A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Monthly on April 21, 2013.

Apparently on Friday, before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended, Sen. Lindsey Graham was already torquing up the hysteria by taking the position that Tsarnaev not receive his Miranda warning before being interrogated. Graham—who, not to imply anything from this, is one of those lucky men who can go into any barbershop and the get the exact look he wants simply by saying, “I’d like the Adolf Hitler haircut”—tweeted “If captured I hope [the] Administration will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as [an] enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes.” He then added “The last thing we may want to do is read Boston suspect Miranda Rights telling him to ‘remain silent.’”

The Brothers Tsarnaev will never be known as anything but terrorists, but Boston certainly doesn’t look a town that has been terrorized to me. Defiant? Sure. Inspired? Definitely. There’s a kind of a civic euphoria arising from the realization that town came through this blow with strength and intelligence and courage. From the first responders on Monday, to the individuals who opened their homes to stranded runners, to the full-throated expression of patriotism that infused the way Bruins fans sang the national anthem, to an exemplary performance by the law enforcement authorities, Boston has a lot to be proud of. “This is our fucking city, and nobody’s going to dictate our freedom,” said David Ortiz, the Red Sox’s Big Papi, before a roaring crowd at Fenway Park. They didn’t look terrorized to me.

It’s the Lindsey Grahams who are terrorizing people by suggesting that this threat maybe might possibly be so enormous that we have to deny Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights as an American citizen. This is a page straight out of the Bush-Cheney playbook, the idea that we have to start throwing away our most important values and traditions in order to be secure.

It’s nonsense. Denying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his rights won’t improve my safety. Let’s face it: if I really wanted to improve my safety, I would lose twenty pounds.


2vivget-attachment.aspxMy friend Dave Jensen and I had a terrific time last Friday night at the Tarrytown Music Hall where we say a program of songs of The Band, performed by Jimmy Vivino, Byron Issacs, 3vivget-attachment-1Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante, Amy Helm, and as a special treat, the immortal Garth Hudson, and as a very special treat, Sister Maud Hudson. Maud really shone on her performance of “It Makes No Difference,” and Garth’s playing was jaw-droppingly spectacular. I especially liked hearing “`King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and “Rockin’ Chair”. Again, thanks to Mr. Vivino for the tickets.


This article first appeared in the Daily Beast today, April 21, 2013.

“I don’t want a biography,’’ Levon Helm told Jacob Hatley in 2007 when the young director came to Helm’s Woodstock home and broached the idea of making a film about the venerable singer and drummer’s life. Helm had no interest in exploring the past, and neither, really, did Hatley, who felt less like investigating than sitting back, fly-style, and creating a portrait of a vibrant, ailing, cranky, authentic rock-and-roll lion in winter. As we see in the resultant film Ain’t in It For My Health, which opened in New York on April 19 (on the first anniversary of Helm’s death) and later throughout the country, Hatley got all that he hoped for, and more.

1wv1rg0-1024x723Unexpected events drift in to fill Helm’s days and Hatley’s picture: the birth of Helm’s first grandchild, the opportunity to complete an unfinished Hank Williams song, a Grammy nomination for the first album he’d recorded in two decades, and a serious health scare. There is a wide array of privileged moments shown in this film: the sheer sweetness of Helm playing “In the Pines’’ for his tiny grandson, tension as Helm waits on a cold steel stool in a hospital examining room, a “who’da thunk it?” teaching moment when Helm holds forth on the venomous spurs on the legs of the duck-billed platypus, and the excruciating scene in which Helm twists in pain as a doctor inserts a tube into his nostril in order to examine his inflamed vocal chords. And there’s sheer awe whenever he sings, and that amazing voice, now banged-up and frayed, connects to the heart of an authentic America that lies buried somewhere under a million tons of junk culture.

But while biography may not have been what Helm wanted, and while biography may not have been what Hatley sought to serve, biography in the end would not be denied, and it’s the way the injured feelings from Helm’s past seep like the goo from a malfunctioning septic tank that gives the film its bite.

