GONE / NOT GONE: Levon Helm in Motion

This past Tuesday afternoon, many of us began to receive and share word that Levon Helm was in the final stages of his long and heroic battle with cancer.

By that evening, Levon was not yet gone, but neither was he fully among the living. As we understood from his family, he was hovering at the doorway between this world and the next … still taking the air of mortals in shallow and halting breaths, but with his eyes rolled back against the drawn curtain of his times. And we hovered with him.

Yet already in that moment, for many of us sadly absorbing the falling shoe of this news and preparing for the other to drop, he had assumed the flickering posture of memory; of those who had danced alive in our high beams, throwing shadows that moved like ancient black rivers; of those who have pointed the way forward from so far behind us that they shall forever, henceforth, stand ahead on the pathway like an omen of what is still to come; of those disappeared into omnipresence, like word into deed, fear into mercy and grace.

Levon entered my life when I was so young as to have had no notion that my gate needed a guard; thus, he waltzed right in while I was completely vulnerable to his raucous and ranging alchemy, and he changed me. Like children pulled into ministerial service when still in single digits, I looked unquestioningly upon Levon Helm as my church elder … a deacon who spoke our gospel; who swung- and sung-out time in glorious illumination of its wild and elastic poetry.

In the same way that his great friend and sometimes-boss Bob Dylan connected the dots between Jimmy Reed, Arthur Rimbaud and Muhammad Ali, so Levon drew the second line that had Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marvin Gaye and Hank Williams all dancing out in front of the same New Orleans funeral parade. (They all walked liked Bo Diddley and didn’t need no crutch.) He brought soul and an open heart to the darkest corners of rock music — in a troubled era he helped shape and define — and a rural humility to the grandest stages.

As I awaited word of the inevitable — while we all waited — I found there was nothing I could do but listen. And when I did, I was moved; was moving … leaning, as implied, from past tense into present action; loosing my mind to what my body already knew, to the instinctive sway of my knees and shoulders in the face of unease; and I was reminded how much of our true intelligence resides in our physical frames’ southern hemisphere.

Yes, all I could do was listen and move, and it is what we will all do today. But then, that is all Levon Helm ever asked of any of us.

Joe Henry
South Pasadena

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