It was a hot summer night very long ago, when my career in this racket was brand-new and distinctly alternative. I was in a beneath-the-sidewalk joint in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift’s, and I was listening to Levon Helm play with the Cate Brothers, who were formidable players in their own right, and old friends of Levon’s from Arkansas. We were all deep into the howl of the evening when it occurred to my friend and I that we were enjoying the show so much that we really ought to buy Levon a beer. So we ordered one up, and the waitress brought it out to the stage and Levon took a long pull, looked down at the two of us, touched his drumstick to his forehead and said, “Thank you, neighbor.”
It was what they were all about, Levon and the rest of The Band, in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams. Nothing was holding, least of all Mr. Yeats’s center. There were tanks in Prague and there was blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The traditional American values of home and family and neighborhood were being fashioned into cheap weapons to use against the people who saw the death and gore as the deepest kind of betrayal of the ideals that made those values worth a damn in the first place. The music was disparate and fragmented; the Beatles were producing masterpieces that they couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the road. Brian Wilson was long gone, spelunking through the canyons of what was left of his mind. Jim Morrison, that tinpot fraud, was mixing bullshit politics with kindergarten Freudian mumbo-jumbo and his band didn’t even have a damn bass player. Elsewhere, there was torpid, silly psychedelia. The British were sort of holding it together, but, in America, even soul was coming apart. Nothing seemed rooted. Nothing abided. Nothing seemed to come from anything else. The whole country was bleeding from wounds nobody could find.
…He was the true Voice of America, as far as I’m concerned. And, after The Band split up, he kept touring, wrote a hilarious memoir, and then started hosting the Midnight Ramble in his barn in upstate New York. He was as generous with his talent and his time as any artist ever was. There was a message on his website on Tuesday saying that, goddammit, he was in the last stages of a long and brave fight with cancer. I wanted to write all of this before he passed. I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we’d lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock. For that, I return his salute from long ago. Thank you, neighbor. And godspeed.