My memories of Levon Helm

Friday, April 20, 2012 | |

Yesterday, the world lost a great musician as Levon Helm, the drummer and singer of The Band, lost his battle with cancer. He was 71.

As most of The Band’s biggest hits were released in the late 1960s, a few years before I was born, many from my generation are unaware of Helm and his music. For them, the news of his passing will barely register, but through a series of hometown connections, The Band has touched my life and for me, this is truly sad news.

The Band

My story begins when I was a boy of 12. My mother told me that there was a big concert in my hometown of Stratford starring The Band. Their name struck me as terribly odd and it took me some time to digest that anyone would ever have picked that as their name. She told me however that they had been a huge success and that it was a very big deal that they were playing a show in Stratford. Their keyboard player, Richard Manuel, who they all called “Beak,” was from Stratford and I believed that had to be the only reason this big deal had ever come to be.

The Revols

My mother was just as excited though by the opening act, a band called The Revols, who, as teenagers in Stratford, had been about as popular as The Beatles, playing every dance that she, my father and their friends thought worth going to, at a time when going to dances was the thing to do.

Before he had been with The Band, Manuel had been an original member of The Revols, along with John Till, Ken Kalmusky, Doug Rhodes and Jim Winkler. Till would later leave the group and be replaced by Garth Picot. Their success in Stratford and surrounding area led to opening for Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas native credited with bringing rock and roll to Canada. While still teenagers, they would travel to Arkansas to play at Hawkins’ club in Fayetteville.

The group would disperse, some going on to play with other high profile bands – Till played with Janis Joplin (including her show at Woodstock in 69) and Kalmusky with Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s group, Great Speckled Bird.

Manuel would join Hawkins’ own band, The Hawks, which ultimately included Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko. The Hawks left Hawkins in 1964 to play with Bob Dylan (at a time that Dylan was moving his music from acoustic folk to electric rock), finally forming their own group, The Band.

Teen years in Stratford and the girl from Toronto

Throughout my teen years, our local radio station in Stratford, which advertised a format of “oldies and more” (with the oldies being prominent and the more being highly suspect) would occasionally play The Band’s biggest hits, The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. There was something so different about these songs, something that got me immediately and I was ever more a fan.

Years later, when I was nearly through university, I would meet a girl from Toronto. She told me her dad had grown up in Goderich, Ontario, but moved to Stratford as a teenager. He was a guitar player who lived with Richard Manuel and played in his band, The Revols. That girl is now my wife and the mother of our two amazing children. My father-in-law is Garth Picot, easily the best guitar player I’ve ever known.

A birthday gift for me

On my birthday the following year, my girlfriend, her family and John Till and family went to see The Band play a show in Toronto. They had just released their album Jericho and thrilled the crowd with classic hits and selections from the new album that I loved instantly.

The concert was absolutely brilliant, but my night was about to get much better. Till went down to the stage after the show and told the group’s people who he was and that he, Garth and their families wanted to come backstage and talk to the guys. A quick check with the band members and we were led backstage into their dressing room.

I remember meeting Danko and being surprised that he wasn't nearly as tall as he seemed on stage. He was really friendly and joked that since we were both Ricks that he’d have an easy time remembering my name – an awful joke, but delivered in a way that made you feel glad he had said it. Hudson seemed to be mostly a giant beard and possibly shy so our introduction was predictably short.

Helm had been the star onstage and backstage too he was larger than life. He was pleased to meet me, but thrilled to see the two men he had known and with whom he had shared the stage many years earlier - Till and my father-in-law. I had known my father-in-law had been an accomplished musician, with uncommon skill, but to see him treated as an equal by these men was a memory I’ll never forget.

Helm said he remembered Garth’s daughter (my girlfriend) from her attendance at Manuel’s funeral in Stratford in 1986. As unlikely as that was to be true, Levon had a southern charm that made it impossible not to believe him. If nothing else, perhaps he just knew enough to say he remembered her, smile and make sure everyone that made the effort to see him play was having a good night. That stuck with me too.

The music goes on

The Band hasn’t been together since the death of Danko, but the remaining members of The Revols , including my father-in-law, reunited in Stratford on a perfect summer day in Stratford in 2008 to open a show for Ronnie Hawkins. Yes, that Ronnie Hawkins. Some estimated the crowd to be as many as 20,000 people.

The crowd was in awe that these men, now in their 60s, could still play as well as ever; maybe even better than when they were younger. There wasn’t a song in the set that didn’t hit its mark, but I think the ones that people remember most were Up on Cripple Creek, The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

By The Band.

RIP Levon Helm

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