Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Liturgy of Levon

I have been breathing Levon Helm recently. His voice has been reaching into those tiny pockets of my lungs that I never use and helping me to breathe more fully.

Ain't it always the way that it isn't until after a great musician is dead that think to pull their albums off the shelf and give them a re-listen? I remember after Whitney Houston died, her albums sold millions, and I thought, "What a great world it would be if that happened with actually great musicians who offered something to humanity and culture…"

So there I was after I read he was dying, downloading all the Levon Helm I could. I listened to his solo stuff sporadically until recently. I was too hung up on his contributions to The Band -- Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight -- to give his other stuff much of a listen.

Man was I stupid. I wish I had found his stuff earlier. Levon died earlier this year, but his story became pretty spectacular over the last few years of his life. He developed throat cancer a few years ago, leaving him unable to sing or to speak. Can you imagine? Losing not only what makes you money but what feeds your soul? I could never imagine not singing, and I don't even get paid to do it!

Well, he overcame the cancer and taught himself to speak and sing again. And he came out with two great albums. 

"Levon wears his war wounds like a crown," I thought. Sure, Elton John wasn't singing about Levon Helm with that lyric, but is sure fits now. If you listen to his voice on these last few albums, you can hear his age and his struggle and his life through his voice, and he belts it with pride.

His voice, when it came back, sounded like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe and the younger Levon Helm somehow created this new singer, a mix of age and experience and new revelations. 

We miss you, Levon. Thank you for sharing everything with us.

This is my favorite electric Levon, sung on his last album before he died. Apropos, no? He sings as if he may not ever get the chance again. I guess once it's been taken away, you never take it for granted again.

This is my favorite acoustic Levon.

This is my favorite. I remember the first time I ever heard this song. Joan Baez was singing it on stage and my dad was in tears, I was in awe. And if you look at the way he strains his face, giving his whole soul into the song, that's the way i felt when I first heard it. The way he feels when he sings is the way we feel when we hear it. And that must be what makes a great musician, the ability to share your soul with people.

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