There seems to be every sort of bullshit in every business—especially show business—and Levon Helm seemed to cut right through each and all.

The Great and Powerful Levon Helm 
It was the autumn of '69, and I was an eleven year old kid just starting to play in bands in Fredericksburg, Va., when the elastic funk of that wah-wah clavinet first bounced out the radio announcing the arrival of the train that would take us Up On Cripple Creek. The conductor called us on board with a sonorous Arkans-drawl, and the country collectively and gladly boarded. The beat was brawny and adult, the tale was told proudly with each syllable making every stop through the ululating pipes until it was laid before us all, resolute and unashamed. It was news: the sound, the message and the manner and everything but shy. It teemed with spirited energy while relaxed and playful. It was delivered plainly, self-assuredly and directly without being the least bit harsh, hostile or aggressive.

I now realize that what we were then listening to was a man presenting his heart and soul entirely with every word, every beat. The whole honest deal swirled before you, or rather sat in the saddle of celebration while digging in with the sophistication of the lived-in ages, crookedly smacking each rimshot, twisting his torso toward the thing that was undoubtedly the truth: the only prize worth clamoring  for instinctively, relentlessly-- the thing worthy of stumbling toward like a fool, if need be.

Levon Helm was known for crowing about what’s worth crowing about. He was able to do precisely that for a long time, but we wish it were for much longer. Wisdom seemed to have been born with him. He had that wonderful duality, at once the tenured wise beyond his years teenager and the old-timer with the rough and rowdy heart of foolish youth.

I’ve been fortunate to have performed with more than a few talented folks over the years (dumb-luckier than a chance spied evening meteor to have played with the man himself on a few occasions), and I’ve mostly endeavored, by his inspiration, to try and put the utmost heart and commitment into every note of each performance –enough so that there may be no doubt that I’m “all the way in”. It’s an ambitious and hopeful touchstone of an approach, and not always a successful one, but it hearing and seeing Levon that showed me that if you stood in the ring squarely on both feet, looked the song in the eye, and brought your soul to its statement with total conviction, that the inarguable truth could be willed out. Damn—how could anyone up there get away with “phoning it in” while that dude was singing and playing? I dunno, is how. 

I've heard and seen Levon more times than I can count: of course with The Band as well as his other numerous projects (Levon and The Cate Brothers in the 80's was always a must) right up until last year. And during all that time, I neither heard, felt nor otherwise witnessed from him one false or halfhearted note or moment. I choose to believe there were none.
That‘s not to say that Levon was the guy to reel in a breakdown, stifle the giddy, wag a finger, be a whip-cracker, task-master or buzz-killer in a studio or stage setting. In fact, in the few times I remember, the contrary was the case.  Although listening to him tell the tales from his early and then long career, or reading stories from his book, one might be sobered to learn that the glorious music was the end to the means, and up until, around and after that fact, there was much banality and pesky no-nonsense scenes to be seen to by those with level country heads such as his.  

But, before and after all, what is (good) music if not total joy, and what is a show, a gig or a session if not a great hang with other musicians? I was blessed to be able to hang out and be joyful with Levon on several occasions, mainly and thankfully due to my friend and brilliant songwriter Emory Joseph having hired me on, along with a few other longtime band-mates and buds Duke Levine, Dave Mattacks, Kevin Barry and the late great T-Bone Wolk for his recording sessions for Labor and Spirits, and to later perform a few years ago at Levon’s notorious Midnight Ramble house concert in Woodstock.

At the Ramble (I was playing keys with Emory, Steve Holly, Andy York & T-Bone for an opening set by Emory doing tunes from his Robert Hunter collection Fennario, and his original Labor & Spirits), it was figuratively and literally a Thanksgiving celebration, but that night Levon contributed his spirit exclusively at the drum set as per doctors’ instructions, saving his voice for a more mended and fit to crow day, which indeed would arrive after that and several other subsequent healing hiatuses. 

The Ramble’s stage/studio/barn/playhouse was packed with fans, friends and family, and the stage was full of brilliant players and singers—revel truly rocked the hills--while Levon beamed and walloped with the zeal of a god, exuberant as any man is allowed to be in this world—perhaps enjoying the tribal celebration and his venerated spot at its center for what it was: a cultural phenomenon to be savored and cherished then and there within the moment that would, like all others, come to be no more as quickly as it’s noticed. 

After our set I sat on a radiator within yards of the widely grinning man in the starched collared shirt, wearing the short gloves that held the sticks so deftly, at times recklessly, passionately drilling home the deliberate but wiley ride cymbal, ballistic and balanced about the toms with each fill tumbling rebirth into another verse or refrain. It was truly a wonder and a one-time thrill. All eyes were on him, and all gazes were glad and good. All hearts were soaring and it was as if he had the lot of us on his knee, children giddy-upping along on the whoop-whipping ride of our lives.

The recording sessions years earlier were yet another story to tell.

I had been on a few shows along with Levon, who performed on-- and was the voice for--a television series in the 90’s called The Road. I was participating as a band member with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rodney Crowell. There were some roll-out shows at Opryland in Nashville, and I remember Levon--bearded and leading with his toothy smile and aviator shades, his lithe and seemingly frail frame swimming deep within a coordinated warm-up suit. He sported the endearing charisma of the bad-ass who could never escape the sincerity that would always prohibit him from coming off as flippant, rude or lofty. Levon seemed to me real, and a real good and cool cat.

