The first time I met Levon Helm was backstage at the Ridgefield Playhouse (in Ridgefield, CT). I was coming off a couple of shows near there, and he’d just played Newport. Justin Guip, Levon’s longtime engineer and confidant, knew I was in Connecticut and that I had the night off. And so he called to suggest that I come by and hang out with the crew for awhile.
Shortly after I’d arrived, Levon surfaced with an armful of photos and a black Sharpie. Before worrying about load-in, or concerning himself with sound-check, the man was already preparing to meet his people; to greet them with that solar smile, honest handshake, and those opaque, patient eyes. Within the first fifteen seconds of observing him, I knew that Levon Helm was the most human musical genius I would ever encounter.
I saw him again in late summer of 2011, while recording my album Last Bird Home at his barn in Woodstock. I had recruited Garth and Maud Hudson, Tommy Ramone, Larry Campbell, Gabriel Butterfield and nearly a dozen more musicians for the sessions and by the third day; I was coming a bit unglued (playing producer to my first “big” project). Levon approached me near the front door and asked how it was going. I just opened my eyes wide and threw back a full cup of coffee, as he smiled and half whispered “breathe”.
“Main thing is to have fun with it. And if it’s not working, just walk away from it for awhile. And you do know that lake back there’s stocked with some real good fish, don’t you?” Of course I forgot all about the session in that moment. I forgot about the players, the clock, the deadlines… and I wasn’t standing in front of a Grammy-winning studio with a living legend anymore. I was being pacified by my Papaw Earl, somewhere near Little Mud, KY. And all I had to do was “breathe”.
I was reminded once again of how very human Mr. Levon Helm was, with the news of his passing on Thursday. Even as he fought cancer over the years, I never expected him to die. Levon couldn’t die. He was the spirit of American music- the father figure to every kid with a voice and a backbeat. And yet here we are; speaking of him in past tense, which must mean it really has happened.
Our culture loves to enshrine celebrities when they pass. But this is different. This is a true human loss. And while it’s accurate to say that there’ll never be another Levon Helm in the world of music, it’s clear to me today that there will never be another Levon, period. The musical genius will live on in the recordings though. And the human being, in the hearts and minds of the many he touched over all those decades.
– Chris Castle