For those who don’t know, Helm was the drummer and one of the lead singers of The Band, a popular and influential group of the late sixties and early seventies. They leaped to legendary status when Martin Scorsese decided to tell their nearly unbelievable story (Canadian bar band to Bob Dylan backing band to critically acclaimed innovators and international arena headliners) against the backdrop of their brilliant final concert.

That film, The Last Waltz, is widely considered the best rock-and-roll film ever made. But what that film does not document is Helm’s great anger at the break up of The Band; he didn’t want The Band to end, resented participating in the movie, and hated that lead guitarist Robbie Robertson was pulling out. Over time his feelings intensified, particularly as money became an issue; he felt he didn’t get fair compensation for his participation in The Last Waltz, and he felt that Robertson unfairly took sole songwriting credit, along with the royalties that flowed from those credits, for songs that The Band wrote collaboratively. In the ensuing decades, as money troubles and more tragic events seemed to afflict all the members of the band except Robertson, Helm’s feelings hardened.

Helm, by all accounts, was one of the world’s great spirits. He was a generous, gregarious, upbeat person whose bottomless ability to express congeniality and remember names and share the spotlight earned him affection so warmly expressed that one starts to think people are speaking not of a human but of a beloved and recently deceased family dog. And Hatley’s film captures plenty of moments of Helm’s joie de vivre: gracefully obliging his doctor’s borderline inappropriate request for an autograph, joy-riding on his neighbor’s tractor, and taking the same delight in talking to a bus driver about interstate highway connections as he does in chatting with Billy Bob Thornton about sushi restaurants and Hawaiian pot.

But as the opening line from the Hank Williams song he’s working on says, “I’m living with days that forever are gone.’’ His “unresolved feelings’’ about The Band, as Helm’s longtime friend and collaborator Larry Campbell calls them, manifest in different ways. Sometimes he battles to contain them. Asked by Billy Bob Thornton about what happened to The Band, Helm half groans. “It was a goddam screw job,’’ he says, hoping that the fog of vagueness will discourage Thornton from tapping further against the thin crust covering thirty years of acid.

At other times, they erupt. Told about the Grammy committee’s offer, Helm sneers at “that Lifetime Achievement bullshit’’ with the disdainful eloquence that could only come from one who had studied real bullshit at a tender age. “What good’s it gonna do Rick or Richard?’’ he asks, invoking the names of his late bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. And sometimes he’s just inscrutable: he displays a moment of excitement when he announces to the friends and employees in his kitchen that his album has just won a Grammy. But as the hugs and back-slaps ripple around the room, a shadow falls across Helm’s face. What’s he thinking about? Absent friends? Missed opportunities? The venomous spurs of the duck-billed platypus? Whatever it is, it isn’t victory.

There are no answers in Hatley’s film, but why should there be, if Helm himself didn’t want to find them? Instead, he gives us a portrait of a man in full, a great artist and an ordinary person who understands that he is being cornered, and who is still fighting for the best of whatever life still offers him.


This piece was originally written for The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog on April 20, 2013:

This is a true story. Thirty years ago, my wife and I visited her family at their home in Sundance, Wyoming. Ginny’s brother Rick and his wife Sue took us out for a drink at what passed for the young person’s bar. In the process of catching up, we began talking about their grandfather, who was about 90 years old, and whose longtime partner, whose name I forget, but let’s call her Joan, had recently died in the local hospital. “Yeah, Grandpop’s real upset,” my brother-in-law confided. “Last week he got drunk and took his shotgun and went over to the hospital and demanded to see Joan. When they told him she was dead, he began to shoot up the waiting room. They had to call the sheriff to come take him home.” No charges were preferred.

That was Round One. When Round Two arrived, we were joined by another young couple, Tom and Patty. The four locals began talking about a recent incident in the neighboring town of Belle Fourche, South Dakota (neighboring—as in forty miles away) where a young man had walked into a Hardee’s fast food restaurant and tried to hold up the place at gunpoint. “Fifteen guys went out to their trucks and got their rifles,” Tom said, “and came back and blew him away.” (I’m not vouching for the accuracy of the story, only Tom’s telling of it. But Rick and Sue and Patty supported his account.)

