I was driving when I got the text. Three words: “Dick Clark's passed.”
Trouble with the road is you gotta keep moving, from scouting a location to a drive-by lunch and straight down Carnegie to Prospect to an industrial parking lot, up a ramp, into a black-out curtained cavern where a young band was setting levels and getting ready to greet their fans.
Hot Chelle Rae are kids. Barely a quarter century the oldest ones. Power pop trio with a scaffold-soaring singer. Wasn't even sure they'd understand - even if they all have family in the business, cause, well, it'd been a long time since “Bandstand.”
Professional always, I drove it down. Tried not to think about ithe tear inside Ask the questions I was sent to ask. Watch the show. Draw the conclusion. Let it ride, Let it roll. And I did. I always do.
Jamie Follese, the youngest - who four years on the road has just turned 20, is the one I told. Wide eyes with hair falling into them, he managed a “Wow.” Then he showed just how long Dick Clark's fingers were even after the stroke that slowed him down.
“I can't believe we did his last Rockin' New Year's Eve…” he marveled.
I'd been in the studio when I got the news Levon Helm had turned for the worst. With a folk singer, my first idol, a sketcher of humanity, mortality and the wonder that keeps us ascending from the sludge and mud.
We had a song that wasn't coming together. “A Way To Make It There” considers the tides that pull us under and gentle breezes that push us on. Taut, driving, yet somehow encouraging, too, it was a song about people lost - and found.
I told Alex Bevan about the word that Levon wasn't long for this world, that they were asking for prayers and love and good thoughts. Then I sat down on my folding chair near the mic set-up and smiled a tired, fading smile. It had been a long three days. But draining though it was, our journey wasn't that.
“I never met him,” Alex said. “But oh, his music…”
His music, indeed.
Their music, really.
I said a rosary while my friend got that elusive performance. I was glad he could find the grace in such sad news. Levon would've liked to think he was woven into someone else's song that way.
And then I was gone. Prayers and pensive, but moving again.
Until the text. The quick emails to everyone I knew who knew Dick Clark well, including one of his sons, who's been one of my best sources of clarity for years. Losses that are public are even more painful in private; I've been watching survivors cope for years.
It's like that Danny Flowers song “Before Believing” - and the lines “what if pieces of the sky were falling/ In your neighbor's yard, but not on you?”
There wasn't time to stop and think, to write as I do. Drive, yes. Sleep, some; the sleep of the deathly exhausted. Then rise and drive and think and talk to God about the meaning of it all.
Dick Clark, for many of us kids in the Midwest, was the gateway to everything we cared about. Bands we loved, artists we needed to know. They all played his show - Madonna, Prince, the BeachBoys when they were babies, Michael Jackson with (and without) the Jackson 5, James Brown, Van Morrison, Men Without Hats, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, rem, Dion, the GoGos, Rufus with Chaka Khan, Barry Manilow, War. Black, white and Latino, the guy who got his start in Philadelphia as a disc jockey by hosting a local tv station's dance party not only made no distinctions, he welcomed all music. Allmusic. Heck, he even helped get hillbilly singers on tv - back when it was a cousin'r'hog-humpin' oeuvre by helping the Academy of Country Music get their West Coast-recognizing awards show on network television.
Clark realized what the kids knew - and you could argue he rode it to a behemoth television empire, or you could say “Someone got it, and gave it back.”
All I know is he had an acute sense of what was going on around him. Things you'd never think he'd notice - he was Dick Clark, after all - registered in ways you'd be shocked to realize.
I'd been shuttling or hanging around country stars doing “The American Music Awards” and “Academy of Country Music Awards” for several years… Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, the Kentucky Headhunters, Rodney Crowell…
I'd always smile and say “Hello” as my internal dialogue shrieked “Dick Clark!” and I'd think about all those Saturday mornings, watching the teens and 20somethings dance to all the musicians I dreamed of. An onramp to a magical world, a seeming comrade of the ones I loved…
One day, he called me by my name. Just as if he did it every day. I didn't fall over; but what did you say? Right. I went with nothing. A stupid smile, a nod.
Years later, standing at the production table with Brooks & Dunn in tow, I started explaining the interview flow to the full grown men with the hardcore post modern honky tonk attack. Dick Clark studied me. I could feel him. I was worried I looked bossy.
