Remembering Levon Helm
It's in that pinnacle moment that music becomes something that isn't just a void-filler that could make you feel good, distracted, even joyful--this time it presents itself as a vehicle that could take you down through the depths of spirit and soul, make you aware you have a soul. It's the beginning of a true love affair that cannot happen until we gain enough footage under our belt so that the ability to reflect takes on a life of its own; music becomes not just the present and future, but for the first time the past, too. And it becomes personal.
I didn't need to know Levon Helm to feel like I knew his soul, his spirit. Maybe that's what I loved about The Band, why to this day I still need their music in my life. It's as if they were characters from a time beyond, yet the sorrow in their voices is eternally poignant.
As a kid, I didn't know who was singing which of The Band's songs or who had written which--it didn't matter. They seemed like they were all haunted by the same ghost, a ghost I was familiar with.
My family had a little house in Bethel, New York, a town in the Catskills, right down the road from Yasgur's farm where the Woodstock festival was held. It had once belonged to a great aunt who left it to my grandma when she passed away. By the time I was born, it was mostly used as a hunting shelter, not suitable for living. Its decrepit state may have had something to do with the fact that my grandmother's sister had committed suicide in that house via gas oven. My grandma always told us kids "She died of a broken heart," and for many years I believed a broken heart to be no different than a heart attack or cancer. It was something that could happen to any of us.
I remember the shot-out windows, the half moon on the outhouse door, the metal porch chairs, and the complete silence. The house stood in a meadow surrounded by 150 acres of deep woods. I was too young to remember, but my dad always liked to tell the story of how Max Yasgur supposedly held me in his arms when I was a baby. As a teenager, my dad would take me to the field where Woodstock all went down, and I recall feeling an intense ache in my chest and throat, a sweet kind of sadness. I had not been there, yet I felt I had.
Until recently, I never thought much of the fact that I carried a copy of The Band's debut, Music From Big Pink, in my purse to the studio for the making of each of our records. During playbacks I'd stare at the pictures in the booklet for inspiration, sort of like carrying a rabbit's foot--something to anchor me to my earliest emotional connections. There's something about that famous black-and-white photo of The Band, looking like young Civil War soldiers, standing before the mountains of West Saugerties, New York--taken just a couple of counties away from my childhood home--that brings me great comfort.
I still have dreams where I am slipping back into the quiet pastoral beauty of that region, where I get to revisit the mountains, those ridges, the woods, and those narrow roads lined with stone walls. In these dreams I never know if I'm leaving for the first time or coming home for the last. They are always unsettling that way.
I have friends lying on Burial Hill now, people who died much too young. It brings me a peculiar pleasure knowing it's not just strangers buried there anymore. Now my story is as embedded within those ridges as the ones told to me as a kid. I don't know if I'll ever make it back there, but when I see that hillside cemetery in my head, it's Levon Helm's voice I hear.