Music and Loss

Levon Helm, Fillmore East, NYC, 1969. photo: © Elliott Landy

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing
I can’t help listening

–    Jackson Browne, For a Dancer.

To be honest I didn’t know where to start when I sat down to write this piece. I tried to come up with something eloquent and moving, but I guess if you have to try then it ain’t gonna happen. It is fitting perhaps that it took a song about grief and death to help express my feelings on music and mortality.

So thank you Jackson Browne for putting my feelings into words in a way I never could.

As I write this, it has been a sombre few weeks for music fans. Make that a sombre year.

At the time of writing Doc Watson has just passed, preceded in the last month or so by Robin Gibb, Donna Summer, Doug Dillard, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Chuck Brown.

Earlier this year we lost Whitney Houston, Davy Jones, Dick Clark and Earl Scruggs.

I actually wanted to write this piece as a belated tribute to Levon Helm, who passed a few weeks ago, but by the time I got started the musical firmament was getting fuller by the day.

All of these deaths have reinforced a feeling I had when Levon died, something I haven’t really had to reflect on much before.

Call it good or ill luck most of my musical heroes who have died have done so before I was aware of them or in some cases before I was born. On the odd occasion where I have felt this loss (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Buckley, Rick Danko, George Harrison) I have been able to deal with it in isolation.

Music for me is all about a connection. Music that connects with me does so on an emotional level, whatever that emotion might be. If it doesn’t, then it is just noise to me. Pleasant noise sometimes, but noise nonetheless.

Great music will always find a way to make a connection with the listener.

So how do we feel when a great musician dies? Someone will always say (I say it myself) that we will always have their music. This is their legacy, and this is what we love about them. The music makes us feel, and we will always have that.

This is true, but it is also a cop out.

When we make that musical connection, it is not just with the music, but also the musician, the person.

To be honest, Levon’s death affected me more than I realised. When I heard of his passing, I did what I always do – try to separate the music from the musician. I appreciate the wonderful music and feel sadness for the passing of someone I didn’t know personally. That wasn’t enough this time, and I don’t think it ever really has been. What I felt was more than sadness. I don’t think I would have thought on it further, were it not for the last week. With so much eulogising I realised I was still where I was several weeks ago, trying to make some sense of the great man’s passing.

I think I would still be there if it wasn’t for something my wife said to me. She was worried that I’d be upset when she told me of Robin Gibb’s death. I told her that it was sad, as it is when people you admire die, but it’s not like I knew him, or Levon for that matter. Yes you did, she said. And I realised that she was right. When we connect with a musician’s music, we connect with them, whether we realise it or not. It is like they reach right through the song and put their finger right up to your soul and say, do you feel this? Do you get it? And when we say yes, we form a bond that can never be broken. I truly believe that God is at work in those moments.

So what is it that I feel with the weight of all these endings?

Quite simply, grief. I feel like I have lost a friend, and in truth I have. Every fan has. By grieving I can say goodbye and thank you for making such a wonderful connection through the miracle of music.

I am reminded of the wonderful tribute concert and film that George Harrison’s friends and family held in his honour at the Albert Hall. At one point Eric Clapton is reflecting on his friend and whether he would have wanted such a concert to be staged. Clapton thought he wouldn’t, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t doing this for George, it was for himself, and everyone else who missed their friend. At the end of the show Joe Brown sings “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, unaccompanied other than his ukulele while thousands of rose petals fall from  the ceiling. There is a moment there where you feel connected to every single person in that hall, every one of us desperately moved and heartbroken at the same time. It never fails to bring me to tears.

Thanks again Jackson (apologies for borrowing those lines!), and thanks to all musicians who make any kind of connection with their audience, whatever that might be. God knows we need you today more than ever.

The beautiful photographs of Levon are shown here with the kind permission of the photographer, Elliott Landy. For more on his work please visit:

Levon Helm, backstage Fillmore East, NYC, 1969. photo: © Elliott Landy

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