Levon Helm died today at age 71, just a day or so after his family announced that he was in the late stages of battling cancer. For many of us of a certain age, it seemed like he was always there: a true American original (hailing from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas), both a great singer and drummer, driving force behind The Band, who had made a strong comeback in recent years, winning three Grammys and many new fans.
I never did get to one of his Midnight Rambles up the river in Woodstock but I did interview Levon’s mentor Ronnie Hawkins. I also visited the iconic Big Pink, and even wrote an unpublished novel set there.
Bob Dylan has released this statement: "He was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation…. I’m going to miss him, as I’m sure a whole lot of others will too."
Of course, I saw The Band play numerous times, including with Dylan on his first “comeback” tour in 1974, and before that in 1969 in Buffalo at what still ranks as one of the greatest shows I’ve ever attended. One of The Band’s greatest songs, "King Harvest"–watch video here--also happen to be premature Occupy ("I’m glad to pay those union dues/Just don’t judge me by my shoes.") But now, allow me to recall my first, but far from last, experience in the same room with him.
More than forty-six years ago, I attended my first rock concert. Many others naturally followed, from Blind Faith to U2 and beyond, many while I served as senior editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever—Bob Dylan’s first full road trip after going electric.
In 1965, still in high school, I was a huge Dylan fan—I can honestly say that it was his “protest” phase that made me turn left. He had only recently picked up the electric guitar at Newport and hit the top with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I took a really bold step: ordering a pair of tickets for a Dylan show at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo. Even more amazing: this would be my first rock concert.
That wasn’t anything to be ashamed of back then. Only a few kids I knew had ever been to shows, usually girls who drove up to Toronto for the Beach Boys. Few bands came to Buffalo, only twenty miles away but another world, with a thick knot of highways and byways to navigate and a then-huge downtown.
I didn’t know what to expect from the concert. This was long before the “rock press” appeared, wire service tour reports were virtually unheard of, and the net, of course, did not exist. No sets lists posted online. All I’d heard was that the show opened acoustic and then went electric—and was causing disturbances everywhere. No idea who was in the backing band.