Remembering Levon Helm
By John McEuen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Our friend Levon has left an indelible mark on the world. Even more relevant about the man as to ‘who he was,’ is ‘how’ he was. If you were fortunate to meet him, you knew. For others who did not, he was everybody’s friend, always a smile, no matter what he faced in life. What all saw was that he loved life so much, he made you like yours more. His joy, music, that contagious beat, his humility and willingness to share is something hoped for with someone of his cultural stature, but often not found.
Levon was one of those rare few whose first name represented a world of good things; you knew he’d deliver something you wanted.
I first saw him from afar, The Band concert at Pasadena’s Civic in the late ’60’s. The just released Music from Big Pink, was the rage, giving direction and inspiration to many, showing us all how acoustic instruments, drums, and his magic gentle vocals could blend in a new way. Our “Mr. Bojangles” record was a direct descendent of that influence.
It was 20 years later that I met him. It seemed we’d known each other forever. I did the music score of The Man Outside, an independent feature in which he was one of the principle stars. Levon liked the music I had put in the film – lots of banjo, mandolin, fiddle along with drums; that made my day for that whole year.
A few path crossings later led to seeing him on the road with his blues band, not able to sing, but anxious to play. Levon had to play. That was him.
Once in the 90’s, at a horrible club in Salt Lake City, I had to go see him. It seemed a lull in his career, one I thought he might be down about: a tiny, dark, bad sounding room, the ‘crowd’ about 90 people. All smiles but speaking softly, we chatted and waited for his stage-time. You would have thought he was going on at Carnegie Hall. They loved him, and they knew he loved them for being there.
Then, in 1994, I was opening for The Band at Wisconsin’s Mole Lake Bluegrass festival. My young sons were worried that we shouldn’t be in the only dressing room when The Band showed up. When ‘everybody’s friend’ and his band came in, Levon’s face lit up the instant he saw me: “Hey, John! You going to sit in with us on something? Can I borrow your mandolin? How you doing?” The moment I introduced my sons to him their fears melted.
My wife Marilyn grew up to different drums, not aware of Levon’s deep impact. He invited me to play The Midnight Ramble for his ’70th birthday show, and she came along. After my set, we stood about three feet from Levon as he laid down the beat for the dozen other players, me thinking “she’ll want to move away soon” .. I could not get her to move a foot. Virgil Caine took her away until three hours later. We all clapped a long time for our dear friend, who has now left the stage for the last time.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Last Waltz
About the Author: John McEuen is a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which formed in 1966. John is the only Californian musician to perform solo on the Grand Ole Opry, then play it several times with his band. John’s own XM Satellite radio show, Acoustic Traveller on Channel 15, runs twice a month and is in its 6th year. He will be performing in Los Angeles at Largo Wednesday 04/25 (8:00 PM). Click here for tickets. For more information on John McEuen, visit: http://www.johnmceuen.com/