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My Little Woodstock

by Doug MacCash

From The Times-Picayune, Saturday, July 30, 2005.
Copyright © 2005
The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved.

Levon Helm hunkered down behind his drum kit, jerking his shoulders lower and lower as though dodging bullets, his upper lip pulled back in a Johnny Reb sneer and his polo shirt darkening with sweat. He was doing that barn cat rhythm thing he always used to do, catching the mouse, letting the mouse get away a little, just so he could quick-catch him again. His sticks clattered the rims like hail on a gutter pipe, the bass drum thumping like a tire losing treads, his left hand striking out like a cottonmouth snake to snuff the cymbal in mid-sizzle.

It was pure Levon Helm, simple, soulful and quirky, with way more touch than muscle. For the graying, bifocaled rock 'n' roll fans of my generation, who made up most of the small crowd in his Woodstock, N.Y., studio, the legendary drummer's searing solo was a thing of beauty -- a thing I had feared I'd never see again.

As he left the drums and drifted through the standing audience toward the exit, looking gaunt, gray and ghostly, I rushed to his side like a schoolgirl.

"Hey Levon, just wanted to shake your hand."

"Thanks for comin' man," he rasped.

Rock 'n' roll is the music of youthful rebellion, but the only kids in this crowd were the dragged-along, almost-grown teenagers whose folks wanted them to get a peek into that bygone world of what they fondly recall as earnest, earthen, rough-hewn music.

And nobody's more earnest, earthen and rough-hewn than Helm. He was the Southern snarl holding the bottom of the stand-your-hair-up harmonies of the old rock group The Band. If you've ever heard "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" -- not Joan Baez's sing-song recitation, but the slower, darker original version with that aggrieved Southern voice serving up verses with bone-deep bitterness -- then you've heard Helm.

He had worked the two-lane-highway, dance hall/bar room circuit for almost a decade with fellow rockabilly Arkansan Ronnie Hawkins when, in 1966, Bob Dylan tapped him and the rest of The Band to back him as he jackhammered his way into the rock world.

Dylan's folky followers didn't dig the new sound and took to booing Bob and the boys during electric sets. Helm responded by flipping off the audience regularly until he quit the band entirely. Being hired by the newly electrified Dylan was the height of cool; having the guts to walk out on a legend tells you something about Helm.

He temporarily abdicated his position in rock royalty to work the oil rigs in Louisiana, until The Band called him up to Woodstock where they were woodshedding with Dylan and preparing their own breakout suite of songs.

During the decade that followed, as rock 'n' roll music turned increasingly psychedelic and anti-establishment, Helm stayed loyal to the purer, politically unaffiliated, fast-car, fistfighting, failed-marriage, hard- drinking, heroin-and-reefer side of roots music. It's said that nobody stayed more loyal.

For Helm, the '80s and '90s were the de rigueur decades of reunion tours, marginal movie roles, a need-the-bucks autobiography and induction into the glitzy, cheesy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Helm didn't attend the ceremony). In 2000, his New Orleans fans were stirred by the news that he planned to open a new French Quarter club: "Levon Helm's Classic American Cafe." Unfortunately, it lasted about 15 minutes. The club's fabled front man had developed vocal chord cancer and couldn't sing at all, or drum with much authority.

For those of us who most revered him, the "Classic American Cafe" seemed to be his swan song. The next place I expected to see Helm was in the obituaries.

But he fooled me. Over the next few years, Helm played dozens of small-scale East Coast gigs, with daughter Amy handling most of the vocal duties. Then, like a miracle, he was on Don Imus' nationally syndicated morning radio show, talking about old times, explaining that he's endured more than a dozen radiation treatments, was on the mend and had even regained some of his singing voice.

A Levon Helm search of the Internet revealed a series of concerts the old boy -- he's 65 -- was staging at his legendary studio-home in Woodstock.

Called "The Midnight Ramble Sessions," the twice-monthly concerts are intimate affairs shared by no more than 90 fans -- 90 fans willing to pay the $100 cover, that is. One of his July concerts just happened to coincide with our annual family vacation to the Adirondack Mountains, a mere two-hour drive from the Catskills, Woodstock and a "Ramble."

Paypal delivered $200 to Helm's people and Helm's people delivered a yard-long list of rules: No cameras, no booze, no smoke, no noise, no this, no that. How times have changed.

Funny thing, almost everyone in Woodstock looked a lot like me: ponytail, white beard, Ace bandage on the knee. I'd never been there before and I'm pleased to report that it's not the slick Age-of-Aquarius theme park I'd feared. A Yankees game played on the radio in the temporary tent where overweight men offered an array of hundreds of bongs and hash pipes for sale. Twenty-something boys with tangled hair strummed 12-strings in the tiny town square while standing on hip-high tree stumps (a local custom I don't quite understand). An ancient gnome-like man in the coffee shop did impromptu table-side magic tricks. Tweeners played "Dungeons and Dragons" in the shadowed back room of a game shop. The smell of incense wafted from the tie-dyed T-shirt emporiums. Wildflowers bloomed.

The proprietors of the bed-and-breakfasts in town didn't answer their doors, so we checked into the HoJo out by the highway and waited for concert time.

There's no sign pointing to Helm's studio-home, on a rise near a golf course. The two-story structure is unpainted pine plank, there are plywood cows in the yard, the stone stairs are lit with citronella candles and despite the ream of rules, the scene is perfectly homey.

You're supposed to bring chips or cookies or something for the communal snack table. You can buy concert DVDs if you want, but nobody's pressuring you to do so. From time to time a guy strolls through the crowd passing out bottled water. The seats are up-close-and-personal and, if you want to bring pillows, you can sit on the floor feet from the musicians.

The crowd was, as you'd expect, mostly middle-aged, polite and relaxed. Oddly, everyone actually listened to the concert, even the opening acts. By the time Helm strolled unannounced onto the floor, the atmosphere was more familiar than any show I recall. There was a palpable we're-behind-you vibe.

And though there were no promises that he would sing, he sang and sang plenty. Sure, he sounds a little more like Bill Clinton now than the old Levon Helm, and he coughs violently between numbers, but somehow it doesn't matter.

Hearing Helm's voice in an auditorium in 1974 somehow gave me that rock 'n' roll feeling that I was going to live forever. Sentimental as it sounds, hearing that voice again in 2005 made me feel -- at least for a few minutes -- the same way.

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