April 17, Trier Germany.
Thinking about Levon.
When I was a kid, late teens, me and Pat started going over the line to Arkansas, usually to Fayetteville. One of the first things they taught us over there, and one of the only things that didn’t involve getting awful high, was that Levon Helm was one of their home boys. They said that he would show up now and then, often times to sit in with his old friends, the outstanding Cates Brothers. The Cates were usually playing at the Library, next door to the beer joint we played in, the Swingin Door. SInce I was underage anyway, the Library seemed sort of swank and a little more deadly, as it was a whisky bar and stayed up later, and because the Cates were sophisticated and world class players and because sometimes they said Levon would turn up and play drums, right there next to the Swingin Door on Dickson St. One of my friends there told me that he used to go to Springdale with Levon, to some bad ass juke joint, and that Levon was always packing a pistol in the waistband of his jeans. The people around there called Springdale ‘North Fayette-nam’ because it was pretty scary I guess. I’ve looked back at those days many times to try and remeasure and reassess with the benefit of all these years of experience, and I have to say that I’m pretty sure it was a crazy little patch over there back in those days, by any standards. So, Levon packing sounds about right.
Many years went by, as years tend to do, and just like most people I knew, I kept Levon in my sights. The Band were of course one of the best parts of the Twentieth Century, and the stuff that those guys did tattooed us all, forever. It was in the early 90s, the one time I met him, and it was because of Carlene Carter, bless her.
We were each on Warner Bros, we were each making music videos, we were friends, and during this time it was fairly common to do back to back videos with the same production teams, crews, craft services, all that, because once everyone was set up and the things were in motion, it was a lot cheaper to just keep on cranking. We were in LA, and my shoot was finished. I think we had been shooting out in the desert, if I’m remembering the right video. In any event, I was finished and had a day off, and so I went over to Carlene’s shoot, which was an interior, on a set. There were a lot of interesting people on it, but for some years now the only one I’ve been able to remember is Levon. He had finished his appearance or something and me and him started shooting the breeze over lunch. For a couple hours we just talked and talked. I realized at the time that this was not so much because of me, but because of Levon and his friendliness. In other words, I didn’t think he was hanging out with me because I was cool, but because he was cool. He told me a story I want to pass along. I had asked him what he was mostly doing, gigging, acting, whatever. He said he was looking for some more acting roles. I had the feeling that he really wanted some more film action. He had recently played the chief mechanic to Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and he was great. He said that they shot much of that out at Edwards Air Force Base, where the original test flights had taken place. There was a bar right there, and all the pilots, crews, everyone involved with the aviation business of the base used to drink there, and so during the filming that’s where Levon and the rest hung out too. He said that one night something moved in over the top of the base, right over the bar too. Something big. They all went outside to see what it was. Levon said that sitting right above them, perfectly still, was the biggest goddamn craft he had ever seen. He said it just hung there and hummed. I don’t want to go on describing it any further because I would be paraphrasing and this was a long time ago, so I’d get it wrong. But he said no one had ever seen anything like this thing before or since. Then it just moved away and was gone. Levon Helm looked me in the eye and told me that.
I only started typing because I hear that he’s in the last part of his long battle with cancer. He’s in the glide path. So I’m thinking about him again.
Sometime after his first, to my knowledge, bout with cancer, me and Claudia were down in New Orleans, and we decided to go into this place called, I don’t know, Levon’s or something. It was set up sort of like a House of Blues, seating downstairs and a balcony, and a good stage. It was a restaurant, but we had stopped in because we heard Levon might be playing. It was disturbing right off. I knew that he had been really sick, that he had lost his ability to sing, and that he wasn’t playing much. It felt like someone was using his good name to sell shit actually. T-shirts and crap like that, and the food menu featured stuff like The Great Divide Burger and the Big Pink Fruit Salad. Making those up, but it was really just like that. We sat upstairs overlooking the stage and listened to a band playing. I really don’t recall anything about them, but at some point they pushed another drum set out, right next to the other drummer, and Levon came out and played some. I have to tell you, it wasn’t a great thing to see. He seemed awful tired, and he wasn’t contributing anything but his presence, and you know what, it felt like a contractual obligation. I dreamed up this whole scenario, where they gave Levon a bunch of cash to use his name and likeness, and in return he had to agree to appear so many times a year. I base this on nothing, and I may be wrong about the whole thing.
Anyway, I only bother to record this sad occasion, (at least sad to me) because that night he looked like a man past his best days, and glory be, I was wrong.
In recent years the old boy rose again and he has been shining bright. His Midnight Ramble, dang I really wanted to do that. His gorgeous records from the last decade received tons of accolades and awards, and we got to see him loved on and praised the way he deserved. We went to see a show in Dallas last year, and though he didn’t sing, his playing was sharp and his pocket was deep, and I mean it. He was still a great great drummer. The very last part of the very last song, I Shall Be Released, he sang that. His voice was weak and quavering, but beautiful, and it felt like a gift from him. I don’t want to get too goopy about all this, but really, we were lucky to have him, weren’t we…..I just can’t say it enough. We’re all grateful to you Levon, thanks. We love you man.