“Look at her,” he said off-handedly. “They watch her. They listen. They follow her every word. It's amazing.”
A year or two later, I almost closed my business. Somehow Dick Clark heard. Someone who worked for him called me on my cell. “He says he's never seen anyone handle famous people the way you do,” was the open.
I was speechless. “Dick… Clark… said that?”
The person and I talked for a while: what he saw, what he respected. They then told me they agreed with the tv scion. Joe's Garage stayed open.
Levon Helm was the same way, only completely different. Open to everything, aware of what was going on. Very keyed into the energy and the humanity around him.
But Dick Clark was a silk necktie, Levon Helm hopsack britches. Clark was Vegas slickness, studio polish; Helm was funky, ragged, raw and the greasiest groove you could possibly find. One was “the world's oldest teenager,” the other was a wicked drummer with a bottomless pocket who sounded older than hollers even when they were still the Nighhawks, long before Music From Big Pink hit the streets.
They were both enthused about music, the people who made it. One celebrated by finding ways to put it on television - and long before most people today remember, doing “Cavalcade of Stars” package tours and taking the music to the fans. The other could be found doing his celebrated Rambles in his barn in Woodstock, NY - bringing together an eclectic group of roots musicians to jam and remember the notion of coming together in song, the same way he and The Band had inspired a somewhat flagging Bob Dylan and helped ignite his Rolling Thunder Review.
Levon Helm, whose last album was called Poor Dirt Farmer, was about the gritty and the real, the dignity between the cracks and the honor of living with integrity. He was a sweet soul, an elegant gentleman, a smile that lit up buildings and a credit to his Arkansas roots - a place where they grow a little crooked and wild, with a sense of gallantry that's anything but pompous.
No, he made you yearn for a hero in denim, who knew how to find the howl and the soul, to scratch at the dirt and the moon, to craft desirability from the hard scrabble and romance from a woman's small details.
Levon… Helm…. That voice, wide open, almost braying. Those hands, cracking and rolling over those drum heads and cymbals with a euphoria that swept you up, kept time from breaking and making it all so right now.
The Band was one of those acts: essential and the essence of what it meant to be rock & roll while keeping it organic. It's no wonder Keith Richards loved him, no doubt that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band summoned Helm for the reconvening of the tribes, when they bridged the old school Nashville to the modern blurrers on the Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2.
I watched Helm be as gracious and charming as any human being's ever been at Scruggs Sound just below Nashville. The Dirt Band and he working on a way gospel “When I Get My Reward,” scraping soil and sky and making us feel like salvation was right there for the taking.
He had that way about him. It ran through his daughter Amy's band Ollabelle, too. And when Levon got the cancer that almost killed him several years ago, it was the music that saved him, that led him to other more heartening places.
His joy was always palpable, his growl and time impeccable witnesses to whatever he needed to convey. His Rambles at the Ryman were lovefests: Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, whomever was in town, grappling to be a part of Levon's earthly angel band. Indeed, even the random dog or two would trot onstage or lay down by the man with the wickedly flawless timing.
You couldn't not feel good in his presence, and you wouldn't feel anything less than euphoric hearing the music he conjured. It was like he was blessed, and so were we to know… who he was, what he did and the way he carried himself.
How they carried themselves, Dick Clark, Levon Helm both, was a lot of it. They brought an infectious enthusiasm for what they beheld. They made people feel welcome. In a world of big egos, crazy notions, utter indulgence, they never lost the thread - never lost the sense that it was the music that was made and the fans who loved it who mattered.
I woke up in another town, still exhausted from my run up 71 north to Cleveland for the Rock Hall Induction dinner - and a night that went on and on and on. It was a celebration of how music sets you free, rebels against the inertia and revels in the intensity of being alive.
In spite of the melodrama generated by Axl Rose, Guns N Roses deported themselves as a true relic of the electric kineticism and insurrection of rough rock & roll, the Beastie Boys brought the same pushback via loud, progressive rap and the Red Hot Chili Peppers wadded up rock's slam and grafted it to the most industrial strength funk one could imagine. This night, they all throbbed and threw down. Breath-taking stuff.
