Levon Helm leaves Woodstock a little bit less... Woodstock
A fellow Woodstock local remembers the voice and drummer of The Band
THE DEATH of Levon Helm, drummer and voice of the iconic Americana band The Band, means something a little different to Woodstock, New York. Here, it is local.
Along Plochmann Lane, which winds from the foot of Overlook Mountain to the golf club on the edge of town, the flowers and cards and sentimental, hand-lettered banners are piling up around the letter box which stands sentinel by the rutted driveway leading through the trees to the house where he lived since the days when Woodstock was, well, Woodstock.
One reads simply, “Thanks for the Levon,” and some of the flowers have been left stuffed into beer bottles – remnants of the vigil held as the town waited for news of his death, which came yesterday from the big city hospital in New York where he died, aged 71, after a 12 year battle with throat cancer. Mine has not been the only CD player with The Band’s Greatest Hits on repeat.
Levon Helm was not really a rock star, and in some ways it has been a surprise to see how widely his death has been reported on the world’s front pages. Not many under the age of 55 will have had much idea who he was, and why The Band, which last performed with its true line-up long ago in 1976, means so much to anyone who played even a minor role in the social and cultural upheavals of the Sixties.
Helm was an American folk-rock musician, a ‘rockabilly’ musician, who, like Johnny Cash, grew up dirt poor on a sharecropping farm in Arkansas. He was given a guitar when he was nine, just as Memphis, across the Mississippi River, was witnessing the evolution of black Delta blues into rock n’ roll. Helm was one of those who made the trip from the strange old days of the Dixie South to the world where his music became the sound track of a generation. He was ‘roots’.
Which is why he fitted so well with Woodstock. Like the rest of The Band, he came to town four years before the landmark 1969 festival because he was a member of The Hawks, which had been Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks playing rockabilly music around the beer halls of the South, when they were hired to be a backing band for Bob Dylan.
Helm actually quit because Dylan’s fans were so angry that he had sold-out to rock n’ roll and, he declared, he “wasn’t made to be booed”. But he returned to find his old group lodged in a house they dubbed The Big Pink, whiling away the time while Dylan recovered from his motorcycle accident composing the songs of the two albums for which they are still celebrated: Music from the Big Pink and The Band.
You hear Helm’s scratchy, strangled Arkansas voice, full of the grief of the Old South, on the songs that became anthems to those who looked to the America beyond the Top Ten: The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Rag Mama Rag, the only song they ever sang that reached the Billboard singles charts.
By 1976, when Martin Scorsese made his film The Last Waltz from their farewell concert, they were in disarray. Robbie Robertson, who wrote most of the songs and earned most of the money, never played with Helm again, and barely spoke to him amid a welter of resentments fuelled by the alcoholism and heroin addiction that had infected the band. Just this last week Robertson went to Helm’s deathbed and said that he had been “an elder brother” to him. It was a kind of apology.
Helm bought the house with a barn on Plochmann Lane, with a mortgage. Woodstock has been an arts colony since the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts movement was funded in 1902, and it had been a working town for hillbillies and quarrymen for a hundred years before that. It has its own version of ‘town and gown’.
Helm fitted right in. To this day a rusting pick-up truck follows a new Mercedes down Tinker Street, where the man with the long grey pony tail might be a musician or he might be the guy that chops firewood. Helm was a bit of both.
Life was hard. When the throat cancer caught up with him, he almost lost his home to the medical bills, a true common man experience in a country where hospital treatment is the number one cause of bankruptcy.
Woodstock rallied around, and the Midnight Rambles started up in his barn, as the local brotherhood of musicians, and some bigger stars, played benefits for him. Old fans who could afford it paid an eye-watering $150 and up to join these jam sessions. They evolved into the heart of Woodstock’s music scene, and led to Helm’s Grammy-winning sunset revival.
But the couple craning their necks around a barn post for a closer look at a visiting star were as likely to be a local fire brigade volunteer and his date, an off-duty sheriff or the local grocer as one of the ‘city folk’ with weekend homes on the mountain.
And they would be there for free, because Helm would hand out tickets to his buddies. And it was the working man with roots in the hard stony ground for whom he had sung the masterpieces for which The Band will be remembered that remained his friend and neighbour.
Woodstock will go on being its sometimes uncomfortable crucible of artist and redneck. But there is a mournful sense that Helm’s death marks the passing of an era. That the Woodstock for which the famous festival of peace, love and music was named will slide into the past from a present that had played on in Plochmann Lane.