[pullquote quote=”Levon was sort of like my Dad. Fritz was seriously ill for several years, but continued to travel. Heck if he was going to stay home. ” credit=”Terri Hemmert”]Death is tough on the living. Even when it’s expected. For two days now we’ve been warned that Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, was in the final stage of his battle with cancer. He has struggled with the disease for years, but those of us that saw him a month ago for his two XRT shows at the Old Town School Of Folk Music maybe slipped into a bit of denial. Sure he looked frail. He was 71 years old and a man who had taken on that horrible battle with cancer. But he played with such joy and humor, it was easy to think he was doing fine and would be with us for a long time.
He surrounded himself with outstanding musicians and did what he loved best…right up to the end. He was scheduled to play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in two weeks. Levon was sort of like my Dad. Fritz was seriously ill for several years, but continued to travel. With portable oxygen tanks and a wheel chair. Heck if he was going to stay home. When he died, he had three trips planned and tickets bought. I always thought he felt that as long as he had a trip scheduled he’d never die. Maybe Levon felt that if he had gigs scheduled, he’d have to live to get there and play. Or maybe both men just followed their passions right up to the end. Not a bad idea. Note to self.
Frank E. Lee MC’ed Levon’s March 16th gig, and I MC’ed the next night. Usually MC’s are asked to make their appearance short but sweet. This time they asked us to talk for five minutes while they lined up all the musicians to come on stage. Five minutes unscripted feels like five hours. It’s like doing standup comedy. Well finally I was given the signal to bring on the band. Small stage…a lot of musicians, so I stood off to the side to get the heck out of the way. I had never met Levon, but he stopped, thanked me for what I had said, and gave me a sweet, warm hug right there on stage. That hasn’t happened a whole lot to me or any other MC. Well I told him I’d been a fan since 1968, and he hugged me again. I’ll never forget it.
This morning I was reading Robbie Robertson’s statement. It bears repeating.
“Last week I was shocked and so saddened to hear that my old band mate, Levon, was in the final stages of his battle with cancer. It hit me really hard because I thought he had beaten throat cancer and had no idea that he was this ill. I spoke with his family and made arrangements to go and see him.
“On Sunday I went to New York and visited him in the hospital. I sat with Levon for a good while, and thought of the incredible and beautiful times we had together. It was heartwarming to be greeted by his lovely daughter Amy, whom I have known since she was born. Amy’s mother, Libby Titus, and her husband, Donald Fagen, were so kind to help walk me through this terrible time of sadness. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Sandy.
“Levon is one of the most extraordinary talented people I’ve ever known and very much like an older brother to me. I am so grateful I got to see him one last time and will miss him and love him forever.”
Here’s an interview from 2007
As mentioned above, Levon was scheduled to perform May 5th in New Orleans with special guest Mavis Staples. Mavis is still scheduled for an appearance at Jazz Fest on Friday, May 4th. I know Mavis is torn up by this. She is close to the Helm family, so my condolences to Mavis and her sister Yvonne. This is one of my favorite performances of all time. The Staple Singers performed at the Band’s Last Waltz concert. Technical difficulties messed up the filming of their performance, but the two groups met up to do this rendition of The Weight for the Last Waltz film. Beautiful.