Story and photograph by Martin Benjamin
On a day that grew more and more appropriately gray as I worked my way down to Woodstock via the West Saugerties/Palenville back roads, the sky opened up as little teardrops of rain fell. Many people were on a pilgrimage to say goodbye to Levon.
With satellite parking at three spots around town, this “public is welcome” memorial at Levon Helm’s studio and home ran like precise clockwork from 10am to 3pm, giving more than 2,100 fans the opportunity to pay their respects. The polite and saddened fans waited patiently to board school buses to be taken to the site of so many Midnight Rambles. The only way in was to board a bus and take the ride.
Any members of the press were asked to not take out any notebooks to scribble in, photographs were forbidden, and cellphones had to be off. “It’s the way Levon would have wanted it.” That was enough for me. This time, I was going first and foremost, as a fan and admirer.
It was all very special. Fans filed in through the basement entrance but took their time to meander through slowly so they could linger with the personal snapshots and memorabilia on the walls that was mostly about the Levon Helm Band and the Midnight Rambles. Also hanging was the gold record for “The Last Waltz.”
As you approached the stairs, a memorial card was offered with a spiritual verse about being taken away “on snow white angel wings to my immortal home.”
The card was for Mark Lavon Helm, 05/26/1940 – 4/19/2012.
You could head upstairs to the studio/performance space when you wanted to. Once upstairs, everyone realized it was for real. First you saw his unmanned full drum kit where it was positioned for Midnight Rambles, at the front right of the stage. It was sensitively lit with stage lighting. That alone was enough to bring tears to most eyes.
To the left, at the center front edge of the stage was the closed casket, beautiful and simple with an understated elegance. All around the stage and room were mostly large white floral arrangements with cards attached. A large arrangement of beautiful white roses rested on the top of the casket.
Overhead, behind the casket, was a large screen showing projected large images of Levon’s life as a child, bridegroom, new father with baby daughter, young musician and riding his John Deere tractor with his dog at his side. There were some unfamiliar performance photos, not in the famous rock star vein, but rather real feeling photos of a musician having fun at work. There was a charming outtake shot of the Band taken with them all sitting on a large rock with the Catskill Mountains as a background, made during what was probably a break from the more serious side of a photo shoot. All photos seemed very real, not a romanticized depiction of fame and stardom. These were the Helm family’s personal and loving photographs.
I saw a few folks touch the casket lightly with the gentle touch of goodbye. During what are his last moments on this important stage, it was very powerful.
Outside, waiting for a school bus back to the parking areas, a beautiful and graceful woman a bit younger than Levon just turned to me and said, “You know, every other time I have ever been here this barn was always full of happiness. Today, it is full of sadness.”