Now that I’m forced to consider Levon Helm’s life and legacy — in the wake of the tragic news that he is currently in the final stages of cancer — it feels important to assert the fact that we really don’t need to go as far back as Music From Big Pink or The Last Waltz to be inspired by the man. In my mind, 1968 and 1976 may have been creative highs for Helm, but they weren’t exactly peaks. To use that word is to say that, since then, there has been a dip in either the quantitative activity or qualitative value of Helm’s work, and that simply isn’t the case. Artists who peaked in the 1970s don’t generally win Grammy awards in 2008 and 2010 and then again this year; artists without creative fires don’t transform their homes into public venues every week for an opportunity to collaborate with peers and descendants alike. Levon Helm is nothing if not contemporary, and the only thing that might hurt my feelings more than his eventual departure is the idea that many of his eulogists will have already buried him with The Band.
I quit playing music for a living several years ago, but it was never my intention to quit playing music. To see Helm still playing the way he does at 71 years old is to see that it can be done. To see Helm building new musical communities in 2012 is to see a commitment to the kind of transformative social network that will never be realized by Facebook or Twitter. To see Helm collaborating with younger generations — as he does on this 2008 track by my favorite band Ida — is to see a man who recognizes the kinetic nature of music, and shuns the static bliss of nostalgia. He’s a flashlight-wielding shepherd in that regard, and I’d be blessed to follow him.