll not only indulge sentimentality, I’ll believe in heaven because I love the idea of a Helm, Danko, Manuel reunion. If there is a heaven, tonight there will be one hell of a show.