No False Bones: The Legacy of Levon Helm
That Ramble was also where Wonderland first played with her current bandmates. As they pass the phone around the van while coincidentally en route to Woodstock, drummer Rob Hooper offers, “That voice. His playing. It meant the world to me, and the first time we went I was extremely nervous. I don’t usually get nervous about meeting people. That was just put to bed immediately because everybody there was so low-key. There wasn’t any kind of idol-worshiping. It had no place. It was just a bunch of musicians hanging out. You immediately felt accepted. The world would be a lot better if it was like the world that he put together there.
“When he played with you, he was just so generous,” Hooper says. “He’d smile at you. That was it for me. That was the best musical experience I’ve had.”
Bassist/keyboardist Cole El-Salah noticed how Levon’s warmth rubbed off on everyone. “The compassion was there for the other players,” he says. “Levon is a very generous player. Everybody in that band was a very generous player. That’s how you have 14 or 16 people there and have everybody get heard, have everybody feel like they’re contributing something. It’s a welcoming place.”
Campbell attributes that to Helm’s “admiration for anything that was pure, honest American music.”
He didn’t have a false musical bone in his body,” says Campbell, who, like Helm, also weathered years with the often-confounding Dylan. “He could recognize nonsense quicker than anybody I ever knew and he could recognize purity in music quicker than anybody I ever knew.”
In addition to the image of two drummers banging away joyously together, Spirit Family Reunion’s Davidson holds another vision close to his heart.
“It seems like every time he played, there’d be a flock of children around his kit,” Davidson recalls. “They’d all have drumsticks – kids 5, 6 or 7 years old who had no idea who the Band is or who he is, other than Uncle Levon. Still, they understood him immediately. He’s universal.”
Santelli adds, “Levon had this amazing personality, where you couldn’t not like him the minute you met him. And he became your friend almost immediately.”
The Elder Statesman
“These eight years with Levon have been the greatest musical experience of my life,” Campbell says. “Personally and professionally. It’s just been a great community to be involved in, and making music for all the right reasons and none of the wrong reasons.”
Campbell admits he’s slightly jaded; it’s an occupational hazard. These days, he doesn’t get excited about too many young bands. But when he does, he says, “It’s almost inevitable that one of their biggest influences is Levon. Not the Band, Levon, himself. And you know what that is? It’s honesty. There’s always been honest musicians makin’ honest music, but there’s never been a group of musicians that embodied that honest expression in music, to me, more than Levon and the Band. And that’s eternal. It was never a fad, it was never a trend, it was never a style. It’s something that’ll go on forever. Good musicians young and old will always be attracted to and influenced by that.”
But as joyful and benevolent as he could be about music, Helm could be mulishly stubborn – particularly when it came to his rift with Robertson.
“Levon was a hardheaded guy,” says Santelli, confirming Campbell’s assessment that once Helm made up his mind about something, no amount of logic could make him change it.
“I don’t know the details of what went on between them,” Santelli adds, “but I do know it robbed America of more great music that should have been made with these two guys because, despite their personal and financial differences, the musical differences were none. They were spot-on. They complimented each other. There’s no band like the Band in American music.”
Robertson learned of Helm’s imminent death while en route to Cleveland to posthumously induct producer/engineer Tom Dowd into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He rushed to Helm’s bedside the next day.
“I just wanted to see him, and sit with him and hold his hand in the hospital for a few minutes, just thinking about all of the incredible times that we had spent together,” Robertson explains. “I mean, we’d been through several wars together and we were like war buddies in a lot of ways. I was tremendously relieved that I could get there before he passed on.”
He’s not sure whether Helm knew it was him, though he said Helm was able to squeeze his hand, acknowledging he knew someone who cared about him was by his side.
“I can’t say enough about what a unique, amazing, the-real-thing talent that he was,” Robertson offers. “I don’t know that I’ve ever met anybody, besides perhaps Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, who had music just coming out of the pores of their skin like he did.”
Adds Hudson, “There isn’t another voice like Levon.”
But what sweet music he left behind.