In the late 70s, when I was about 10, my mother took me to a movie at theAvon Cinema in Providence. The Avon still exists with what feel like the same seats but a better class of independent films and higher ticket prices. But back in the 70s and early 80s, as I entered my movie-going prime, the Avon was the sort of place that showed double features of It Came from Outer Spaceand The Creature from the Black Lagoon on Saturday afternoons and then a double feature of Conan the Barbarian and Stripes at night. Better still, the Brown students manning the box office didn’t care who went in to see the films so starting in 6th grade, when my friends and I were allowed to roam Thayer Street at night on our own, we’d go in, eat popcorn, watch R rated movies, and then go across the street to play Centipede or Tempest at Store 24 during the intermission.
On this particular night, though, it was different. I was there with my mom, for one, and second, we weren’t seeing the sort of movie that I usually enjoyed at the Avon. It was a concert film. I’m not sure if I went along because there was no sitter available or if she decided she wanted me to see it. For whatever reason, I sat there with my mom in the not-too-terribly-comfortable seats as the lights went down, pot smoke wafted through the theatre (“mom, what’s that funny smell?” “I’ll tell you later.”), and the cheesy “visit the snack bar” promo played.
I didn’t really understand the movie as I watched it. It wasn’t until later years that the conversations between director Martin Scorcese (who, I believe, may have shot this amazing film for free) and the members of The Band made sense to me as they reflected on 16 years together, life on the road, and the end of their collaboration. I knew the music of The Band and many of the guests in this now legendary concert documentary because my parents played so much of it at home. I was too young for it to be “my music” (that honor tends to reside mostly with the music of the ’80s) but I recognized the songs and I knew the names though not necessarily the importance of the performers. (I wondered why Ringo didn’t get a more prominent place, instead of just getting some guest drum work, for example).
At the heart of it all was The Band — Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. As a kid, I loved their music, which sounded so different than so much of the other stuff that my parents and my friends listened to. Songs like Ophelia, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, It Makes No Difference, and Up On Cripple Creek rank right up there with pretty much anything off of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run as the first music that I really started to appreciate as music, as performance, as a form of language. Of course at 10 or in my teens, I didn’t really put it that way but that music resonated with me and continues to do so.
And The Band? Well, they’d already broken up by the time I was paying attention but they were all still out there performing in some fashion. My parents, very active in the arts community in Providence in the 70s, were friends with various writers and journalists. I remember them coming home from a night out in Boston with a music critic acquaintance where they not only saw The Band’s Levon Helm play but then went and hung out with him in his hotel room (or backstage, I don’t remember which).
When I went to college, my father bought me each of Robbie Robertson’s solo albums and sent them to me where I would play them repeatedly along with my copy of the soundtrack from The Last Waltz. When Robertson spent time exploring his Native American heritage, all of those albums joined my collection. Those albums made the transition from tape to CD and eventually to digital where I listen to one of them at least once a month while at my office or alone in the car.
While Danko and Manuel passed away years ago, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm continued to make their way into the music and movies I enjoyed. Helm was the most visible, showing up as Sissy Spacek’s dad inCoal Miner’s Daughter, the aged sniper in Shooter, and my personal favorite, The Right Stuff, where he doubles as the narrator with his unmistakable Arkansas drawl and as Chuck Yeager’s (Sam Shepherd’s) mechanic and best friend, Jack Ridley (“Ridley, got any Beemans?” “Yeah, I might have me a stick.”). Most recently, it was his Midnight Rambles, an opportunity for artists, musicians, and friends to gather and perform at Helm’s farm in upstate New York that kept him in the music world, even to the point of winning two Grammys, following a debilitating fight with cancer.
Two summers ago, we spent a sunny August afternoon on my mom and stepdad’s sailboat anchored off Ft. Adams State Park listening the the Sunday performances at the Newport Folk Festival. The closing act and the highlight of the weekend, was Levon Helm making what was to be his last performance at the Festival. When he was announced and began to play, there was a surge in the crowd and a roar of appreciation. My mother, standing on the deck and holding onto the mast, kept saying “It’s him! Can you see him? It’s Levon!” and I could understand her excitement. This was a legendary performer, someone I grew up listening to, whose voice and music were among those I enjoyed the most and I was getting to see him live at least once, even if from a distance and with age and health sapping his ability to perform. Still, it was Levon (really, there’s no last name required) and it was worth it.
Yesterday, Levon’s family announced what all of his fans had been expected and dreading for years. He was in the final stages of his lengthy battle against cancer and his family appreciated the support and prayers being sent his way. His own personal, final ramble into midnight was approaching and that unique, memorable voice would be stilled. Thankfully, with the albums by Levon and The Band in my playlist, it won’t ever be silenced and that’s something we can all be thankful for.
*** Postscript added 4/19 to the original 4/18 post ***
RIP Levon, who passed away today at the age of 71.