At that point another customer walked past, a man with a badly disfigured face. “That’s Don,” Sue explained. “One night he got depressed and decided to kill himself, but his gun slipped, and he only blew off his jaw.”

At that point, Patty thought to try to bring the out-of-towners more into the conversation. “Where are you folks from?” she asked.

“New York,” we said.

“New York?” she responded with astonishment. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

Priceless, right? The story came to mind this morning when I heard about this pinheaded Arkansas State Senator named Nate Bell, who tweeted “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?”

Bell’s inexcusably snide, ignorant tone aside, it’s a fair question. It’s also fair to wonder how many senators would have changed their votes on gun control had the Tsarnaev brothers set off their bombs and killed one cop and wounded another on Sunday instead of Monday. It’s also a fair question to wonder how many dogs, cats, racoons, guys sneaking a smoke on their patios and police officers involved in the manhunt would have been shot if everybody in Watertown had an AR-15 by his bedroom window.


This piece was originally written for The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog on April 20, 2013:

Well, not really revise, but let me go on for a minute about the pro-minority biases that affect our democracy. We were all schooled about the genius our Founding Fathers exhibited when they loaded up the Constitution with checks and balances, but when you stop and think about the sheer number of non-democratic institutions and rules that are central to our government, it’s clear why we get so little done. The states, of course, are inherently unequal. So is the senate and the electoral college. Throw in congressional redistricting, the filibuster, closed primaries, the disappearance of the open rule—and we’re not even talking about twisted, Lewis Carroll type formulations like `money is speech’ and `corporations are people.’ Sure, I’m unhappy that the Senate did not pass the gun registration provision, but what everybody should be screaming about is how in the hell is it that you can’t pass legislation when you have 54 votes? In last February’s exciting Super Bowl, the Ravens beat the 49ers 34-31. How would it have gone over if at the end of the game, the ref said “Sorry, but in order to win, the Ravens needed 39 points, or three-fifths of the points scored. No decision.” Kind of ridiculous. Fundamentally unfair. What’s wrong with that nincompoop Harry Reid that he has allowed this suicide rule to continue to undermine democratic government and Democratic policies?


This piece was originally written for The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog on April 20, 2013:

In the aftermath of the gun control vote, Joe Scarborough and others who favored the measure could be heard maintaining with steely resolve, “This issue is going to backfire on the opponents in the 2014 election.” Well, maybe. I hope so. I hope Michael Bloomberg’s money has an effect. I hope Jim Messina’s Organizing for Action makes an impact. But what I really hope is that somebody takes a very pessimistic long term view and concludes that maybe very little legislative progress can be made until we begin to make the world safe for moderate Republicans. What does that mean? Simply that money and organizational muscle and educational intelligence needs to be invested now in the long, hard process of working state-by-state to adopt non-partisan redistricting processes. We need to maximize the number of politically competitive districts in each state, and to minimize the number of safe seats that are over once the dominant party chooses its general election candidate. It’s all about Free Market politics. Unless elections are actually competitive, majorities don’t rule, minorities do, and we’re going to beat our heads stupid until we change the fundamental structures that block progress. It’s good to work for the 2014 elections; it might be better to work for the 2020 census and redistricting.


This piece was originally written for The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog on April 20, 2013:

Good morning, ardent Washington Monthly fans. I am pleased to be among you. A bit daunted, too; compared to the news-gorging, policy-devouring flamethrowers who usually occupy this spot, I’m a old spitballer trying to get by on craft and guile. But I’ll do my best.

As Mr. Peabody used to say to his boy Sherman, let’s turn the Wayback Machine to last Monday, and visit a story that took place before the onslaught of news events became so torrential that poor Matt “Losing Streak” Lauer found himself in West, Texas at the fertilizer factory explosion while everybody outside of West, Texas was gripped by the events in Boston. The story I’m referring to, of course, is the Senate’s refusal to pass the new gun control legislation.