Even the Small Faces/Faces aging innocence was charming. Though Rod Stewart couldn't attend due to illness, Ron Wood wore a tiny shiny mod-feeling suit, Ian McLagen in a Technicolor whirl of a shirt and Kenney Jones in bang-about street clothes - and they reminded the local fat cats, the industry standards what the 6000 people in the balcony already knew: whether it's the winsome yearning of “Ooooh La La” with its sweet chorus of “I wish I knew then what I know now…” and the raw sex of the bandy “Stay With Me,” rock is straight stuff jammed directly into one's veins.
There were other acts, too. Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill's induction of Freddy King was jubilant, drawing you in, then dropping the groove for an incredible “Goin' Down.” Carole King's induction of Don Kirshner made the business more than a necessary evil - and showed the way loving the music from the business side can advocate creativity in broader realms, while Bette Midler mainlined her own fandom of progressive singer/soulwriter Laura Nyro for an induction that stilled the balcony out of recognition and reverence for the way music touches us.
On the ride up to my hometown, I'd spent an hour on the phone with a true believer. His brother's pushing 50, but he still rocks, still has a band, is still biting the dream. The name alone tells you everything: the Mojo Gurus. Hardcore, snarling rock & roll, blazing guitars and a cloud of dust. Is it sardonic or stupid? Swaggering or snarling?
At the end of the day, they're mainlining the New York Dolls flash, the Stones at their roguest, a little Skynyrd, a dash of Ian Hunter, maybe a touch of the Faces, a bit of the same things the Black Crowes whirl and churn. Will it happen for this little band that almost kinda coulda a few times? Hearing the yowl of singer Kevin Steele, you get the sense it doesn't completely matter; that's not what he's singing for.
No, it's deliverance. It's the sacred space where you can let the whip come down, the truth rise, the thrill of being in the whip's crack - or as Springsteen exhorts, “It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.”
And it's true. It does. Music is the great soother, inciter, inspirer. To listen is to understand all the things that elude us in the conventional realm. It sows clarity, compassion, resolve, courage, occasionally lust and often romance. And that love is the being in love with life, not even a member of the opposite sex.
Moving too fast, though, you don't get to put things into perspective. You only get to keep dancing as fast as you can, hoping you don't fly off the flat and end up with your head or life cracked wide open.
Got home just now, right on the cusp of rush hour. My phone rang. It was a friend who knew I was driving, figured they'd let me get home (knowing I rarely radio or internet surf when I'm truly covering the miles)…
“You know he's gone,” they said gently as they could.
I didn't have to ask. I knew. I felt the energy drain from my body, felt all the momentum that had been pinning my exhaustion to a wall far from where I was standing fall away.
“Oh,” I said. What do you say? Especially when the man who wrestled New Year's Eve from Guy Lombardo's Big Band had exited the day before.
Even when you know, you're never ready. So there I was, speechless in the kitchen, knee deep in book bags and backpacks. I didn't know what to do, so I managed a “thanks,” heard what I thought was, “I didn't want you to read it on the inter…” and hung up.
Then the tears started. Tears for Dick Clark. Tears for Levon Helm. Tears for who I was so long ago, when all the innocence those men embodied were twisted up with the thrill of music that made my pulse race.
It wasn't about knowing them or not, about the end of their creativity. It was more about two more icons off the chain of people who believed in what the music could do. It was about losing a piece of me that I'd invested in them… invested long, long ago.
Because once you know, you can't not know; but you can climb into a song and remember. It's palpable. It's everything you'd be if you were still innocent.
But to even be able to remember from the inside out, well, that's what music's for. It's the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when they get it… my first idol staying with his filigreed songs until the quietest truths emerge… some band in Tampa playing it flagrant and loud…
It's why Dick Clark was able to keep America's kids engaged, create “The American Music Awards” and “Rockin' New Years Ever,” to remain a touchstone to punks and funks and rockers, poppers, rappers and everyone else.
It's why Levon Helm's solid, crisp beats still bust up every wall and resistance people might have, the voice equal parts Spanish moss, cracked red dirt and sweat that renders eloquent shabby details and heroic normal engagements.
It's why music matters - and these men stand out. We are more for what they gave us. They are immortal for the mark they've left on so many hearts. But especially, they are inspiring for how they embraced the music without limits - and to live and love like that is everything. All you have to do is really listen.
21 April 2012