It was a hot summer night very long ago, when my career in this racket was brand-new and distinctly alternative. I was in a beneath-the-sidewalk joint in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift's, and I was listening to Levon Helm play with the Cate Brothers, who were formidable players in their own right, and old friends of Levon's from Arkansas. We were all deep into the howl of the evening when it occurred to my friend and I that we were enjoying the show so much that we really ought to buy Levon a beer. So we ordered one up, and the waitress brought it out to the stage and Levon took a long pull, looked down at the two of us, touched his drumstick to his forehead and said, "Thank you, neighbor."Oh hell, just go read the rest of it here.
It was what they were all about, Levon and the rest of The Band, in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats's center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn't or wouldn't take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn't even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find...
And in case you've never heard it, here's Levon (with the 1996 incarnation of The Band) with a hilariously sly and lascivious take on En Vogue's "Free Your Mind." A cover version choice that I can pretty much guarantee wouldn't have occurred to many other musicians of his generation.
I should also add that in the otherwise preposterous and forgettable 2007 Mark Wahlberg action thriller Shooter, Levon can be seen in a small but crucial scene -- looking like death warmed over but clearly having the time of his life -- as a renegade intelligence agent who knows where all the bodies are buried.
It is perhaps also worth noting, since Charles Pierce didn't, that there was and is a certain irony in the fact that the true voice of America came to our attention in a band in which he was surrounded by a gaggle of Canadians.