A Levon Helm story

April 23rd, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Let me tell you a story about Levon Helm, one I’ve never shared before in a public forum.

Several years ago, during a particularly rough patch in his fight against cancer, Levon Helm performed at the Walton Arts Center. Throughout the final years of his life, throat cancer stripped the power from his rumbling Southern tenor.

That cancer claimed his life Thursday (April 19). He was 71, and we published a feature obituary on the legendary drummer and member of The Band. In that story, I talked to several of his friends and former bandmates. It’s worth a read, I think, because Helm had many, many ties to this area and impacted many lives and the culture of rock ‘n’ roll in Northwest Arkansas.

Because of the sold-out status of his 2009 show, there weren’t enough seats for me, or for anyone else. But someone felt sorry for me, and in their grace, I ended up with a backstage pass. I watched Helm perform while sitting on a speaker box on the stage left wing.

Before the show, as I was talking with a longtime friend of the drummer. I saw his eyes get big and look to something beyond me. As I turned in that direction, I saw what caught his attention. It was Helm, passing between dressing rooms. Our mutual acquaintance introduced me, and with a firm handshake and his buttery drawl, Helm offered his greeting.

“Hello, Kevin. Nice to meet you.”

Were the circumstances different, I’d still remember it fondly. Considering what the reality was, I’m still moved to this day by his kindness.

You see, Levon Helm didn’t utter a word at the concert. His voiced failed him, and despite having 1,200 in the audience, he didn’t acknowledge the crowd vocally in any fashion. Instead, he played enthusiastically and gave a thumbs up during particularly rousing rounds of applause offered in his direction.

Helm’s silence was a disappointment on many levels, to be sure, but a celebration of his strength and resiliency on many other levels.

Of course, I had no idea that would happen when we exchanged greetings. I went through many emotions after watching this happen. I felt he cheated the crowd — he can talk, and I heard him do it, I thought. Or, perhaps he’d blown his vocals with a simple hello, but that didn’t seem likely, either.

In recent interviews with many of those who knew him over the years, one prevailing trait kept rising to the surface: his kindness. He made instant friends, one said. He treated everyone fairly, another mentioned. He just had charisma, said a third.

I realize now, of course, I witnessed this same thing in our brief meeting.

At the risk of his voice, Helm offered me a simple greeting. He could have passed by, gracefully, and I could have excused it away because of his vocal troubles when I watched the show, and with the rest of the crowd, learned he was unable to speak.

Instead, in an attempt not to be rude in a face-to-face setting, he said a simple hello.

One sentence, but one I’ve never forgotten and will carry with me.

The song below is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, the group that made Helm famous, and you can hear him on lead vocals  on the track.

The song is told from the perspective of a Southern soldier surveying post-Civil War damage to his homeland.

At Helm’s passing, the South lost one of its great ambassadors and one of its enduring voices. And, a really, genuinely nice person.

R.I.P., Levon Helm. You’ll be missed.

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