Great musicians become family members to those of us cursed with an undying love for music in our blood and Helm’s passing is the latest in what has become an unprecedented amount of musical mourning. Not only is music the most widespread its ever been on a moment-to-moment basis, but its scope means we’ll lose legends every single day who — especially in a land of “classic” music stations — continue to sing to us.
Helm’s croon was so strong that it bridged gaps between parents and children. Hearing The Band when I was a kid was universally appealing, from the beat to the voice to the words I barely grasped. Once music grabbed a hold of me, however, seeing those records in my dad’s collection affirmed his coolness… and it wasn’t just me: My former drummer Rob and his dad shared a love for Levon most cannot touch. Providers turned the provided when Rob and I would burn copies of “Dirt Farmer” for each other and our fathers. Life comes full circle.
Buffalo played host to glory and honor in music just days ago when Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band came to town for the first time since the late Clarence Clemons played his final show with the band (barring holograms), which was coincidentally at HSBC Arena in November 2009.
At the pivotal moment in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” when Springsteen sings, “The Big Man joined the band” in acknowledgment of the late Clarence Clemons coming on-board E-Street, the entire band stopped and Springsteen pointed skyward as legions of Clemons fans saluted video images of the saxophonist with fervent applause. I took the picture on the left at this moment and have reflected on it often since that night. However your belief system is structured, look at this photo and tell me Clarence Clemons was not alive and well in that room, that night.
There’s something to holding communion with 15,000 other people in love for a man that sinks into your guts and bones, much like that music we love so much. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with my favorite quote from author Cormac McCarthy. Paraphrasing, it’s that writers who don’t deal with the issue of death are cowards.
Helm, Clemons, the late Elliott Smith… these are folks who shaped my life and showed a bravery in performance seldom seen. Smith’s death haunts me to to this day. I dealt with fairly severe depression in high school and college and his message of triumphing over those same demons is something that played no small role in bringing light to some horribly dark days. Here’s what I wrote when Smith allegedly killed himself (even if you aren’t interested, you should see the photo of me from college that accompanies the byline. Yikes).
In my stages of acceptance for Helm’s death, the anger part comes with those who unwittingly haven’t been or may never be touched by his music. I want to shake them all and yell, “YOU DON’T KNOW HOW MONUMENTAL THIS MAN ALWAYS WILL BE,” but isn’t that the curse of all of our mortality? It’s like that Chris Rock bit: Tom Waits, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, us… “Ya gonna die.” Yes, the music is here, but Levon isn’t. “Tears of Rage,” indeed.
There is no Wilco without Levon Helm, no Whiskeytown nor Drive-By Truckers. But selfishly, I care more that there would be no me. Not that I would’ve been a serial killer or, worse, a Black Eyed Peas tour follower, but I would not be the man I am, for better or worse, without Levon Helm. I never met him, but I felt him… and I’ll never forget him til I join him.
Rest in peace, Dirt Farmer.