Social networking has changed how we hear bad news and how we grieve. We’ve known that not all was well with Levon Helm for several months, he would cancel shows for ailments and operations but we all thought that he would last forever-or at least until we could make it up to Woodstock for a Midnight Ramble.
On Tuesday we knew that wasn’t going to happen, as Helm’s family released a statement that the singer was in the last stages of cancer treatment. The response was remarkable. After the announcement on Facebook about 100 people a minute left a comment of love and support. Four hours after his death an astounding 5,000 comments were registered. You wouldn’t read all of them unless you were family, even then the comments all start to sound alike. But in the same way that funerals are for the living, comment boards allow fans and admirers to have their say regardless of whether anyone’s listening. Besides. Levon’s funeral, if there is one, is not an event that many of us will be invited to.
The death-by-misadventure common in the old days was traumatic because the artists in question hadn’t reached their peak and had more to say. If Jimi Hendrix were alive today he’d probably be on par with Bob Dylan and Neil Young as a senior statesman. Or maybe he’d be playing casinos like Eric Burdon and the Beach Boys. You never know.
Death by old age is another story. It’s less traumatic because you see it coming. And even though Levon has had a recent creative spurt, he is most celebrated for what he did long ago. We loved him for what he did while with The Band, and never fail to get a big kick out of watching him strut through The Last Waltz. Which I’m going to watch all the way through tonight, turned up loud.
Levon was a survivor. He lived through drugs, the death of his bandmates, financial ruin and Robbie Robertson. He had carved a niche for himself in Woodstock, playing weekly house concerts that allowed anyone who made the trip and paid for a ticket to get up close and personal with people you last saw play in stadiums. The trip could take a lot out of you, but the tickets, at $150, weren’t all that dear. You can pay more than that for an arena show and still need binoculars.
I did the Ramble one year ago thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but planned to do it again on my next trip east. It wasn’t as hard for me as some people, as I lived in Woodstock as a child and still have a place to stay. While some of the Rambles are pretty star-studded, my night was relatively benign celebrity-wise, although I did get to see Hubert Sumlin whip off some great solos while tethered to an oxygen tank. I was maybe twelve feet away from Levon, but as luck would have it there was a cymbal that prevented me from watching too closely. That always happens with me and drummers.
I was happy enough to be in the room with Levon and his buddies, and didn’t care who wasn’t there. Even when I looked at a list of past Ramble guests it didn’t really matter. Over the past year they hosted Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Garth Hudson. Robbie Robertson never made it it over, although Levon’s manager told me she was in touch with Robbie’s manager, standing by in case the two antagonists finally buried the hatchet.
We don’t know what really went on between these two, but that doesn’t stop us from speculating. The idea that Robertson took credit for joint work, which translated into increased royalties, has the ring of truth. His statements over the past week also seem a bit disingenuous, from his Facebook page: “Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
OK, fine. But you had 30 years to call him up and explain yourself, or convince him that he was wrong about you. Again from Facebook: “On Sunday I went to New York and visited him in the hospital. I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together.” Can you imagine that scene, with Robbie and Amy and Libby Titus and Donald Fagen all around Levon’s bed? Did anyone regret that it didn’t happen ten years ago, when two virile-yet-aging compadres could have yelled, screamed, cried and hugged, then gone inside for a beer instead of sitting around a bed thinking about beautiful times?
Again, we’ll never know. But this is a lesson for all of us, how if reconciliation is important you should never leave it up to the other guy to make the first move.
You can’t imagine what it’s like inside the Helm household tonight, or the converted barn which has hosted so many outstanding musicians and fans for the past seven years. But it would be cool if the Rambles could continue in some way. The idea that a loose connection of really good players could meet weekly in an intimate location for a musical free for all that has only a slight resemblance to a standard concert. It would never be how it was before, since the centerpiece will no longer be sitting at the drums with that big wide smile.
Levon’s gone, but the idea doesn’t have to die with him. Maybe someone should start a franchise of Rambles, one in every town. where a movable cast of characters perform intimately for themselves and the fans. Or maybe we should all stay home, brew some tea, and crank up The Last Waltz at full blast.