The media talked about Dick Clark.
The people talked about Levon Helm.
He didn't do it to become famous, certainly not rich. His parents didn't buy him the best equipment available, they didn't dun everybody they came in contact with, saying how great a player he was and he deserved to make it, no, Levon Helm followed his muse, the music, to the point his death impacted a spectrum of people from the barely-pubescent to the nearly-deceased, that's how good he was.
There's no direct career path in music. It's not like becoming a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. It's not about dotting i's and crossing t's, it's not about going through the motions, it's about living on your wits, making your own opportunities after you've developed the skills. As to whether you hit a dead end or become a superstar, the outcome is not entirely in your hands. But to succeed you've got to get in the game. You can't become a doctor if you don't spend all your time being an intern and a resident and you can't become a famous musician unless you've got no other interests.
History tells us Levon Helm played with Ronnie Hawkins, as a member of the Hawks.
What it doesn't tell those who didn't live through that period was that Ronnie Hawkins meant little in the U.S. But it was while backing up Ronnie that Levon encountered the rest of what ultimately became the Band.
There's that opportunity thing again. You make your own luck. You can't be sitting at home, dreaming of hooking up with a songwriter as good as Robbie Robertson, you've got to be in the mix, life is a game of chance.
And that's what led the Band from the wilderness to backing up Bob Dylan.
Think about this, you're the drummer in a five-piece band that can't cut a hit on your own and you end up supporting someone who made his hits without you, and has a long string of them.
But here's where opportunity hit again.
Because Bob Dylan was managed by Albert Grossman. In an era where your manager was everything. Possibly, it still is. Albert Grossman jump-started Dylan's career with covers by his client Peter, Paul & Mary, he used his power to get the Band a deal with Capitol Records, an almost moribund label in an era where Warner Brothers was king.
But then the Band delivered "Big Pink".
There were no singles. "The Weight" didn't burn up the chart. But in a time where people devoted themselves to albums, "Big Pink" paid dividends. In an era before MTV, it didn't matter how you looked, just how you played.
And boy could these guys play.
It was an earthy sound. Almost rural. The Band's music hearkened back to the past, but there was almost nothing like it in 1968. If you're great, being unique is an asset.
Then came "The Band".
I'll tell you my favorite track from that album is the last, "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)". My friend Brad dropped the needle on it one Sunday night on the bottom floor of his parents' split level and I was closed immediately. It's like I was hearing a voice from the nineteenth century, and the supporting instruments helped tell the story.
"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" was sung by Richard Manuel. My favorite unknown Band song, "Twilight", was sung by Rick Danko. Maybe if they died in the heyday of the Internet, their passings would echo as much as that of Levon's. You see that's what the Band was, a band. Every player an integral element. We loved Levon, but we loved the group even more.
But it was on that second album that Levon truly shined.
"Rag Mama Rag"!
That string intro, so infectious!
And Levon singing like he's half-drunk, having the time of his life.
"Hail stones beatin' on the roof
The bourbon is a hundred proof
It's you and me and the telephone
Our destiny is quite well known
We don't need to sit and brag
All we gotta do is
Rag mama rag, mama rag"
This bridge puts the track over the top. It all sounds like so much FUN! The legacy of the Band is seriousness, but there was joy too. That's what being a musician is all about, the fun, the experiences, when done right it makes you richer than anybody on Wall Street.
And of course Levon sang the Band's breakthrough one and only hit, "Up On Cripple Creek" and the song that Joan Baez ultimately brought to mainstream public consciousness, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", but he also sang "Jemima Surrender", which I love even more.
The Band were now stars.
And so was their drummer. In an era where the guy behind the kit, powering the band, almost never was. He didn't have a classically trained voice, it wasn't purty, it couldn't win a TV singing contest, but it could convey the human condition seemingly better than anybody's in rock.
And "The Band" was the peak.
But "Stage Fright" was not that much of a denouement.
And although Levon didn't dominate as much as he had previously, he sang co-lead on "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show". And that's what a touring band is, a medicine show, selling you what you need via smoke and mirrors, a well-honed act.
And of course, there was the live album, "Rock Of Ages", but the Band could never quite recapture the magic. It was disappointing. But they burned so brightly, maybe they burned themselves out.
And then Robbie broke up the band.
The band reformed.
He got cancer.
He played again, creating a medicine show of his own.
And then he expired.
Whew, THAT'S A LIFE!
Full of happiness, anger, joy and regret. That's what happens when you play…sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you never want to give up the game.
It's astounding that Robbie and Levon connected at the end. Usually bitterness triumphs in rock and roll.
Then again, it's all about the music.
And despite Levon moving on, those great records he was a part of still remain. Push play and you'll find he's still fully alive.
Who knew he was going to be immortal?
Certainly not Levon himself.
You can't see the end from the beginning.
But if you just start, you have the possibility of going on an amazing journey.
And in this case, we were along for the magic ride.
We miss you already Levon.