While the kids from west Philly continued to boogie on what was now called American Bandstand, a different voice was rising in America, one that resounded best in the lyrics of a young troubadour from Hibbing, Minnesota whose songs didn't have a nice beat and weren't easy to dance to. I'd never hear Bob Dylan's songs on American Bandstand, but his music would transform my world.
Dylan eventually hooked up with a bunch of quirky Canadians and an aspiring Arkansan who were referred to as "The Band."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
LISTEN to The Band:
My own history with Levon and the Band was supposed to start at Woodstock in August 1969, but I bailed after the torrential Saturday rains since I'd already been "living" there since Tuesday! After a stint in the Army and Vietnam, my next close encounter was Watkins Glen in 1973, arguably one of the greatest concerts of all time. My escorts were a couple young stoners who were huge Grateful Dead fans which is probably why I can't recall too much of the concert. And the damn rain jinxed yet another Band set. Was I ever going to see them not high and dry?
My obsession with Dylan and the Band was rewarded when they launched a concert tour in the winter of 1974, Dylan's first tour in eight years! Ticket prices were steep -- we paid $9.50 apiece (a hefty sum for a grad student) to see them at the Seattle Center Coliseum, and it was mail order only, four tickets max to a customer! I was paranoid I wouldn't get a ticket, especially after I'd heard that rock impresario Bill Graham claimed there were mail-order requests for more than twelve million tickets for the approximately half-million seats available for the shows!
Fortunately, we got our tickets and got to see Dylan and The Band on February 9, 1974 (indoors, thank God). And that's when I decided that Levon was the thread that knit the fabric of The Band.
Part of it was watching him work the drums and exercise his pipes for more than three hours (they opened with a six-song Dylan/Band set, followed by a five-song Band set, then three more Dylan/Band performances, a four/five-song Dylan acoustic set, then another three/four song Band set, and a joint finale). But a big part of it was just who he was and how comfortable he seemed to be in the music, with the music.
At one point, everybody, Dylan included, appeared to be just going through the motions when Levon exploded into "Ophelia," igniting the crowd, and the rest of his band mates, when he hit the chorus:
Was it somethin' that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules
Was somebody up against the law?
Honey, you know I'd die for you
The energy was back in the room and it was all thanks to Levon.
Then came The Last Waltz and the ugly break up and Richard Manuel's suicide. Levon's daughter Amy ended up attending UW-Madison in the early 1990s and took classes from my friend and collaborator Craig Werner.
In July 1995, my wife, a Grateful Dead aficionado, and I took our kids to the next-to-last Grateful Dead concert at Soldier Field in Chicago. Levon and what was still left of The Band, sans Robbie Robertson, opened for them. Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante and Jim Weider had joined the ensemble. Garth Hudson looked pretty much the same, but Rick Danko had put on a ton of weight and couldn't sing a lick. Again, it was Levon that held everything together.
Later, during the Grateful Dead's long set, I thought I caught a glimpse of him offstage, almost tearing up as Jerry Garcia did a powerful version of "Visions of Johanna." Little did we know that we'd never see Garcia or Danko, or Levon, alive again...
We had some friends over for dinner last Saturday night, and one of them, a bright young historian who plays a pretty decent guitar, led us in a soulful rendition of "The Weight." As I sang along, I realized that this was what I needed, and maybe what Levon would have wanted. I could say goodbye now, I could cherish his life and his legacy, and I could return full circle, take the trip back to Pennsylvania, to Nazareth, PA in fact, and maybe even as far back as Bandstand. I could take the load off Levon, and Dick Clark, and put the load, put the load, right on me.
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