Levon Helm (1940-2012)

“Why do the best things always disappear?”

Levon Helm employs his signature vocals to ask that question in “Ophelia.”  He was thinking about lost love.  Listening to it right now, I’m thinking about him.

In fact, right now my iTunes collection is firing off a run of evocative songs:

– “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.”  (“I Shall be Released”)

– “They should never have taken the very best.”  (“The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down”)

– “It’s my belief, we’ve used up all our time.  This hill’s too steep to climb, and the days that remain ain’t worth a dime.”  (”Rockin’ Chair”)

This isn’t the first time Levon’s vocals have seen me through my grief over losing someone special.  When my mother died over 20 years ago, part of my written eulogy went as follows:

Chills went down my teenage spine the first time I heard Levon Helm and The Band, my idols, sing about it [i.e., loss] in their rendition of the rock & roll chestnut “Mystery Train”:

”I run down to the station to meet my baby at the gate.
I ask the station master if the train’s runnin’ late.
He said, ‘there ain’t no use waitin’ on the 4:44;
Cuz I hate to tell you son… that train don’t stop here anymore.”

I’ve been a disciple ever since I saw the film Easy Rider (1969) and heard those three distinctive Levon drum beats followed by his vocals kicking in at the opening of “The Weight:” “I pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead…”

I not only had all the albums, I confess that my devotion in high school and college bordered on the delusional.  For example, I used to fantasize that they might be in their Bearsville studio and Garth Hudson might turn to Levon and say, “Boy, Mal’s really going to like the way we’ve added these horns to ‘W. S. Walcott Medicine Show.’”  (Mal did like those horns.  Still does!)

Even after college, I once went on a lost weekend road trip with a Hyde classmate to upstate New York in search of “Big Pink,” the house where they recorded their first album of the same name.  (Didn’t find it.  Great weekend though!)

In recent years, Levon won some Grammys with some top drawer solo album efforts (Poor Dirt Farmer ’07, Electric Dirt ’09, and Ramble at the Ryman ’11).  Due to his long battle with the throat cancer that eventually took his life, he utilized several vocalists to sometimes cover for him.  On Ramble at the Ryman’s cover of the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven,” his daughter sings:

“I’m going where there’s no depression;
To the lovely land that’s free from care.
I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble;
My home’s in heaven, I’m going there.”

Of the original five members, only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson remain.  But the songs survive.  You know, maybe Levon was wrong.  The best things in life don’t disappear.  Fact is, they live on forever.

Thanks, Levon.  And Onward,  Malcolm Gauld