I have loved music all of my life. Even before we could speak, Mom used to tell me that me and my twin Jimmy would rock back and forth to music. It was the first sense I had that something good was in the air, all around me.
As we grew, Jimmy and I grew as well in our love for music. Maybe God himself flowed through all those notes. It sure felt that way.
Music carried us to other places, near and far. We both knew that one of the roads to heaven was paved with chords and a beat, a good beat, like a Rock 'n' Roll Boulevard.
A man recently died and some of the best music made its way heavenward.
Levon Helm made his move from this life to the life to come. He was the drummer for the Band, one of the greatest musical groups of the last century.
He was born in Arkansas in 1940 and joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks when he was 19 years old. He moved to Canada to play in that band and eventually he and four other members formed a group of their own, which was later called the Band.
They were the backup band for Bob Dylan and, for a while, ensconced themselves in a house near Woodstock, N.Y. where they lived and recorded the now famous "Basement Tapes." Their first album was called, appropriately, "Music from the Big Pink." The house was pink.
Fame quickly followed. Big concerts, world tours, one bus ride and hotel after another. In 1976, the end of the road neared for the Band and they gave a farewell concert in San Francisco which was filmed by Martin Scorsese and entitled "The Last Waltz."
Critics have hailed it as one of, if not the best, rock 'n' roll film ever made. I have seen it. It is marvelous. The Band was at the top of its form and were joined by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Ringo Starr and others.
If you ever watch it, make sure the volume is up loud.
In the film, Levon Helm's joy and exuberance leaps right off the screen. To hear him sing "The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down," "Ophelia," "The Weight,"and other hits is to hear a voice and an energy that is as close to heaven as one can get.
Levon Helm found his voice a long time ago and he gave it away gladly for many years. About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and thought that was the end of it all.
But he rallied, regained his strength and his voice, and went on to record three more Grammy-winning albums. Talk about a comeback. It was a 10-year encore
What a life.
After his death, tributes poured in from all over the world. The music world knew it had someone behind a set of drums who was real, vibrant, and as good a friend as one could hope to have.
In the last years of his life, Levon Helm gave concerts almost every Saturday night in his barn in New York State. Many musicians came to join him. Hopefully, some of those sessions will be released on discs.
Thomas Aquinas once wrote that singing is prayer. To raise one's voice in song is at once to praise God, to rejoice in the gift of song.
Levon Helm sang for all of his life. And he sure raised his voice. His was the kind of voice that invited thousands of listeners to join in, to clap their hands, stomp their feet, to dance and sway to the beat.
Heaven was never that far from Levon Helm. He used to close his eyes when he sang, as if he saw the beauty and the sorrow of the words that flowed from his mouth.
He once said that unless music came from the heart, it was just no good. When he sang, he found his heart. When he sang, he gave it away.
I like to think that when he beat those drums and sang his heart out, his closed eyes were seeing something so beautiful, something as nearly perfect but unable to be put to song.
But he kept at it, singing until he caught up with it, and the song held him close, and took him to Paradise, where all the best music has always come from, straight to the heart.Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is email@example.com.