Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Levon Helm: 1940-2012

I’m a few days late on this one, I know, but I needed that time to process and figure out exactly what to say.  Before there was any other popular music in my life, there was The Band.  Before there was even The Band as a whole, there was Levon Helm singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.  As I was beginning to grow out of children’s music, my mom started to transition me to some of the music she liked.  No Led Zep yet – that was probably another year or so off – but as the sing-alongs of early childhood began to become old news for young-but-growing me, they were replaced by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and, best of all, a long-extinct vinyl compilation self-explanatorily titled The Best of The Band.  That one quickly became my new favorite record, as you can tell from the shape it’s in.  You know how kids just love to drag things they like around with them?  Well, with that in mind, check this out:

This album cover used to be white.  Bad li'l record collector!

As the story goes, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the first rock song I ever played of my own volition.  I loved it, and that had everything to do with Levon’s remarkable vocal on the song.  I remember thinking he sounded like a nice man, a very high compliment indeed from a four-ish year old kid.  As an adult writer, I’d probably say something more akin to “Mr. Helm’s warm, inviting, wisdom-soaked vocals”, but at the end of the day both descriptions refer to the same quality: instant, authentic familiarity.  It’s not something that can’t be learned or taught; you either have it or you don’t.  Levon Helm personified it.  I’ve never been in the same room as the man, but I’m sure I knew him.  The ability to make listeners feel that way simply through a series of recorded performances is an astonishing gift.

When the news broke about Levon’s passing, I did exactly what you’d expect: rifled through my mom’s records for The Best of The Band, and rested the needle on the last track on side two.  Corny?  A bit, I’m sure, but also one hundred percent necessary.  As the scratchy, timeless-sounding vinyl spun, I thought for a moment about all of the other records I’ve played since first becoming obsessed with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” as a little kid, and became momentarily choked up about how much I had Levon Helm to thank for putting me on such a rewarding road.

So thank you, Levon.  Godspeed, old friend.

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