Last Saturday, after everyone (myself included...admittedly) was desperately trying to buy Garth Brooks tickets online, I made a comment on facebook about wishing it were Levon Helm that was coming this summer instead. Last summer my family and I had 5th row seats to the show he’d booked here. But then Van Morrison came and it all got messed up; Levon’s camp pulled out in the end. None of us wanted to go without Levon being on the bill, so we didn’t go at all - we looked forward to seeing a show that was just Levon sometime in the future.
Yesterday’s news of Levon being in his final stages has had a big impact on me, especially since our hopes of seeing him were still so alive. My reaction to the end of Levons life has felt strange given that he is a celebrity and I person I didn't personally know. Partly my reaction may be attributed to the fact that it’s not usual to know that someone is just about to pass away - usually we hear about celebrity death after someone has passed...it's been odd to just be waiting to hear about when he'll actually go. I think the significance of what he represented for me goes deeper though, and I thought I’d share some of that here.
I finished reading Levon’s autobiography “This Wheel’s On Fire” just after this New Year started. If you know me well, you’ll know that I take forever to read most things, sometimes not even completely finishing a book (Adult ADHD, it’s called). This book was different - although biographies and stories of human life usually do captivate me - Levon’s particular story was so full of passion, detail, adventure, humour, honest and genuine emotion. At the heart of all those things was Levon’s love of and belief in music.
When Levon was just a little kid, he was captivated by a band he saw on stage and knew that’s what he wanted to do. I remember him describing the drummer’s techniques he saw and admired, and I remember thinking that this was pretty insightful for a young kid - to be drawn to something in that way and then know to follow that feeling wherever it would take him.
One story he wrote about which really struck me was when he chose to leave the Bob Dylan tour at one point and ended up back in the States working a crappy rig job. Because Bob had decided move away from the folk singer thing and have a rockin loud band, many of the shows were riddled with Boo-ing from the audience and at times things being thrown at the stage. Levon wanted to play music, but he knew he didn’t want to play music like that. So he left the tour while the rest continued on. Eventually they called him and asked him to come up to Woodstock to re-join and record, but he didn’t necessarily know that would be an eventual outcome...I love the way it all came back to him; he followed his gut and was able to do what he believed in the way it best suited him.
What I learned from reading Levon’s book was how powerful it can be in life to just follow what your gut tells you to do...just believe in what you’re feeling pulled to do, even though other people might think it’s not the right choice, or even if it seems far fetched, or even if you think maybe you'll lose out on something cool by trusting your gut...if you really listen to your true reactions and feeling (intuition...I think they call it), then I can’t help but believe that is the best path to take.
Even in what Levon thought, believed, said in public...one could not argue that the man exuded genuineness and honesty. I think the reason he got so much respect was because he didn’t seem to say anything or project any kind of image that wasn’t really in tune with who he was.
Another part of the book that resonated with me was how he described that the Band didn’t necessarily want to tour but just wanted to play music and make music in Woodstock...it wasn’t for anyone or for any purpose other than just being musical and creating. I related with that so much...I do like being on stage but the business side of music, the promoting and the whole “look at me” concept is something I struggle with all the time. I just want to make music and collaborate with friends and people who inspire me.
Levon is a role model for me in so many ways - and obviously given the outpouring of love for him he had a major impact on so many people. We can’t all be famous or rich, and so to me a lesson I take away from his example is to just be true to myself...to pay attention to what my intuitive reactions tell me about what I really believe and how I feel...and go with that. Don’t go along with what the masses expect or dictate. To me that’s the only way I know I’ll live the life I’m meant to live.
Death is as natural as birth and so we can't avoid the fact that we'll all die eventually. I want to end every day knowing that I lived the best life for myself by being as true to who I'm meant to be as possible. That's the direction I'll take from Mr. Helm. What a beautiful life he had.