(photo of Levon Helm, playing mandolin -- he was about this age when I met him, or just a little bit older)
I met Levon Helm through his booking agent. That sounds kind of dry and boring, but really, I was friends with Steve Martin, who booked The Band -- or what was left of it sans Robbie Robertson -- in the 1990s. Steve was a very jocular, sweet guy who booked music I liked and so every now and then I’d come along with him to different shows, different “adventures” that sometimes included eating before the show, then going to the show. As I was struggling and it was all gratis and special, I was cool with it.
Besides, Steve liked the music I made and the bands I was in (The Washington Squares, Agnelli & Rave) and we could talk music and have a laugh. Did I mention -- he has a great sense of humor? This was when I was living in NYC, of course.
Starting back in the 1970s, there was a fun venue for music, a restaurant/bar called The Lone Star. It had a Texas theme, of course, and it used to be downtown, on the corner of 13th and Fifth Avenue. There was a big iguana statue on top of the building -- a fun place with great a sense of humor. Lots of great music was booked in there, including my friends Brave Combo, Billy Swan, Doug Sahm, Kinky Friedman, Asleep at the Wheel, you name it.
In the 1990s, they had to move uptown, to the West 50’s. But the uptown Lone Star was bigger, so bigger acts could be accommodated. Wasn’t as funky, or as easy to get to for us downtowners, but so it goes.
One evening after work, Steve bade me to follow him to a hotel. He was very mysterious about where we were going. I’d been enthusing about a book I recently read, a memoir by Levon Helm, my favorite guy in the band because he was a singing drummer with a real soulful voice and a great character. His book was really delightful (This Wheel’s On Fire).
We arrive at the hotel and Steve pushes me in front of the door when we arrive. Who answers but Levon Helm, himself. Was I ever glad I’d just read his book! I knew that he’d worked in Hamilton, Ontario, a place where I’d been cutting my teeth as a rockin’ songwriter for a few years, with Dave Rave. I stuck out my hand to for shaking. What a nice surprise!
“Hey, Levon! Hi, I’m Lauren -- and I‘ve made lots of music in Hamilton, Ontario, too.”
Levon winked and said, “I KNEW there was something I liked about you.” He shook my hand warmly and led me in, greeting Steve (behind me) of course.
I sat there in the hotel suite for over an hour, joking around with Levon, Rick Danko, Steve Martin, and a few others. Even though I didn’t know them, they were welcoming. A boatload of laughter, coffee, beer, diet pepsis later, we headed to the Lone Star where The Band (minus Robertson) played several sets of rockin’ roots music as only they could, with ol’ Levon keepin’ that steady, funky beat. And Lou Christie joined them onstage for a number. . . “Lightnin’ Strikes,” of course. What a great voice!
But for me, the night belonged to Levon: ultra cool, ultra warm, ultra genial. He sang and played effortlessly, performing for the audience, seeming to really dig it. His greatness was not only in what he did, but how he treated people. I was a nobody to him, but he made me feel special. He did that to everybody I could see. I aspire to emulate that greatness and to carry on his tradition of roots music. . . thank you, Levon. (And thank you, Steve Martin.)