The general state of the American health care system isn’t on my mind today.
Perhaps I am in the throws of an extended “information cool-down” from the Fi-Med RAC Summit that concluded on Tuesday. Maybe I am burned out on the hot topics of the day, which are the ICD-10 proposed rule and the Supreme Court deciding the fate of PPACA. It could be that I really didn’t want to get out of bed this morning on a cloudy, rainy day, as a day of sleep with my dog and cat nearby sounds better than writing about another study, opinion or semi-breakthrough in the world of medicine.
More than likely, it’s because I lost one of my musical heroes yesterday.
Those who have read my pieces in this space know that one of my bigger areas of interest is music, both listening and performing. Any musician with any value will look you right in the eye and tell you that they are only the sum total of musical heroes that have gone before. As a singer, I would be nothing without the previous vocal contributions of the likes of Tim Buckley, Van Morrison and Paul McCartney. As a songwriter, I wouldn’t have much to offer lyrically without the craft displayed by Richard Thompson, David Ackles, Graham Parker or Bob Dylan.
And then there was The Band.
When I was in high school, I was in an enviable position, as my high school had a functioning, licensed radio station. For two years in the early ’80s, I had the coveted Friday night on-air slot. While I have some regrets about not being on the air with my current music collection, it was a great laboratory for pointing me in the right direction in the realm of both listening and composing. I discovered the bulk of The Band’s catalog during those years, and as time has passed, I have come to consider them to be the greatest band that North America ever produced. They are also the centerpiece of The Last Waltz, the greatest musical documentary ever filmed.
In the middle of The Band’s music was drummer and singer Levon Helm, an Arkansas native tasked with keeping the beat behind four Canadians. On Tuesday, a notice was released to the world that Levon was in the final stages of his 14-year battle with cancer. Yesterday, that battle concluded. He was 71.
I never had the chance to see him in concert. My friend Curtis did, as he states here. Yet having occupied a unique musical space for nearly 50 years, everyone who came across him had a story about his calming and welcoming presence that went along with his first rate musicianship.
My favorite story about Levon Helm has nothing to do with music at all. There used to be a morning DJ in Philadelphia by the name of John DeBella, who had previously been employed in New York. One morning, he told a story about having interviewed Levon Helm on-air during his days in New York. When the interview concluded and the microphones were turned off, Levon turned to him and in his gentlemanly Southern drawl said, “John, if you ever find yourself in Woodstock on a Sunday, just drop on by. We’ll have the game on”. Some time later, DeBella found himself around Woodstock, New York on a Sunday afternoon and thought to himself, “He probably doesn’t remember me, but what the hell? Let me try it”. He found Levon’s house in Woodstock, parked the car, walked up and knocked on the door. Levon answered the door, amazed and said “JOHN! HOW ARE YOU? COME ON IN! WE’VE GOT THE GAME ON!”.
There is a local band in Milwaukee called the Flood Brothers that do a mix of originals and covers. Sometimes, when I’m in the audience, they invite me up onstage to do a song, and invariably, the song we choose is “The Weight” by The Band. There are only a few songs in existence in this day and age that when played, the bulk of the audience feels compelled to sing along with the chorus. Mostly thanks to Levon’s vocal tone, mixing a storyteller’s care for narrative with a weariness of a traveler wanting only “some place where I could lay my head”, “The Weight” is a song that never gets old. The Flood Brothers play in town tomorrow night, and the urge is striking me to sing one more chorus.
Yet isn’t that the magic of all art, especially music? A song has a way of transporting you back in time to a moment when for a brief few minutes, it was the center of your existence. The listener never realizes that the song has just become a part of that person’s oral history until time passes. For me and my fan’s relationship with The Band, it is the vision of a 10-year-old kid, up late on a Saturday in 1976, watching the Band’s last television appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and listening as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” spilled out of the television and into my mind for the first time, never to vacate since. At the center of the music was Levon Helm as drummer and one of three rotating lead and harmony vocals, presenting a story so seemingly real that I could picture him as a Confederate soldier. I remember buying The Band’s greatest hits on vinyl when my teenage years hit and being similarly ignited.
My childhood and high school days have disappeared with a combination of time, weight, acne medications and a pressing need to live in the moment. If the truth is told, all time prior to my introduction to my wife Leslie (half-Canadian; coincidence?) can be accurately described as my Dark Ages. Yet the music from as far back as AM radio in 1971 to the present day always resonates with a memory in tow in ways that my first encounter with a CPT book never can. Levon Helm has danced on the edges of my memory – consistently as a positive one – for over 35 years, and will continue to for many years to come thanks to his significant musical contributions. I am left with being able to only say “Thank you” to him from a distance.
This space is supposed to be dedicated to medicine, so in order to satisfy that requirement, here’s a song by The Band about the early days of frontier medicine called “W. S. Walcott Medicine Show“. I bid Levon Helm a fond farewell with a special life-long thank you from my ears, and we’ll talk about things more closely related to health care next week. I thank the readers for their one-day exhibition of patience.