The story has already been well-masticated, but even at this late date, I was especially struck by a comment by Stuart Stevens in The Daily Beast the other day:

“It was not lost on many of those paying attention that the provisions of the Manchin-Toomey legislation would have done nothing to prevent the Newtown massacre. The lack of such deprived this very logical president from making a logical case of support based on the Newtown tragedy and instead forced him to push the emotion of Newtown further and further. On a certain ironic level, this placed Obama in the same position as President George W. Bush making the case for the invasion of Iraq based on mushroom clouds rather than on hard data.”

A Bush comparison? Yikes!

Put me down as one of those who believes that the anti-gun forces don’t really have a good psychological insight into what’s driving many gun owners. I think it’s fear, not of black helicopters coming to take away everybody’s hunting rifles in the middle of the night, but an animal fear, not entirely irrational, that things are headed in the wrong direction. The economy is not producing enough jobs, and nobody feels secure. The housing market has not recovered, and nobody feels secure. An education doesn’t guarantee a job. A lifetime of work may not guarantee you Social Security. And though I pull Paul Krugman’s columns up to my chin like a security blanket, I don’t like the size of that debt. Throw in teenage terrorists, a juvenile North Korean dictator, and an ethic of individualism that excuses all sorts of selfish behavior. There’s a low grade fever of fear infecting the country that in some places is building to panic, and no one is really addressing it. You can’t expect people to live under the constant threat of unemployment, let alone be unemployed for months and years at a time, and expect them to feel secure and that others are looking out for them. I don’t think buying a gun is an answer; I don’t think owning a gun will bring relief. But do I think that someone who wants to own a gun to enhance a sense of security is crazy? No, I don’t, not really. An improved economy may not ensure for gun control, but there’s no hope until things get fundamentally better.


1dirt farmerMy friend Ken Smith and I were invited to the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn attend a screening of Jacob Hatley’s documentary about Levon Helm called Ain’t In It for My Health, a lovely, interesting portrait of a gregarious, cranky, still-workin’ rock icon in winter. The film, shot in 2008 amd 2009, captures the man in full–full of life, enjoying new experiences, struggling with money and health, wrestling with the past. After the screening, there was a performance by the Dirt Farmer Band–Larry Campbell, Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, Byron Isaacs and Justin Guip. The whole band was good, but Teresa was in unbelievably good form.


Originally published in The Huffington Post on April 9, 2013:

Anyone who spends any time watching cable television is bound to develop a fairly depressed view of the American character. Vain housewives, self-absorbed designers, responsibility-denying restauranteurs, narcissistic chefs, fascistic dance teachers, scheming survivors, snide judges–altogether we see a whining, insecure, blame-shifting, easily-insulted mass of humanity at its shabbiest. Throw in the political channels, where we see one party drowning in denial, and the other a prisoner of its own helplessness. Thank goodness we can still watch sports, where pampered millionaires continue to explore the frontiers of chemistry in an effort to fend off inevitable decrepitude. All in all, it is a sad spectacle.

ebertBut then one sees the example of Roger Ebert. With his long and rewarding career as a film critic, Ebert would have had a deserved moment of respect had he died soon after being diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Instead, Ebert survived long enough to enter the most inspirational period of his life. Ebert’s initial surgery proved insufficient; the resilient cancer demanded stronger, more damaging measures, surgeries and radiation blasts that weakened him, cost him part of his jaw, and left him disfigured, and unable to speak, eat or drink.

Many of us would have been demolished by these developments. Not Ebert. Writing “I should be content with the abundance I have,” he threw himself into his work, reviewing films at a prodigious rate (300 last year alone) and embracing new technologies to become a frequent blogger and tweeter. He focused not on what had been denied to him, but what he retained; in his final blog post, written two days before his death, his mind was on gratitude. “Thank you for going on this journey with me,” he told his readers.

