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Reconciling Levon

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I’m no rock music critic or expert

I knew Levon Helm only to the extent that one can know someone by virtue of spending a celebratory Fourth of July years ago with a gathering of 20 or so that included him.

I remember that Shalah shot a bottle rocket that nearly hit him in the behind. He darted clear with a high-stepping quickness and agility perhaps suggestive of his drumming skills.

In this Aug. 14, 2009 file photo, Levon Helm performs with the Levon Helm band during the Heroes of Woodstock concert at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, N.Y. (AP Photo)

I remember his leaned-back rapture that afternoon over the song being sung by a bird above.

I do know well people who knew him intimately.

So that is how it comes to be that a political columnist is doing a blog post on how Levon and Robbie Robertson did not, as a few published reports have suggested, reconcile their differences at the end of Levon’s life.

This is more properly a subject for a takeout by Rolling Stone, but, in the meantime, we can try to address these few mild flaws in the public record.

First, the necessary background: Levon, the purist of Americana music who came from Phillips County, was the drummer and dominantly distinctive vocalist for the seminal and influential late-60s, early-70s group calling itself simply The Band. The five talented members wanted to be all about the music, a rockish blend of country and gospel and bluegrass and blues and anything else they wanted to put in the stew, and about the collaboration that can produce genius.

Robertson was the band’s lead guitarist and most conscious and able in public relations (which is to say self-promotion) and business matters. He also was the most talented originator of songs. He would come up with tunes, generally, and Levon and the others — the late Richard Manuel, the late Rick Danko and the “music teacher” guru, Garth Hudson — would work them over and change them and touch them up, both in regard to melody and lyrics.

I’ve been told, for example, that Robertson concocted “Up on Cripple Creek,” but that it wasn’t working, and was about to be abandoned, until Hudson came up with some revitalizing touches. I don’t know that. I wasn’t there. My sources are Levon intimates. But I suspect that’s how the process worked generally. It is usually how the creative process works.

Long story short: Robbie ran off with sole songwriting credits, then parlayed his friendship with Martin Scorsese to get more camera time and content control than the other band members from that acclaimed documentary, “The Last Waltz.” He also got all or nearly all the money, through an exclusive producing credit.

You can read Levon’s candid and scathing account of his resentment toward Robertson in his book, “This Wheel’s on Fire.”

This wasn’t merely a rift. This was deep. Levon refused to attend The Band’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I’m told he would put his autograph on just about anything except any paraphernalia related to “The Last Waltz,” to which he would firmly say no.

So, anyway, word leaked out a couple of weekends ago that Levon was at death’s door with madly spreading cancer. And Robertson got in touch with a couple of family members to ask if he could come see Levon. After a period of considerable thought, family members permitted it on the thinking that there was a chance that Robertson might be seeking sincerely to put his own mind at ease over these differences with Levon, and that they would regret denying him that opportunity.

Robertson came by. But — how do I put this? — Levon was in a kind of hospice state, not conscious, not cognitive, not communicating.

Robertson went on to say publicly that he had “visited” with Levon and to express his undying admiration for, and alliance with, his beloved bandmate.

He didn’t actually say they’d reconciled, but a few press accounts have over-read Robertson’s public comments and asserted that.

But they didn’t reconcile. They couldn’t have — a reconciliation requires two active participants.

I’m not trying to feed any pointless feuds and bitterness. I’m just trying to say what happened, as it has been related to me.

The fact of the matter is that I kind of side with Robertson’s on songwriting — kind of, not entirely, because he could have revered the collaboration and shared — but not at all on the stunts he pulled with the documentary.











Written by jbrummett

May 8th, 2012 at 8:42 am

More wisdom on Limbaugh v. Maher


The best thing I do is lead a weekly class of retirees each Wednesday morning in the Lifequest program that meets at 2nd Presbyterian Church. I learn as much as I teach.

This morning, for example, on the issue of whether there’s equivalency or symmetry in comedian Bill Maher’s calling Sarah Palin a vulgar name and Rush Limbaugh’s atrocious personal attack on the young woman arguing before a congressional committee for insurance coverage of women’s contraception, a man said this:

“Maher was talking about one woman, and that was clear. Limbaugh was attacking any woman who dares to argue publicly for insurance for her recurring charges for birth control.”

Yes, exactly. A woman beholding Maher’s slur might take offense at the language, but would know the reference was solely to Palin. A woman beholding Limbaugh’s would know the reference was inevitably to her unless she kept her mouth shut.


Written by jbrummett

March 7th, 2012 at 10:58 am

Maher a creep and Limbaugh creepier


Today I’m getting pretty much the same email over and over. It says I’m a hypocrite for attacking Rush Limbaugh’s misogyny without mentioning certain prominent leftists’ crude comments toward women.

This means I got under some skin out there with my column this morning.

