Levon Helm (1940-2012)


The Weight
The Band with The Staple Singers
The Last Waltz (1976)


A few months ago, my interest in a pop singer lead me to The Last Waltz (1976) and to where I am today, which is grief-stricken (obviously), but beyond that is the realization that I’m in the midst of some larger change that, for once, I’m really optimistic about. “Change” for about a dozen years now has equated “sickness” and/or “death,” resulting in a bit of fear of change which I’m sure you can understand. This change is different, though, and for once it doesn’t involve an exciting new prescription medication.

It has been a gradual sneaking-up kind of change, one that I think started during the Shatnerthon but which didn’t coalesce until about half a year ago. It was then I popped in The Last Waltz, and when I got past the kinda goofy beginning, “Up On Cripple Creek” began and suddenly a million lost memories from childhood came back in that proverbial flood everyone’s always talking about. I grew up in Southern Missouri in the 1970s, in a small town that was not particularly keen on the urban disco sensation but which loved the early-1970s folk-tinged rock sound. Our radio station KJEL would play The Eagles, early Elton John, crossover artists like Linda Ronstadt and Tanya Tucker, and The Band. The 1968 hit “The Weight” must have gotten just as much play on KJEL in 1979 as it did a decade earlier.

Somehow, through time and life and illness, I had forgotten about The Band. Absolutely, completely forgotten. Until The Last Waltz, and until I saw Levon Helm.

I recognized him immediately. I hadn’t seen his face or heard his name in, I don’t know, probably 15 years, maybe longer. But I saw him and remembered instantly who he was and how much I had loved him specifically. Kids a decade older than me had their favorite Monkee, I had my favorite The Band member, and it was Levon with his gorgeous smile and unwavering integrity, astonishing voice and Turkey Scratch, Arkansas written all over him.

The entire process of learning about that pop singer — it’s no secret, I guess, that I mean Neil Diamond when I say that — has been more about discovering both new and forgotten artists than it has been about Diamond himself. Which is probably as it should be, but that’s for another time. The point is that I was tremendously happy last winter that I had rediscovered Levon Helm and The Band, especially once I realized we had lost Rick Danko and Richard Manuel long ago.

At some point I got the idea to personally thank those artists who had been important influences in my life, which is a fancy way of saying “send some fan letters.” The idea was to write an actual pen-and-paper letter, something Carolyn See recommends in Making a Literary Life, and I got my little stack of stationery and a nice pen and jotted down a list of who to write — all of six people, everyone else had passed on long ago — and was all set to do it. Embarrassment crept in quickly, as did self-consciousness. I wondered if it was crossing the line into silliness or extreme fannish behavior, something I genuinely worried about after an impulsive “I love you” tweet to a musician I had seen live in an online performance last fall. Coincidentally, Bill Corbett talked about this very issue on Reddit earlier this week, saying he sometimes gets approached by “ultra-intense fans who seem equal parts ‘love you’ and ‘hate you’… But honestly, that is pretty rare. Thank god!”

I never wrote those letters. Yesterday, my list dropped from six people to five.

Levon Helm was first diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, fought it successfully for a very long time, but it came back because it’s cancer and cancer doesn’t give a fuck. Coincidentally, someone I know online got the good news yesterday that his cancer was improving, but he didn’t dare hope because it’s too difficult to hope and be let down over and over again. Yet his advice for all of us is simple and true: “Go live, you guys. It’s what I’ll be doing.”

It’s true, some of us are afraid to fully live our lives. We get past that because of little reminders now and again; yesterday was one enormous reminder. Living fearlessly is what Levon Helm did, of course.  Levon gave so much through his music and his acting, but also through his strength, and just past today’s grief is tomorrow’s certainty that this world will always have Levon Helm, and will always be better for it.

I love you, Levon. I forgot you once, but I promise you I will not forget you again.


  1. Last night I watched The Last Waltz in his memory.

    I met him and you’ll be pleased to know that he was as warm and funny and loveable as you’d imagine him.

    And I’m not usually one to kiss and tell but he asked my permission to smooch me…yes, he was also a gentleman.

    I’ll remember him with fondness forever.

  2. I was just over at your blog before coming here, then ran right back to read your previous post when you mentioned you had met Levon before. That was a lovely post, MJ, I’m glad you shared it with us. And of course we’re all jealous that you got to not only meet but kiss him. He sounds like an absolute gem, although that comes through in interviews and I never suspected it was just an act.

    It’s going to be a while before I can watch The Last Waltz again, I think.

  3. Beautiful write up, Stacia. Full of your usual soul and grace.

    The Band was my favorite band as a kid, and gave me such sadness over the years. I remember buying Before the Flood as a junior in high school, listening to it over and over like the sound of mystics. Through clumsiness and over eagerness, I scratched it badly right in the middle of “I Shall Be Released.” Very suddenly and unexpectedly, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried, ashamed and much too old for tears; feeling as if the world was somehow suddenly aligned against me.

    Then there was Danko, the one so hyper-energized he always seemed quivering on some wire. Dead so young. A heart attack? In his sleep? How? How? Then Richard Manuel finishing a bottle of Grand Marnier before hanging himself in a hotel room. I remember thinking, how could someone that played with the Band be unhappy?

    I best remember Helm, aside from that perfect, American voice; as Sissy Spacek’s father in Cole Miner’s Daughter, slowly dying of Black Lung with such towering dignity.

    As you say, a gorgeous smile. Just a fine, small town boy.

  4. Thank you Mykal, I always love it when you comment here. I think the last time I had seen Levon Helm was when TBS or TNT was showing Coal Miner’s Daughter regularly back in the 1990s.

    I don’t know a lot about The Band, but I think, based on the little I do know, that they put their whole lives into their music and that is going to take a toll on your health. I recently learned there is a documentary on Helm called I Ain’t In This For My Health. Very apt.

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