Levon Helm, drummer and singer of The Band, passed away from throat cancer last week. The outpouring of love directed his way over the last week, from every corner of the world, was remarkable. His family did an interesting thing too; they told the world before he died that he was in his final stages of battling cancer. About twenty-four hours after I’d heard the announcement of his declining health, reports came in that he’d passed away.
We were sad, but not surprised. Then the eulogies began. One remembrance I heard read on the radio, from Elton John, moved me to tears. It had never occurred to me that his song, “Levon,” was inspired by Levon Helm. Well it was, and not only that; Elton John’s son’s middle name is Levon too. So it’s fair to say he revered the guy. And with reason; Levon Helm made music that made you move and made you feel. It made you wince.
It made you say “Turn that shit up.” And to think that the nasty, brilliant drums AND that gutsy, forlorn voice that sounded like it bubbled up out of the Mississippi mud was coming out of ONE dude - Mr. Levon Helm - is something that inspires and depresses musicians forty-plus years after he showed up on the scene.
I don’t need an excuse to listen to The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down;” I listen to it all the time anyway. But the thought that the man who brought that song to me, and to you, would be joining its narrator, Virgil Caine, in the Great Beyond, made me crank it many times, good and loud, by myself and with my family in the days before and after Helm passed. I might have been listening to it when he died.
It felt good to hold my one year old son and move to that song and see him smile. At the same time, it made me sad, as always, to hear Virgil sing about his brother who was killed at age eighteen in the Civil War. One thing that always struck me about that song (which, it must be stated, was written by one of The Band’s other geniuses, Canadian Robbie Robertson) is that it immediately puts you in the shoes of a Southerner at the close of the Civil War, and you are extremely sad when you learn that Virgil’s brother, a confederate soldier, is dead. He was killed in a war that nearly destroyed our nation; in a war that killed more soldiers than every other war the United States has fought before and since, combined. The lyrics of the song are few and they’re quite simple and they put you right there in the barren Tennessee dirt with hungry Virgil and his wife and they make you care about what Virgil cared about.
I was born in Boston in 1977, a century and a quarter after Virgil, and a thousand miles north of him. About as far above the Mason-Dixon line as you can get, geographically and ideologically. But I love Virgil. I mourn his brother. His brother didn’t own slaves and neither did he. They didn’t own them because they were poor. But Virgil’s brother fought for the Confederate Army because he was a healthy eighteen year old who didn’t have a choice. Then, as the song tells us, “a Yankee laid him in his grave.”
This song is so useful to me because, in addition to its empirical beauty, it’s one of the more effective works of art I’ve ever encountered at putting its listener in a pair of shoes he’s not used to wearing. When I put on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” it turns me immediately into a bereft young Tennessee farmer who’d fill a company of Union soldiers full of lead to bring my big brother back to help me out on my farm and be my friend.
Back here in 2012, I have a sister I love dearly and it would be a delight to wade into hail of gunfire to protect her. You probably have a sister or a brother you’d do the same for. It’s what siblings do, or would do, for each other.
This all makes me think of the civil war taking place in our country today. To be accurate, it’s a civil cold war of sorts, though I believe it exacts a toll on our nation’s soul that is far steeper than the more famous and studied cold war that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union. I’m talking about the acrimony that our government and media, and the corporations that support them, stir up between regular folks like you and me. It’s there every day, but it reaches a fever pitch during our poisonous and ever-lengthening election seasons. We’re told by CNN or FOX News that you can either be a Democrat or a Republican; half of us need to be one and half of us need to be the other and we must define ourselves by our desire to crush, subvert or absorb the other one. An “us and them” mentality is foisted upon us. It doesn’t matter what side you’re one, as long as you pick one. It is critical to the success of this illusion that we remain trapped in that struggle, actually hating each other, while our highways and railroads fall apart, health care costs skyrocket, the national average body mass index balloons, and schools shuffle toward bankruptcy.
It is INSANITY to believe that what FIFTY PERCENT of Americans want is bad, wrong, or destructive to the country and its citizens at large. If that were true, the country wouldn’t be here anymore, or it would resemble a Cormac McCarthy novel, and it wouldn’t be All the Pretty Horses.
I have the wonderful good fortune to be a dyed in the wool Yankee married to a beautiful hillbilly woman from the South. I am doubly blessed to have a career that involves traveling around the country, meeting people from every walk of life. And God damn it if this place isn’t exploding with wonderful people. I know because I’ve spoken to them, touched them, and when they’re not looking, sniffed their hair. Am I supposed to have a meal, or a conversation, or share pictures of our kids with someone in Greenville, Mississippi or Portland, Oregon, have a great time and some laughs, and then “unlike” them and designate them a mortal enemy after they reveal who they voted for in 2008? According to political strategists or news producers, literally yes. But, as luck would have it, I’m a human being, and that’s impossible. The Republican candidate for President isn’t a human being. Neither is the Democratic candidate. Neither is your Senator or Congressman and neither is the chairman of the board of the company that made your cellphone. There might be a real person in there somewhere, but we’ll never know them. High, high up near the top of their job description is the responsibility to their handlers and donors to keep you and me suspicious of each other, envious of each other, and angry at each other.
The more they can get us to sign on to the lie that the plumber in Sacramento has different wants, needs and desires from the opthamologist in Lexington, Kentucky, the more secure their position is and the more money and power that will come their way. And baby —> it’s a Lie. That plumber in California wants food on the table, a bed to sleep in, and safety and security for their kids. After that’s taken care of, a job to report to in the morning and a little dough in the bank come next. After that, it’s all gravy. And that eye doctor in Kentucky wants the same things, to the letter. And the color of the necktie on the guy they voted for, or the radio station they listen to in the morning has right around nothing to do with whether or how they get those things. Introduce that plumber to that doctor at an airport or in the stands at a baseball game and they’re going to like each other and have things to talk about. They’re different, but they’re the same. The pernicious illusion that what is bad for one of them could be good for the other one needs to be destroyed. Or it’ll destroy us.
I can’t speak for Levon Helm or Robbie Robertson (or Sammy Davis, Jr., in whose Los Angeles home they converted into a studio to record “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,”) but those gentlemen made a work of art that reached out across the decades to me and made me feel love and empathy and kinship with someone who I would’ve thought was different than me in the past, but that I now know isn’t. And if I’m like Virgil, then you are too, and you and I are even closer to each other. And whether you like it or not, (and you better get to liking it) you depend on me and your neighbor more than you do a pundit or a lobbyist or the CEO of BizKorp. And we depends on you. So let’s get some Golden Rule going up in this bitch.