I met Levon Helm when I was attending the University of Arkansas and the band he was in, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, were touring the southern states. It was a strange collection of folks to say the least, four Canadians and two good ole' boys from Arkansas. Ronnie, the lead singer, was from one corner of the state and Levon was from the other. They didn't get to stick around long enough for me to get to know any of them but they played the best music I had ever heard up 'til then and they haven't been beaten yet. The band eventually returned to Canada, where they played for a while longer before they split up. Ronnie was a party guy and a ladies man and the rest of the band was more into writing and performing cutting edge music so Ronnie stayed in Canada and the rest of the guys went to upstate New York. They were Bob Dylan's band for a few months before they struck out on their own, calling themselves simply "The Band." They went on to become one of the best bands ever and were immortalized in Martin Scorsese's documentary film of them called "The Last Waltz."
Levon was really the heart and soul of the group and the one that held them together through the years. He never forgot his Arkansas roots and was as kind and gentle a man as there could ever be. He contracted throat cancer a few years ago, had surgery, recuperated, got his voice back and started singing again as soon as he could with an eclectic group of musicians in the home he had made in Woodstock, New York. One or two nights a month, they would sell tickets for a hundred dollars each that allowed people to come to Levon's barn on his farm in Woodstock and attend "The Midnight Ramble" which became so popular it was hard to ever get a ticket. I planned to go two or three times but never did and that's one of my great regrets.
Levon died yesterday, the result of the re-occurrence of throat cancer, but his music, his style, and his grace will live forever.
Earlier this week, another staple of the rock and roll era passed away too. I don't know if Dick Clark could sing, play an instrument or even hum a tune but thanks to the American Bandstand show he hosted for years, he WAS rock and roll for everyone growing up at the same time I did. We all watched Bandstand to see what the new dance was that week because it always appeared on the show before it made it out to the heartland. The show also featured two new songs that the kids attending would vote on, predicting either to be either a hit or a miss and the two comments heard more often than all the other comments put together was "It's got a good beat" and "it's easy to dance to." Dick tried to get them to be a little more introspective than that but it never worked and he finally just quit trying.
For the past many years, he has been hosting "New Years Rockin' Eve" on network television and his death signals that maybe the Mayan calendar IS right, because how can you have a New Year without Dick Clark ringing it in?
They will be missed, loved and never forgotten by music fans all over the world and, as the Righteous Brothers sang many years ago, "if there's a rock and roll heaven, well you know they got a hell of a band."
Rest in peace Levon and Dick.