Years later, in ‘98, at Longview Studios, a converted 1919 dairy farm  in rural Massachusetts, Levon would arrive with a couple of his own closest friends to join us for a day of tracking on Emory’s Labor & Spirits record. He bounded amiably in, proceeded to make himself--and thereby all else there—comfortable and relaxed. Proceeding to wield and prepare organic substances he jovially credited with his remission from throat cancer, it was perhaps the pervasive nature of such a smoky realm that transformed the day into one of the most guffaw-filled, fun house rides that I’ve ever survived.

The day was summer sunny, hot and humid, dusty and buggy. I recall his remark that this was “heat that’ll follow you into the shade”, among many other stories, tales and asides. I must include the image of Funk legend Bernie Worrell who aimlessly ambled into our studio, having nothing to do while his sessions in the nearby larger barn studio were suspended due to a death in the family of one of the crew. I’ll forever kick myself for not taking a picture of Bernie wearing his tee shirt, head wrapped in a bright blue bandana, tenuously and daintily tooting notes on my new (to him) penny whistle. Bernie Worrell playing a penny whistle. Think about it. 

Back to the sessions.

It was decided that it wouldn’t be too insane to set up two drum kits, each facing the other, at which Levon and Dave Mattacks could respectively concoct a tandem groove. It came together like a sideways train on a sky bound track. Those familiar with the artistry and angles of Dave Mattacks can possibly imagine the resulting delight that was those two percussive worlds colluding. You can hear it on Emory Joseph’s Family Dog

Much music, mirth and magic was made that day, and it all now exists forever, along with some extemporaneous outtakes that Emory was foolishly wise enough to include in the final master.

It was then time to lay down some background vocals on a few tunes (Rhum and Coffee and Family Dog) the first song written for and dedicated to the great Guy Clark. It’s a bouncy, rollicking proclamation and celebration of recipes promoting poetry and the autonomy of personal choices. That’s my read, at any rate. The second is a first-dog description of the canine ethos that you by now may have heard.
We all gathered around one microphone with Emory, T-Bone & Levon, whose hoarse voice was neither a disclaimer nor a discouragement. Once we were done clowning and were underway, every note from his challenged pipes was pure and perfectly pitched, a singer's singer in any circumstance.

Until then though, it was pretty much of a riot. I won’t delve way into it here, but suffice to say that a good joke is worth developing for as long as it promises to be funny, and Levon's efforts wouldn’t end until all was explored. 

To this day, it’s one of my personal all-time favorite outtake bits, and I wish I’d had the chance to laugh to it all over again with him. 

I like to call it Duckboy and The Day Visitors
(careful...intentionally offensive language)

This past few days since Levon’s exit from this world have been like that tough dream you must muddle through until you eventually awaken. You’d rather not be within it, but it’s too late now. It’s hard to peg this feeling, because it’s hard to tag the man, the artist, the voice, the legend. Every note he sang, strummed, picked or played was the whole picture: the picture with which Levon Helm was wholly familiar: the way of the world. 
There’s no doubt that The Band was one of music’s most influential forces, and even as an eleven year old, it was clear to me as I listened to other songs that were somehow too real, too honest and too important to become hits you heard on the radio repeatedly alongside Frankie Vallie, The Grassroots, Buckinghams, Monkees or--you get the picture—that these guys weren’t merely onto something that was special like a new sonic discovery or genre recipe. Instead they were continuing, developing and adding to a mountain of heart, soul and song that, without these responsible sentinels minding the other careless kids who were whistling through the candy store, might very well be whittled and weathered down to whispered ephemera. 

Theirs was a stewardship of almost holy proportion. Merely to illustrate the point further: The Night They Drove Old’ Dixie Down was the B-side of their sole top 40 hit Cripple Creek in ‘69. That was and is the  prevailing “wisdom” of commercial radio. 

As a band, the group contained profound multitudes, as any great band must. Multi instrumentalists, gifted storytelling and lyricism, singular and combined vocal magic made them distinctive, almost mystical. Danko’s frantically wavering tenor barely able to contain itself, Richard Manuel’s father time confessor of pain and purity, sincere energy from a darker place that maybe only he and Ray Charles could see—Robbie Robertson’s perfectly placed strums and licks economically serving those brilliant songs while he added vocal element X to the harmonies. And all that dressed up and launched heavenward by the illustrious operatic orchestrations of Garth Hudson's keys and reeds. Also, like any great ensemble, the sum of it all became one glorious sound, not to be easily analyzed or deconstructed, but accepted and appreciated like a golden rising moon.

But its front man ambassador, pilot, admiral, spokesman, non-apologetic and all encompassing personae that stood undeniably on the shoulders of the sturdiest and oldest truths of our earthly clan here, was the scruffy rascal that knew how to put it across. He wasn’t slick or jive or posing or primping. He was a truth-teller with gusto, a crusader with class, and the clarion call for all to not be afraid, have a REAL good time, do a good job and tell it like it is.

He was what making music and being alive IS all about. 

Wow—a jewel is gone. Let all shine on.