Mug of Malcolm

Mug Of Malcolm: Ah There Goes Clifton Lee

This is Mug of Malcolm, a weekly Sunday column written by Tim Malcolm, senior writer of Phillies Nation. E-mail him at tim@philliesnation.com

CliftonPhiferOne of Arkansas’ most famous natives is Levon Helm, drummer and slack-jawed vocalist of the iconic Band. He made a killing from his geographic placement: With a drawl that rang from the hearts of the tattered south, he laced pathos to songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Ophelia.”

But Helm’s best quality remains to this day his superb percussionist talents. Keeping a beat like a veteran grandfather clock, he always knows when to punch an additional snare, or slice the cymbal gently, or hiccup his back for effect. With a blue-collar ethos, Helm stands true at his kit, pushing through each grand song with stunning wizardry.

Not far west of Helm’s native town of Turkey Scratch, Ark., lies Benton, native town of Clifton Phifer Lee, born with the gift to hurl 90 mph fastballs past unsuspecting southerners. In time and from injury, Lee has developed himself into a controlled surgeon of the hill. His fastball still flies by, but his decimating curveball dips terribly out of the hitter’s focus, while a great changeup and cutter fall into place justifiably.

Like the driftwood drummer of The Band, Lee uses his whole repertoire with intelligence and wizardry. Out on the hill that foggy Friday night, Lee even resembled a wizard: His over-sized jersey hanging from his arms, turning him into some stick-figure Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He barely broke a sweat, and when scoring stunning — and simply beautiful — hits, he giggled them off with uncertain surprise. Like a true Arkansan.

The one quality that Helm possesses that even I have trouble grasping is his ability to see through the madness of his line of work. Joining up at age 17 with Ronnie Hawkins, one of Canada’s most revered front-men, Helm was quickly thrown into a world where everything was growing exponentially. His new co-players, led by Canadians Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko, grew with him, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel to become — possibly — rock and roll’s greatest and tightest group of musicians.

After ditching Hawkins, Helm and his mates met a folk troubadour named Bobby Zimmerman. Together they’d create amazing music. And soon everyone wanted Helm and his band, The Band. They cut some albums together, and slowly, each member of The Band reacted harshly to new-found success.

Manuel, a gifted multi-instrumentalist with a golden voice, turned hard to the sauce. He recuperated in time, but old habits make a man die hard. He passed in 1986.

Danko, whose incredible voice shook with fear, fell hard after a life of rampant drug use and internal physical problems, spurned mainly by the rigors of being a musician. He died in 1999.

Robertson, while still cooking today, fell out of favor with his mates, and most Band followers will curse you if you bring up his name. His addictive personality comes through fully on the iconic film “The Last Waltz.”

Hudson is still alive and doing well, as is Helm, who resides in the quiet art colony of Woodstock, N.Y. You’ve heard of the place, but it’s not “the” place — it’s simply where Helm hides away, playing incredible weekly late-night concerts for gobs of money. He never abused himself. He never shook himself. And today he’s happy, defeating throat cancer, singing again, playing again.

The height of fame

I wonder how Cliff Lee will respond to his new surroundings — the insulated madness of Citizens Bank Park on a hot, summer evening; the throngs of red-clad fans screaming his name; the pressure of raising another flag high into the South Philadelphia sky. But something comforts me when I think about his character — if there’s a little Levon Helm in him, he should be fine.

We’ve seen men shrink at pressure and new venues. CC Sabathia found Milwaukee a piece of chocolate cake after arriving there, then stepped into the Thunderdome, was shaken by Brett Myers and thousands of eager fans, then rocked by Shane Victorino. Rich Harden succumbed to pressure in his first postseason with Chicago, lasting only into the fifth inning.

And yet Joe Blanton, the unheralded pickup at the trade deadline, powered through and lasted past his contemporaries, even punching a home run in the World Series as a Cash-ian middle finger to the pundits. Blanton? A Kentucky kid, seemingly unfazed by the lights. A good character guy, salivated over by Billy Beane, who knew he had a expert major league gunslinger in his grasp back in 2002.

To say it’s a south thing is too simple. But some guys aren’t simply cut for the big stage. That’s why enormous trade deadline deals almost never pan out — the pressure behind the deals almost always outweighs the production gained. Does Colorado’s Leroy Halladay succumb to the pressure of pitching in a pennant race? Who knows. We won’t now. But now we know it’s Clifton Phifer Lee who must help slam the door on the rest of the National League.

I go back to “The Last Waltz.” Martin Scorsese led a team that captured The Band at its last classic lineup concert. Jammed to the gills with cocaine, Scorsese and cohort Robertson formed a guest list as high as the rock mountains. There was Hawkins, and Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and, of course, Bobby Zimmerman, to name some. The film interspersed the iconic performances of The Band and their guests with backstage scenes where Robertson speaks about nothing and everything to Scorsese. You see Robertson trying to etch his solo star with this very performance. Meanwhile, there’s one scene of Helm, alone, at a table, discussing medicine shows — traveling friendly rock concerts — over a cigarette.

Helm would soon carry out his medicine show dream, turning it into his current rambles. At “The Last Waltz” concert — a Thanksgiving night show — with Manuel’s voice considerably lower register and Robertson and Danko more erratic than ever, Helm stayed at his kit, still a bit surprised that all these great artists were shuffling into the stage to fete his band. But he played each song with superb precision, never giving up his beat and never overpowering his bandmates. His vocal and drum performance of his trademark “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” remains the definitive reading.

In many ways, “The Last Waltz” represents everything good and bad about The Band. Bad because the characters in the group over-saturated the enormous talent. Good because it showcased enormous talent still in top form. And it showed that Levon Helm had this workman’s personality that could overcome any obstacle. It would years later, it still does today.

And if that awkward kid from Turkey Scratch, Ark., could run through a charmed life with the solid steel character of a blue-collar wizard, I have no doubt that Clifton Phifer Lee could do the same. They’re practically cut from the same dang cloth.

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