July 27, 1997 — Saratoga Springs, NY
Wallflowers opening for Counting Crows and I’m to photograph the first three songs by each. I’m late, cut it a bit too close and hit traffic. Need to find my credentials and get set up, without a lot of time to work with.
I’m sent backstage, where it’s quiet and surprisingly empty. There’s nobody on my side of a closed door except this old guy at the foot of the stairs, smoking a cigarette.
I say “hi,” he says hello back and smiles. I ask if this was the place I should be, he tells me yes. I thank him, go inside and return a few minutes later.
Old guy still there, same cigarette. I thank him again, we wish each other a good night.
Pleasant encounter, it set a nice mood. Sometimes these connections are chaotic and stressful, this brief conversation with the old guy helped punctuate how this was anything but.
Shoot the first three songs and find my seat. Wallflowers return for their encore, Jakob Dylan announces very special guest, “Mr. Levon Helm” — the old guy.
I had no idea.
Warmed immediately, anticipating watching someone I knew, a friend about to perform on stage — I had still yet to hear or see him perform live at this point, standing by the mic accepting the applause. From what little I knew of The Band were snippets of “The Last Waltz” and the few classics you always hear on the radio. I didn’t fully get the hubbub. To me, this was the old guy I spoke with before the show — but all that flips on his first note. Unworthy of any “connection” you think you might have with a person, immediately a lot of your world starts to properly realign.
The two sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight” and killed it. That sweet, unassuming gentleman on the stairs, part of rock immortality with a voice that shakes you on the inside.
“No singing drummer was ever better. He drove the song, pushing the words, prodding the melody, underscoring a line or announcing a chorus with just a tap of his foot or flick of his wrist. If his singing was the heart of the music, his drumming pumped the life into it. He sat at the middle of this great, sprawling mess of sound that coalesced around his storytelling and his rhythmic drive.”
Celebrity creates a blur. Had I known I’d been talking to Levon Helm, I would have messed it up. The memory would have been a dissection of everything we said or I should have said instead. Finally realizing the perfect line three and a half years later, sort of thing. Kicking yourself, with every recollection of the event a missed opportunity and every better example that comes to mind, another small defeat.
But celebrities must get sick of it too, hearing the same comments over and over again. You’re not the first person to say you thought “The Last Waltz” was good and that you liked him in that. Even if you’re sharp, the clever line you’re about to unleash, they’ve probably heard it 15 times on the way from the hotel.
A lot of opportunities for these people to be assholes or, at the very least, less than you would have hoped for. Just as I could have blown it, a lot of celebrities could have very easily messed this up on their end as well.
“In 1998, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he continued to play music, and after his recovery, to sing as well, up until his death” … Levon Helm Laid to Rest in Woodstock — Rolling Stone
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