One of the Last Midnight RamblesFeatured, Music — By Bill Dolan on April 21, 2012 at 4:01 am
New Years Day, 2012
My brother and I were driving in our rental car on back roads in the Catskills in New York. Our Google map wasn’t helping much. For one last stab before giving up, we tried an unmarked road and, fifty yards down it, found the street sign we were looking for. We wound up the hill until we came to an unpaved road off to the right that looked more like a private rural driveway. As we rounded a bend, there in the trees was the distinctive house we were looking for — Big Pink. We were on a pilgrimage of sorts, my brother more along for the ride at that point, for the house where Bob Dylan and the Band played and wrote music in the late ‘60s. The house is still pale pink and looks a lot like it did on the album cover of The Band’s first record, Music from Big Pink.
It was a nice way to end a music-geek kind of weekend. The night before, we had celebrated New Years Eve at Levon Helm’s house at what turns out to have been one of the last Midnight Rambles hosted by the drummer.
Helm, who passed away at 71 from throat cancer on April 19, was the drummer and singer for The Band. More recently, he was enjoying a career resurgence, winning three Grammy awards for his last three albums in categories that don’t get too much attention — Best Traditional Folk Album and Best Americana Album. He also hosted periodic “Midnight Rambles” at the barn/studio attached to his house.
Helm’s Midnight Rambles were intimate and unique musical experiences. With only a couple of hundred people gathered around world-class musicians, it was unlike any other concert. The seats were folding chairs. The stage was a rug. In the garage was a pot luck table. Levon came in smiling, shaking hands, giving hugs. Behind his drum kit, he presided over the evening with a joy and hospitality that was infectious. The music was grand, immediate, powerful.
His music was authentic, from the musicians to the emotions to the community. Levon embodied that authenticity. It was well worth the trip from Oregon to New York.
Garrison Keillor once said the difference between folk or traditional music and pop music is that folk music talks about death. Helm’s last albums were full of folk music.
Helm experienced the ups and downs of life. He had a successful rock ‘n’ roll career that fell on harder times after his band broke up. One of his bandmates committed suicide, another died young from a heart attack. His initial struggle with cancer took his voice for a time and saddled him with serious financial challenges. Yet he ended his life surrounded by friends and family and still playing music up until a few weeks before the end. His music at the end encapsulated the folk and blues tradition he was a part of and told stories of hard times and death. Those folk songs don’t have the sugary-sweetness of pop music, but they face the realities of life head on in a comforting way that gives hope.
Far from being a troubled rock ‘n’ roll star who died tragically, Levon’s life and death are rare pop culture examples of rising above adversity, valuing what is important and finishing life well.
I’m sad that there will be no more Rambles with Levon on the drums. After experiencing one I wanted to take my wife and children back for one. I’m also sad for Levon’s family and friends who are feeling the loss directly. But I hear Levon’s voice in one of his later songs reminding me that, though his death is a loss for us, he is OK.
Don’t want no sorrow
For this old orphan boy
I don’t want no crying
Only tears of joy
I’m gonna see my mother
Gonna see my father
And I’ll be bound for glory
In the morning
When I go away
I’ll be lifted up to the clouds
On the wings of angels
There’s only flesh and bones
In the ground
Where my troubles will stay
(Cover photo by Ahron R. Foster.)