In 1978, when I was 14, my best friend and I rode our bikes down to the Byrd Theater in Richmond VA to see a movie called The Last Waltz. We had never heard of The Band, let alone The Staples Singers or Muddy Waters. We went because the movie featured performances by Neil Young and Eric Clapton.
But from the get-go that movie turned our musical lives around. We got a two hour education in the roots of Rock and Roll and perhaps, more importantly, what it took on a personal level to perform it nightly around the world.
Our young minds were forever changed by the stories told by the five members of the group and the original tunes they performed. We must have seen that movie six times while it was in its initial theater run. Each time we saw the film, something deeper was revealed that went beyond the sound of the music. It was as if the intent of the songs themselves reached right out of the screen and touched our souls.
And none touched my soul as deeply as those sung by Levon Helm. There was a real homespun honesty about the way he sang about the simple things in life and how sometimes they weren’t so simple. These were songs of the common man…sung by a most uncommon man. And that swinging beat…it was just irresistible.
When Widespread Panic spent hundreds of nights a year on the road we watched The Last Waltz constantly on the bus…first as a VHS and then as a DVD. The stories and performances never got old and never proved uninspiring. We even attempted to perform Ophelia, but it never got real good until we found a horn section.
At the end of The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson discusses the “impossibility” of 16 years on the road. 16 years seemed like a long time to us at the time. But now, sitting on the far end of 25 years of touring, 16 seems more like a good start to me. A start to a lifetime of making music.
Levon spent a lifetime making music that touched people’s souls. He beat cancer, continued to make music, and, in creating the now legendary Midnight Rambles, he brought people together who made even more music.
The music that Levon enabled was real, it was mined from the soul of American musical tradition, and it was imbued with the power of intent that seems to be lacking in so much music these days.
In the end that’s what people really need: the transformative power of working together to make something special. Levon was the powerful hub of this collaboration. He touched many souls and you can hear the power of that intent in the music being made by a new generation of bands who are just beginning their journeys up and down the roads of America. They will carry Levon’s spirit onwards and outwards through their music.
What a great contribution this man made.
And oh yeah…what a swinging backbeat!
Thanks for the inspiration and bless you Levon and all of your loved ones.
April 19, 2012