As Gary Baker and I looked for Levon Helm's mailbox (#160) this afternoon along a country road near Woodstock, New York, I decided that pilgrimage was the right word for our weekend's work. Holy Land pilgrims, such as we 20 from St. John's last summer, walk in Jesus's footsteps along desert paths. Musical pilgrims strain to hear echos in the woods. The roots of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane remember the agony of Jesus's lonely final night of freedom. The trees in this neighborhood had the best seats in the house as amazing popular music was conceived, recorded, and performed.
The purpose of today's mailbox reconnaissance was to make it easier to find our way to the Midnight Ramble tonight on Levon's farm. Once there, of course, we had to stop and take a picture. It's a pilgrimage, right? Just then a young couple from New Jersey came along and told us how to find Big Pink, the nearby houses where the late Rick Danko and Richard Manuel once lived, and the road where the photo was taken for the Band's second album. On second thought, maybe we're putting on airs by calling it a pilgrimage. The young man was only a little nuttier than we, because he'd looked all this stuff up before hitting the road for Woodstock.
But did we follow his directions to Big Pink? You knew that we would. Because here (it's now Big Orange-Yellow) the Band and Bob Dylan recorded "The Basement Tapes" and the Band its masterful first two albums, with songs such as "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The germ of the idea for a music festival at Woodstock in 1969 was organizers' optimism that the Band would agree to perform and the then-reclusive Dylan, also a Woodstock resident, would show up at the last minute. They did, he didn't, and because of local politics, Woodstock ended up in Bethel, 90 minutes away. As you know, Joni Mitchell didn't write a song called "Bethel." Yet Woodstock gets almost all the tourism, which isn't inappropriate given that original germ of an idea. Helm, after all, is still here, as is Band mate Garth Hudson.
Gary and I made plans for our pilgrimage a few months ago. We've been music buddies since 1993. Before deciding to be buried on the grounds of the Nixon Library, President and Mrs. Nixon sent me to Rose Hills in Whittier, California, where many Milhouses and Nixons are buried, to investigate possible sites. There I met Gary, who helped us with arrangements for both Nixons' Yorba Linda funerals (when he wasn't programming alt.-country playlists for the Rose Hills employee cafeteria and designing the $1 million pipe organ for the Sky Rose Chapel and playing Van Morrison songs for the installers through the state-of-the-art PA system he'd also designed).
One day Gary was driving me back from a planning lunch for Mrs. Nixon's funeral when I asked if he'd ever heard of a Texas singer-songwriter named Joe Ely. He smiled and pushed a button on his CD changer and loaded Ely's album "Love and Danger." Gary and I now have our music loaded onto iPods. Meeting up Thursday evening at JFK, we rented a car, dropped Kathy at her sister's in Tuckahoe, and headed for the promised land. On the way he introduced me to the Kings of Leon and Terry Evans, which I liked. I played him Pat Donahue (which he liked) and Conor Oberst (less so).
Yesterday we visited a magnificent interactive Woodstock museum near Bethel. It's odd to see albums from your collection presented as museum pieces. Standout interviewees in the many video kiosks included former Attorney General Ed Meese, who had nothing good to say about Woodstock, and former Sen. Norm Coleman, who was there and dug it. Perhaps the wisest comment about the performers during those three fairy tale days came from one of their successors, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. "They were up there saying, 'This is what we do with our lives'," he said, "challenging everyone else with the question, 'What are you going to do with yours?'"
We then caught a show at the Bearsville Theater, built on the site of Dylan manager Albert Grossman's legendary studio, where everyone from the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt to R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants have recorded. It was an interesting if cerebral fusion set by Grateful Dead-connected guitarist Steve Kimock which was driven by Kimock's miraculous 18-year-old drummer son, John Morgan Kimock, and which really caught fire when Kimock traded solos with Band-connected guest guitarist Jim Weider, whom we hope to hear tonight at the Midnight Ramble.
That's right. We're going to hang out with Levon. We've already been to his house once.
Photo of Bob Dylan on someone else's body; and the Band