It also provides some more of that playground-grade rhetoric  . . . you know, “hey, he did it, too,” or, “hey, he started it,” and it’s so tiresome.

And here’s what I have to say about it:

Bill Maher, a crude satiric comic on the shock left whose smugness nearly makes me ill, referred to Sarah Palin as a four-letter word starting with a “t” and ending with one and not being twit.

That is reprehensible.

I do not see any remote symmetry, however.

Limbaugh is not a comic or satirist, but a supposedly substantive commentator. Maher is not nearly as powerful an influence on the left as Limbaugh is on the right.  And Maher said that word once about a public figure, which is certainly no defense, but is a distinction from calling a young woman a prostitute and slut for two days running, and asking her to put her sexual activity on youtube, because she dared to venture out into the male domain of Congress to take a public position on an issue with which you disagreed.

We ought to hold people accountable individually and separately, without using one to excuse another, as I hereby do: What Maher said is horribly creepy and what Limbaugh said is even more horrible and even more creepy.

Maher ought to be suspended tomorrow. Limbaugh should have been suspended yesterday, except that there’s no one to suspend him — such a Maher-transcendent force is he.

I do not hold any other person, politician or otherwise, responsible for either of these outrages. You can’t disavow something you didn’t say.

There also are right-wing references today to sexist slurs by Chris Matthews and Ed Schultz and that Olberman clown, but, seriously, who cares?


Written by jbrummett

March 6th, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Oscar points


I wish to make just a few pointed observations about last night’s Oscar orgy before the memory blissfully fades:

1. No one but Billy Crystal should ever host the event. When he gets too old, they should announce the winners online and save the TV time.

2. After 58 years of life, I still cannot gain any firm command of the issue about how we should not objectify women. Angelina Jolie walked center-stage and rather clumsily positioned herself to flash her average leg all the way to its top. Well, OK, dear. You can go ahead and stand up straight now. I am now persuaded that you have a leg. I’m mostly looking at your bony arms and tattoos, anyway, and, yeah, a little at your lips. I know I just objectified her horribly. I’m sorry. But the leg exhibitionism — how does that figure into this equation? Never mind. I’ve never broached this issue without getting drubbed. I think the solution is that only a woman may objectify herself. I think. Just forget I said anything.

3. The awards were mostly predictable and banal. There was one moment of legitimate interest. The only film I truly loved last year was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s because I like good writing. And, to my delight and surprise, Woody got a screenplay Oscar. And to my greater delight and surprise, he was nowhere to be seen, having eschewed, as persons with taste and refinement should, this nonsense.

4. I was let down that Meryl Streep beat the woman from The Help, which, actually, I also liked. Moneyball didn’t bore me either. The thing is that you could give Streep an Oscar every time she acts. They should limit the best actress award to mortals.

5. What was the deal on the songs? Were there only two nominated? And were both of them from cartoons?

6. Only Christopher Plummer delivered a well-composed and engaging acceptance speech.

7. George Clooney was on the red carpet standing between his girlfriend and an interviewing woman, and both of these females were toweringly taller than he. Is he 5-8 or were they 6-4? I’m not sure George is aging well. Oh, dear. Did I just objectify him? But that’s OK, right?

8. I’ve not seen The Artist. Twice I’ve been at the theater. And twice I chose some other film at the last minute. It sounds like homework, watching a silent movie. And dialogue is the only thing I like. But I’ll go now that I know there’s a cute dog.



Written by jbrummett

February 27th, 2012 at 8:11 am

Posted in National

Assessing the Oscar-nominated films


The Oscar nominations are out this morning and nine films are nominated for best because 10 didn’t qualify under the point system.

I’ll run down the nine:

“The Artist” is the silent film that is said to be magnificent and which I will soon see.

“The Descendants” is an over-rated thing mainly created to get George Clooney an Oscar.

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” will require that I lift my moratorium on Tom Hanks, who is too wonderful for my taste.

“The Help” was a bravo movie.

“Hugo” is a 3-D children’s fantasy thing by Martin Scorcese, and I will have to take your word for it that it is splendid.

“Midnight in Paris,” a Woody Allen thing with one of those Wilsons — Luke or Owen, and I’m never sure — doing the usual Woody role, and rather well. It was, I think, my favorite film of the year. It’s a literary thing and a Paris thing and a time travel thing and — for icing on a good cake — it has Rachel McAdams.

“Moneyball” was a very solid film — on baseball statistics, mostly — and this Brad Pitt, I hate to admit, is a very fine actor. He was better here than Clooney was in that Hawaii soap opera, but it’s Clooney’s turn.

“The Tree of Life” is said to be impressionistic and polarizing. Sounds like something to wait for on Xfinity for $5.99 on a quiet Friday night at home.

“War Horse” cannot be seen by anyone in this animal-loving family for fear the animal dies. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it.


Written by jbrummett

January 24th, 2012 at 9:05 am


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