Friday, April 20, 2012 / 7:41 am

Levon Helm and Me

He took my breath away.

by Donna Schoenkopf


It is 1965.

I am in Norman, Oklahoma working in a college bar on the outskirts of town to keep body and soul together while I go to school at OU.

There are no tips.


But I do get paid minimum wage and it’s at night and it’s kinda fun.

I am newly divorced. I am 22 years old.

It is the 1960s and I am free. Free of the constricting 1950s where everyone looked exactly alike, free of my bra, free of the crap that passed for being nice, free of a crazy stepfather, free of all obligations.

I am able to go anywhere, do anything, be whatever I want to be.

It is late. Lots of tables in that big room and now only a scattering of drinkers. The owner of the place is ready to close. He comes up to me with a kind of short, skinny guy and says he wants to introduce me to … Levon Helm, his friend and buddy.

I am instantly smitten. There is something so sexy about him that I can hardly breathe. We all go back to the office and sit around and Levon talks and talks and talks to me. Me. About music. About Mississippi music, and Muddy Waters, and the song Louie, Louie and how much he loves it. About how he’s just come back from Upstate New York and had been playing in a back up band for Bob Dylan.

We become lovers for a few days. He says he’ll be back in a month to see me. I tell him I’m moving to New York City. He looks at me for a long time.

We part ways.


It is 1974. Bob Dylan has come to L.A. He’s got The Band, as it’s now known, playing with him. Levon will be there. We have seats three rows back from the stage, dead center. I watch him the whole time. He is magnificent. I tell my girlfriends we were lovers.


It is (maybe) 1989. Levon Helm is playing in Ventura, California. My daughter tells me that we have to go see him. She is convinced he’ll remember me. I am very, very reluctant but finally agree.

We sit in the audience and there he is. Older. Just as wonderful and beautiful. My daughter INSISTS we go backstage. I finally consent.

I am looking pretty good. Have on my long, black coat. I am in my mid-forties.

We wend our way around the backstage area and find ourselves outside the stage door. There’s Levon. My daughter walks up to him to say hello. He likes her. A lot.

I am embarrassed. I want to hide.

Then my daughter says, “This is my mother. She knew you in Oklahoma when you visited the Sundown Club.”

He totally doesn’t remember or recognize me but says, “Well, you’re looking real good,” and smiles.

And that is that.


Today I learn that he died. I remember it all. Those few days and how breathlessly in love with him I was, how I thought of him everytime I heard him on the radio and felt that same heady, powerful sexuality, how he didn’t recognize me, how we’d gotten old.

I look at his daughter’s and wife’s pictures on his website. They are lovely.

His wife says that their marriage stayed strong because she makes good cornbread and vichyssoise.

That makes me love her. And him, for picking her.

Here he is. Just the way I knew him then.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


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