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Levon Helm – The Last Waltz

Upon reading the message from Levon Helm’s daughter, Amy, and his wife, Sandy about Levon being in the final stages of his battle with cancer – I closed my eyes and drifted back to 1973… I sat in my high school English Literature class talking about… what else?… music. My friend Doug looked at me like he didn’t recognize me and said, “What do mean you’ve never heard of The Band?” I felt ashamed for some reason – like I’d let him down or something.

Lunch break came after our class, and we headed out to his van for… lunch. Doug popped Moondog Matinee into the 8-track player – You remember those don’t you? – and the tinkling of piano keys of the opener “Ain’t Got No Home” cut through the sweet smoke wrapped around my head. I’d heard the song before, but not like The Band did it. I drifted away to New Orleans, or at least what I imagined New Orleans might have sounded like; I’d never been there.

About three songs into the tape Doug excitedly explained, “They’re all cover songs, man!… well, except for the next one. You know what cover songs are, right? It’s when they do someone else’s songs. You should hear their stuff though, man, it’s so cool. Its like nothing you’ve – ”

I had to stop him. “I know what a cover tune is, man,” I said. “Just relax and let’s listen to it.” Damn, Doug talked a lot when we had lunch. I slid deeper into the beanbag chair as “Third Man Theme,” took me and dropped me right in the middle of a carnival. We listened to the whole tape – it was like nothing I’d ever heard – and then we drifted off to our Art Appreciation class. Later that day, Doug and I went to the record store to look for more by The Band. He told me all about the albums I was buying before I got the chance to listen to them.

Now I’m 39 years older and shocked to hear that Levon Helm is closing in on death’s door. I shouldn’t be shocked, after all, he is 39 years older too, but it didn’t seem possible. I guess that’s one of the harsh realities of life – our heroes don’t stay the way we remember them so many years ago. The music locks us in those memories while everything and everyone else around us changes.

It did make me feel better though when I watched this interview with Levon from about a month ago. Sure his voice was raspy, and the cancer treatments had taken a toll on “The Man Behind The Drums,” but he still had a sparkle in his eyes and an undying smile on his face as he spoke about his favorite subject… music… and his friends known as The Midnight Ramblers. He still plays the drums the way I remember, and if you close your eyes… The best things don’t have to disappear.

Levon Helm Interview from the Sound Tracks: Quick Hits series by PBS Arts

Levon Helm and the Midnight Ramblers – Ophelia – from the Sound Tracks: Quick Hits series by PBS Arts

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About Blake Phillips

I'm a long-time Parrothead (Jimmy Buffett fan), and back in 1994 Jimmy's record label released an album by a new singer-songwriter named Todd Snider. On first listen I was hooked. Snider is one the best storytellers I've ever heard. His music turned me on to other great singer-songwriters like: John Prine, Robert Earl Keen, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Will Kimbrough. Then Will's music opened me up even more greats like: Rodney Crowell, Jeff Finlin, and Tommy Womack. It's a snowball ride that started with Buffett and is getting bigger and bigger.