I was one of those people whose life was immediately changed by the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was one way before I saw them and another way after. For the next ten years I completely immersed myself in rock and folk. The songs were my literature and, in a way, my religion. The musicians were my heroes. Over the years I gradually became disillusioned. There are very few left that I have much enthusiasm for. A week ago, one of the few I still respected died: Levon Helm.
I liked Levon because it was always the music that mattered to him. He wasn’t into show business or being a star. He was into being a player. And he did what musicians are supposed to do (but rarely do anymore): He listened to the other players. You could see him listening. Nothing escaped his attention. There’s a lot on the Internet about Levon right now, and I don’t really have much to add. Just this story and a link:
I used to sing a song called “China Girl,” which was on one of his solo albums after The Band broke up. I no longer have the album, and it’s out of print. Every now and then I want to play it on the guitar, but I’ve forgotten most of the lyrics and a chord or two. On the day Levon died I thought to check whether anybody had ever posted the song on YouTube. Someone had—a live version taken from a television show—and what I heard floored me. To me, it’s a real find. It’s so much better than the album version, and I’ve been playing it over and over and over. It’s not that it’s such a great song. As a song, you could say it’s kind of mediocre. (He didn’t write it.) But Levon gives the song something that makes it great. His performance has joy and it has triumph. It’s how I want to remember him. You can watch it here if you like.