Remembering Levon Helm
Last Friday, Voice Media Group announced the winners of their first music writing awards. This winning piece by Jesse Sykes first appeared in Seattle Weekly's print edition.
By Jesse Sykes
As I was growing up in New York state--where the residents want you to know they don't live in "The City"--the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Woodstock, and the music of The Band were all entangled in the region's mythology; on occasion, the boundary between the distant and recent past blurred completely. The Redcoats moved through our town during the Revolutionary War, 109 of our residents served in the Civil War, The Band's music--made a familiar 100 miles away--was a ubiquitous presence, and Woodstock took place on a farm down the road from a house our family used as a hunting cabin. In my young mind, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, Levon Helm and Max Yasgur all seemed to be of the same era, one far removed from my own.
Life as a child is surreal anyway, but my hometown of Pound Ridge was like re-enactment bootcamp, with the adults hell-bent on making little anachronisms of us all. Fife-and-drum corps was a rite of passage for most, and Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July events all ended with gunfire at the village cemetery set on a beautiful hillside in the middle of town: "Burial Hill," they appropriately named it, where the graves seemed like museum installations. As kids, it seemed unfathomable to think that you could be set on that hillside for eternity, lying beside strangers who had died in ways that we couldn't comprehend.
Most of the homes in the area were hundreds of years old, and came with incredible stories. But more important, they came with ghosts. Even the newer houses seemed haunted, and we kids were sure they were built on Native American burial grounds. My first meaningful kiss was on the "pound" that Pound Ridge was named for--the flat, long hill where the Native Americans kept their game animals. Roads ran through these ridges: "Pound Ridge Road," "High Ridge," "Long Ridge." These ridges, with their dark winding roads, held secrets, waged bets, mercilessly took lives on blind curves, and provided boundless beauty and depth of field. If you listened, there was the sense that they were willing to reveal their secrets.
Our fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Levine--a Liz Taylor look-alike in her 40s, with a bit of Gloria Steinem thrown in--taught science, was tough as nails, and was so unlike the other teachers who had long ago morphed into that strange state prevalent among grade-school teachers in the 1970s, where they began to take on characteristics resembling birds of prey, with their strange bodies and elongated beaks taking precedence over their more-human traits. I was smitten with her--we all were. We were a bit scared, too.
Every time we were about to take off for a school holiday, Ms. Levine brought out a guitar and we would sing songs. The one I always remember singing is "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," from The Band's self-titled record in 1969. I had no idea the song was recorded after I was born--it could have been from the Civil War. It felt timeless, yet far away from the post-Brady Bunch era that I was weaned in. When we sang it, it was as if it and we had always existed, and things were as they had always been. We sang it at day camp, too, along with "This Land Is Your Land" and "On Top of Old Smokey," of course. I remember those brown-bag lunches of soggy PB&J sandwiches and warm Mott's Apple Juice, and the counselors, aged 14 or 15, with their long hair parted in the middle and hip-huggers. "Virgil Caine is my name," they'd sing out, almost certainly after smoking pot in the woods.
Though they'd been with me in a sense since grade school, in my teens The Band was one of the first groups I fell in love with. As budding teenagers, each of us has such a strange mixture of ingredients that need to be activated. For me, The Band was one of the vehicles that helped me connect with what was churning inside me. I needed something that connected me to nature and allowed more space for my imagination to fill--allowing my own vision to percolate within its confines. It had to look and feel a certain way, have a metaphysical structure I'll never understand to this day, to speak to my soul. It was the beginning of a journey away from alienation--one still unfolding today.
The Band's voices--in particular that of Levon Helm, the drummer, and often lead singer, who died on April 19, and was the voice behind "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," among many others--had a familiarity and a depth of spirit that made me feel safe during a time when darkness seemed to be baiting me around every narrow passageway, cutting through the Northeastern woods.
We all know there is no way to fight what we need. Just like falling in love with a human, we fall in love with our music. As a teenager, the process can be intense, even painful. It happens in one of those riptide moments, when all chemicals converge--those that hover in the ether and those that ignite internal sparks, making that precise moment ripe for burgeoning hormones and primeval yearnings to come forth.