It’s Friday, April 20th, 2012. Nearby, a coworker just put on The Last Waltz, the remastered edition, and the waltz theme is floating around the room. Obits, remembrances and videos are making their rounds of the internet. Today is the world’s first day without Levon Helm, and we are all feeling it.
Levon Helm was one of my favourite musicians of all time. This sounds like the kind of thing people just say, a common hyperbole used only to emphasize the fact that they’re really into this guy right now, just really into him — but Levon’s the real deal.
I had the pleasure of witnessing his live show twice at Massey Hall, both within the past few years. His throat cancer had progressed pretty severely and the last time I saw him, he almost couldn’t speak. His daughter Amy held him up by singing his songs with him, and he never stopped smiling, even through all his coughing and rasping. His neat buttoned shirt looked boxy over his alarmingly small shoulders, but his time was impeccable and the joy coming from him was unmistakeable. Levon Helm was a man that drew you in, his love for the music radiating from behind the kit–the first time I saw him I was mesmerized by the way he held together a (ridiculously huge) lineup of amazing musicians having the time of their lives. It was the “Midnight Ramble” on tour, full of guitars and horns and voices, and I remember standing at the back of the main floor at Massey thinking to myself that if there was one gig I’d want, one job I’d love to have as a sax player, playing alongside Levon Helm would have to be it.
When his family posted a notice on Wednesday afternoon saying Levon was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer”, it felt like a punch in the gut. We knew it was coming, of course, but we didn’t really want to know or believe that we’d have to live without him one day. And only a handful of hours later, on Thursday afternoon, he passed away quietly (surrounded by friends and family, at least). The number of articles in celebration and memory of him before he passed on was really remarkable–I am glad that tributes were paid to him before he passed, because even if he never got the chance to see or read them, it feels right. People like this should be celebrated while we still have them, too.
There will be many screenings of The Last Waltz this weekend, I’m sure, and many listens to Dirt Farmer and The Band and Music From Big Pink. I hope that years from now we will continue to remember Levon as the legendary honey-voiced drummer that he was, and that we can continue to pay tribute to the indelible effect he had on us — on people like me, who will never be able to get enough of those songs. Thank you for all the joy and love and great times, Levon. Thank you for reminding us that being a musician is an inherently wonderful thing, and showing us just how wonderful it was. There will never be another like you. Rest in peace.