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A Music Pioneer Passes Away: A Reminder to Synthesize Ideas and Connect the Dots

Posted on April 24, 2012 by Patrick Riley.

The legendary musician Levon Helm passed away on Thursday last week. Levon was a founding member and drummer for The Band and was an important figure in the roots rock music evolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Before founding The Band, Levon played drums for The Hawks, who would become the backing band for Bob Dylan when he “went electric” in 1965. The Band recorded several masterpiece records between 1967 and 1977, which included the hits “The Weight”, “Ophelia”, and “Up on Cripple Creek”. Their final concert was chronicled in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 classic film “The Last Waltz”.

When news emerged that Levon had passed away last Thursday, I was amazed to see the amount of coverage his passing received. Many luminaries weighed in including Martin Scorsese, Elton John , Jeff Tweedy and even Slash from Guns and Roses. But the note that caught my attention the most was from Bob Dylan. On his website, Dylan wrote: "[Levon] was my bosom buddy friend to the end, one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation. This is just so sad to talk about. I still can remember the first day I met him and the last day I saw him. We go back pretty far and had been through some trials together. I'm going to miss him, as I'm sure a whole lot of others will too."

After reading Dylan’s statement, the world for me became small, profound and sad. I realized what a huge effect Levon Helm had on American music. And I realized how much my past and personal history shapes who I am today, and where my restless and creative energy comes from.

I grew up in Woodstock, NY, the famous town in the eastern Catskill Mountains, two hours north of New York City. As I was growing up, Levon Helm and other members of The Band lived in Woodstock as well (Richard Manual, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson). Woodstock is a small town with a population of around 5,500. It’s so small there’s not a single stop light in town. While Woodstock is most famous for the concert in 1969, it has been an artist’s colony and creative community for the last 125 years, and it has to be one of the most creative communities on earth. (I found this list of notable people on Wikipedia who have lived in the Woodstock area at some point.) The list includes Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Thelonious Monk, Van Morrison, Bonnie Rait, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Aniston and Chevy Chase.

The truth is, I never did see Bob Dylan, or David Bowie, or Johnny Cash or Van Morrison walking around town. But in the late 70s and early 80s, we did see members of The Band all the time. At the Grand Union grocery store, at the Colonial Pharmacy, at Houst Hardware Store (where I used to work in high school), at The Meat Market, and at Cub Scout meetings. These guys and their families were part of the community. And growing up around living legends made the world feel small, magical and full of potential.

I’ve always felt growing up in Woodstock gave my brother Dan and me an unfair advantage because we learned how to mix different disciplines at an early age. Each day was born with potential to create new things and solve different problems -- in the same day we’d write and play music, engineer elaborate structures in the woods, shoot super 8 movies, and write software games on our IBM computer. We assumed that was the way the world worked everywhere!

In an LA Times Blog piece, Joe Henry wrote "In the same way that his great friend and sometimes-boss Bob Dylan connected the dots between Jimmy Reed, Arthur Rimbaud and Muhammad Ali, so Levon drew the second line that had Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Marvin Gaye and Hank Williams all dancing out in front of the same New Orleans funeral parade. (They all walked liked Bo Diddley and didn’t need no crutch.) He brought soul and an open heart to the darkest corners of rock music -- in a troubled era he helped shape and define -- and a rural humility to the grandest stages."

I realized that this kind of spirit -- living to connect the dots to create new and magical outcomes -- is deeply rooted in my upbringing, and I realized I was fortunate to be around creators and innovators who did this on a regular basis when I was young. I’m reminded how our mission at Modern Survey of “Accelerating People to the Extraordinary” is about enabling fantastic outcomes for organizations with the guts and confidence to take risks and soar. The world we live in now requires rich skills and cross-fertilization like never before, and there is a demand for innovation like never before. We’re at a place in time when an idea hatched from two entrepreneurs can change an entire industry. There is more potential to create a better world than ever before. To rise to the occasion, our students and workers need to master the skills of critical thinking, engineering, design, innovation, and all the while bask in the joy of breaking down walls, ideas and constructs through collaboration. Great artists and musicians continually remind us how essential it is to experiment and create. Heck, I’ve had some of my best ideas for new products while watching modern dance performances or wandering around art museums!

While it’s been a sad weekend thinking about the loss of Levon Helm, he’s reminded me how important it is to keep our eyes wide open while on the journey, lest we miss a line to draw between two unrelated dots…that small line might change everything.

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