A similar tale can be told about Levon Helm, the first anniversary of whose death will fall onlevon-helm-photo April 19th. Helm enjoyed vast success as a member of The Band, the rock group of the late sixties and early seventies. But after the group broke up, his career plateaued, and personal setbacks accumulated. Late in the nineties, Helm, like Ebert, was diagnosed with cancer, and the radiation treatments he underwent put the cancer in remission but robbed him of his distinctive, emotionally rich singing voice. Again, many of us would have been despondent; Helm threw himself into his music, and formed a new band in which focused on his talents as a drummer. Then, facing bankruptcy, he began putting on shows for small audiences at his home in Woodstock NY. Called Midnight Rambles, the shows spotlighted not oldies but an array of American musical genres–blues, country, gospel, New Orleans, rock. Every one was unique. When Helm recovered his singing voice, the Rambles became a must-see–an unpretentious, generous icon, heading a hot band, before a small audience in an intimate space. The Rambles revived Helm’s career and reestablished his stature as an artist, and he kept performing with joy and fortitude through his final illness until less than a month remained. As in Ebert’s case, Helm’s spirit and courage during the decade after his death sentence inspired everyone who knew the story.

rodriguez_1102-620x349The same kind of emotions greeted the film Searching for Sugar Man, which last February won the Oscar for Best Documentary . The film told the story of a couple of South African music fans who undertook a hunt for Rodriquez, an American singer who was wildly popular in South Africa in the seventies, and whose sudden disappearance mid-decade led to rumors of a lurid death. The intrepid fanst racked down every available lead, and eventually discovered that Sixto Rodriguez not only hadn’t died in 1975, but was still living in modest circumstances in his native Detroit.

Through the vagaries of fate, we learn, Rodriguez never achieved a show business breakthrough in America, and through the avarice of others, he was denied the income from his stardom in South Africa. But as the documentary shows, he still had a full life. He did not wallow in self-pity, He did not lose himself in bitterness over the past. Instead, he built a life. He raised a family. He worked at a job where he was valued by his colleagues. He earned a college degree and ran for office. Overall, it’s fair to say that the intrepid fans who found Rodriguez were more absorbed by his past than he was. Nor did he become starry-eyed by the money that now came to him, but gave most of it away. A prisoner neither to his disappointment nor to his success, he remains the captain of his life.

Ebert, Helm, Rodriquez–models of stoicism. They are men who met disappointment and worse, and faced their challenges with determination and courage. We used to have a lot of role models like them, a lot of people who got up before dawn and packed their lunches and went to work in hopes of making the lives of their families a little easier. Somewhere along the line, a brasher, nastier role model took over, people who built monuments to their own success but who were never satisfied with it. But the last five years have not been kind to most of us, and many of us have had to respond by lowering our heads to the wind and pushing on. We work longer, we do with less, and we begin to admire people who, facing even longer odds, embrace life, and the abundance that they have. Maybe the Stoic Hero is back.


Written by Juli Weiner, encouraged by Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair plugged my book this week with an article called “The Book of Levon Celebrates the Man in the Band.” Very nice indeed. Thanks to one and all. Here’s how it reads:

logo_vanityfair“Nearly a year after the death of Levon Helm, the Band’s twangy and tender-hearted polymath, Spy alumnus Jamie Malanowski has published an e-single about, among other things, Helm’s combative relationship with Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, his dislike of Martin Scorsese’s (otherwise generally beloved) Band documentary The Last Waltz, and the singer and drummer’s magnetic, generous, and unpretentious character.

“The Book of Levon also includes a rather wrenching portrait of Helm’s fearsome, fearless counter-attack against a decade-long sentence of throat cancer. The disease took his singing voice, but Helm took it right back. Malanowski writes:

“[I]ittle by little, Levon Helm’s singing voice returned. Gone was his strong tenor, replaced by something raspy and ornery, different but still authentic, still compelling. At first he sang only a little, harmonizing mostly; “He was thrilled that his voice was coming back,” says [daughter] Amy Helm, “but at the same time, he had doubts. Once you’ve done your time on the oncology floor for head and neck, when you’ve done your radiation, and you’ve walked through those hallways and met other people who’ve gone through the same treatment as you, you don’t take anything for granted. He was happy it was back, but he knew it could be gone again.

“But it is not gone again: in recordings and in books and even in the film he so despised, Helm’s voice will long outlive its malignant adversary.”