Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Night I Opened For Levon Helm

I still remember the cold February night in 2003 I opened for Levon Helm at a honkytonk down by the railroad tracks in Huntington, LI, called Leavy's Last Stop.

About half a block beyond where urban renewal in the '60s stopped, leaving some empty old buildings for the down-and-out and honky-tonkers to continue to exist in an otherwise gentrified town.

"Leavy's Last Stop," not the end of one road or the beginning of another, just some place which was no place at all -- but at the same time square in the heart of some unexplainable thing or moment in time and therefore a vital, necessary place.

A bar for ex-cheerleaders and washed up boxers, firemen and their wives, landscapers and truckers and lean looking country and western types, plumbers and paving contractors and a psychiatrist with a porsche or two also mixing in, because he remembers what it was he loved about being alive and in the world before he stopped loving the world and started "working" in it -- something he loved in the blue smoke of a honkytonk in a college town he went to and before he had to settle down to a lifetime cutting away at the rot in people's minds or paving it over.

And a number of beat musicians with no gig to go to even though it was Saturday night, and besides they heard that Levon Helm was in town and playing with a pickup band and maybe they might just get asked to sit in for a song or do a set, or either they already had been asked and were waiting their turn.

A legend! Levon Helm in a honkytonk in Huntington Station and no spotlight on the man and not even a miked drumset. You could probably hire him for your kid's birthday party, yet he played with Dylan, his wheel was on fire he was driving ol' dixie down -- big pink last waltz Levon Helm, made songs that Joan Baez covered but which grew out of something funky and true blue Arkansas cotton roots.

It was Scotto's idea really. He got Levon to come and additionally had this notion that I belonged in front of a bar crowd, a poet in a rock setting can work okay he said, if you handle it right. That was his area and anyway I didn't mind. Scotto handles things, ska bands blues singers up and comers down and outers, he saw me back in the sixties when I was almost famous in an r&b band and figured I could still be worked into the bar scene and furthermore add some class to it.

Scotto said it'll go like this, he'll introduce George the poet, turn the spotlight on the stool and go! It'll add a little surreal moment to the evening, he said, cool the place down bring it into focus in the middle of the mayhem and beer and anger and sweat, anyway we're giving it a go.

I do know a crowd when I see one, and the place was jamming -- cars everywhere, hundreds of people inside the place. Scant attention paid to the warm-up group from NYC, a guy with his shirt hanging out and rubbing his hair while he sang, acting as if he just woke up and found himself in front of three hundred people and was surprised by it though not all that displeased, backed by his friend or roommate with an electrified acoustic guitar, whanging away with big stroking twelvestring chords. 

"That's a John Lennon guitar" said some guy in a checked shirt, near where I'm standing, quiet-like, practicing the phrase two or three times, when the two of them are done performing and get off the stage he says it again hoping they'll hear him, "that's a John Lennon guitar."

I am wearing a checked shirt too, everybody's wearing checked shirts, and I'm standing next to an amp and waiting for my cue, and Scotto is looking serious and anxious over the heads of all those people until he sees me and then he comes over leans forward grips my hand and says "a consummate professional! right where I need you to be, man!"

So I stood there in front of the band and Levon Helm in his lair of drums and snares and cymbals, and I looked out over the people, some crowd standing in front of the stage, and said the word cotton pickin' three times, and read a poem over everybody's head. 

Pointed it at the heart of some invisible imaginary person in the back of the room, some person who was attentive and really listening and maybe even hearing, though he or she didn't expect that to happen at all and furthermore couldn't see me, some person I could reach with my words, something that would go over easy.

And it did go over easy, though I felt like a preacher giving the benediction before a brawl. A number of the gals in the audience ooohed and ahhhed and some of the guys did too, but some others didn't, they coughed and looked at each other and pulled at their bottles and pretended I wasn't happening or really there. They weren't obnoxious about it just grimly polite and inwardly inattentive because it was an official sanctioned moment on stage, I was authorized to read them poetry, how long could it take anyhow, and besides they were patriotic god fearing people and not just because of 9-11, these were not brawlers, they had jobs to go to Monday morning, they just drank their beer and watched me and waited for Levon.

I didn't detain them long - they got their Levon and the rest of his band and I got to open for Levon Helm.

But the highlight for me was meeting old Levon beforehand, a very cool experience, with that Burgess Meredith glint in his eye like he's hip to the true energy going down everywhere around him, not just what ordinary people think is going down, which is false and petty and superficial. 

It happened like this: Scotto brought me downstairs into the basement for pictures. We sat in front of a white sheet that had been draped over an ice cooler as a backdrop, it was the basement where roaches and moldy couches and broken chairs go, low ceilings, stacked cases of Budweiser, leaky pipes, the lair of most bands really, from here to Cleveland and halfway back.

And Scotto tells Levon I'm a local poet and used to play soul music and Levon smiles and likes that. And we drink some of those beers in the bottles in the Budweiser cases. Levon and me and the band, subterranean and connected and silent.

The beer was warm. The cellar was cold. After awhile I figured I should ask him something, so I said hey Levon did you ever pick cotton on that Arkansas farm he grew up on but he said he hadn't.

Then it was time to go upstairs and go on stage and we did. It was all very peaceful and easy.  


  1. Good story, George. I actually got to play a little bit of John Lennon guitar last night. It was fab. Hope the Barn was cool too. Cheers!