You know, this song has been on my list to blog about for a while now. With the recent passing of Levon Helm, it seems appropriate (albeit a bit too late) to finally get around to it.
Let’s start with the name. Well, the name (and thus the song) were inspired by Levon Helm, The Band’s co-founder, drummer, and singer. The Band was apparently Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s favorite group back in the day.
To put it in context, Elton told Entertainment Weekly this week, “When I heard The Band’s music from Big Pink, their music changed my life. And Levon was a big part of that band. Nigel Olson, my drummer, will tell you that every drummer that heard him was influenced by him. He was the greatest drummer and a wonderful singer and just a part of my life that was magical.”
I think this song is just magical (especially performed live).
Lots of people have tried to figure out what the lyrics mean, assigning such varied themes as the growing movement toward secularism (“God is dead”) to Vietnam-era veterans returning with heroin addictions (balloons=dealers, sweet Jesus=heroin) to pro-religion (“he shall believe on”) to Future Shock (Alvin Tostig = Alvin Toffler).
Call me a simpleton, but I think it’s about something much more straightforward – the relationship between fathers and sons and the expectations therein. Here, you have three generations: Alvin Tostig (the grandfather), Levon (the father) and Jesus (the son). Alvin wants Levon to be a good man, Levon wants a better life for Jesus. Levon worked hard (perhaps too hard) to make his money, alienating his son, which is why Jesus wants to leave Levon far behind.
Whatever your interpretation, it is a great song. Period.
Back to the song’s inspiration, Elton said he had “no idea” that the musician was sick, and added, “I’m very dismayed and shocked that he died so quickly. But now my son [Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John] has his name.”
Yes, he shall be Levon.
May you rest in peace, Levon Helm. I don’t know much about you, but anyone who inspired Elton and Bernie is an inspiration to me, too. Your name and your spirit are eternalized.
Levon (Madman Across the Water – 1971)