Mug Of Malcolm: Ah There Goes Clifton Lee – Phillies Nation
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

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.

Click to comment


  1. LH

    August 2, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Nice waltz of words Tim and enjoyed the video. Glad we have Lee because based on this series we’re going to have a pitcher’s duel with the Giants in the post-season. I hope we hear about trade rumors for a backup catcher in August.

  2. EastFallowfield

    August 2, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Well, I’m one Band follower who doesn’t take sides in the Robertson/Helm feud…it’s like when your siblings fight, you’d like them to just work it out.

    It is weird how Levon mocks Robertson for saying how the road eats up people considering how true it turned out for Manuel…

    Anyway, when’s Cliff’s next start? Shouldn’t we skip somebody in the rotation every time there’s an off day to line him up to pitch every fifth day?

  3. Richie Allen

    August 2, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Pretty cool the way you weaved rock and roll and baseball together.
    Loved the Band and am getting equally happy with Lee.
    Im sure we made the right choice by selecting Lee instead of “the other guy”.Its not the pitches he throws but the command with which he goes to work that impresses me.Wow.
    Go Phils.

  4. Peasant

    August 2, 2009 at 11:43 am

    a true writer, thanks tim

  5. GSimms

    August 2, 2009 at 11:56 am

    “To say it’s a south thing” ? you mean “to say it’s a southern thing”? also you should look up the meaning of the word “guffaw.” it’s an interesting idea you have here, but the writing is SO sloppy.

    • Tim Malcolm

      August 2, 2009 at 12:21 pm

      I love how every time I’ve written a post lately, it’s the same person telling me I suck as a writer. Keep it up, fair commenter.

  6. Keith E

    August 2, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Baseball Tim, baseball!
    GO PHILS!!!

  7. Brett

    August 2, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Great article, Tim.

  8. The Dipsy

    August 2, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Hahahaha. Nice one Tim. In light of your offering, I think an article that weaves the “The Song Remains The Same” with the plight of Eric Bruntlett would be most appropo.

    The Dipsy

  9. Richie Allen

    August 2, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Hey Tim,
    Keep the articles coming….
    Im sure the majority of us would say that the blog was better when you wrote everyday.

  10. The Dipsy

    August 2, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Name B.Z.’s first band he played live with. And where, if you can. (this is the only trivia question I will ever ask on this sight but I notice its a slow day.

    The Dipsy

  11. PGD

    August 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    i got really bad news… bruntlett is starting in Left field today

  12. Zak44

    August 2, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    If you don’t already know about this album, you might want to seek it out.

    Back in 1998, Helm and Hudson, along with people like Taj Mahal, Cyndi Lauper, The Chieftains, and a whole lot more, collaborated with Eric Bazilian, Rob Hyman, and other former Hooters on a CD called “Largo.”

    The songs, like many of the Band’s, reach back into American origins and traditions. What’s especially cool is the way all of them are based on the famous theme in the “Largo” movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.

    More background on it here:

  13. The Dipsy

    August 2, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    That irritates me to no end. One can say that the reason Bruntlett isn’t hitting this year, and last year for that matter, or ever, is because he doesn’t play enough to stay sharp. He doesn’t play enough to stay sharp because he sucks. What do you do with a player like that? Please Ruben. Get rid of him. Now.

    The Dipsy

  14. PGD

    August 2, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    yea i know instead of getting rid of him they are trying to make excuses for why he sucks so bad, plus he is a terrible defensive outfielderl

  15. Matt

    August 2, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    I sure do miss Tim’s writing on here on a daily basis. By far, my favorite writer on any Phils blog around.

  16. Georgie

    August 2, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    What a wonderful surprise to wake up Sunday morn and find a post by our sorely missed Tim Malcolm. There’s just something about your style, Tim, I agree with others, it’s not the same without you here every day.

  17. psujoe

    August 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Think of Bruntlet’s performance as an audition. Somehow I feel Eckstein end sup a Phil.

    Anyone know why JP idiot didn’t tarde Scutaro?

  18. Dave

    August 3, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I’d like to point out that C.C. stunk it up in the playoffs because he pitched his arm off just to get his team there.
    And if Blanton’s so unflappable, how did he go from being an opening day starter to getting dealt with an ERA of almost 5 last year? I’m glad we have him, but let’s not pretend he hasn’t had his ups and downs.

  19. Bruce

    August 3, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Tim, for a moment I thought your article would be about the Phillies’ new “ace”, Cliff Lee, period. (chuckles)

    BTW, “The Last Waltz” is the best concert film ever made IMO.

    There will always be an argument from from one and all music lovers regarding your statement…(the Band) “ become — possibly — rock and roll’s greatest and tightest group of musicians.”

    My vote would go to the Greatful Dead and Jerry Garcia .

  20. Nipsey

    August 4, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I hated baseball in general until I read this article.

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  22. adobe photoshop

    July 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Cyndi Lauper is now fifty seven and she about to release another album, she is astounding !

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