In the early nineties, I went to the Museum of Broadcasting with a friend to watch Dennis Potter’s final TV interview with Melyn Bragg. Potter was dying and during the interview, he drank liquid morphine to numb the pain. There was no telling if he’d be able to remain lucid but he did and he was beautiful. This is what I remember most:
We all, we’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but we can’t actually; it’s not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it’s too predictable, they’re locked into whatever situation they’re locked into … Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable, of the you don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying “Oh that’s nice blossom” … last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance … not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.
A driver I know named David is worried. David and I used to moan cab stories to each other when I was on the night line. Now he keeps asking me when I’m coming to work. After four years of driving a cab, he can’t believe interviewing people is work. David is only a dissertation away from a Ph.D. in philosophy, which makes him intelligent enough to figure out that job openings for philosophers are zilch this year. The only position his prodigious education has been able to land him was a $25-a-night, one-night-a-week gig teaching ethics to rookie cops. David worked his way through college driving a cab. It was a good job for that, easy to arrange around things that were important. Now he has quit school in disgust and he arranges the rest of his life around cab-driving. He has been offered a job in a warehouse for which he’d make $225 a week and never have to pick up another person carrying a crowbar, but he’s not going to take it. At least when you’re zooming around the city, there’s an illusion of mobility. The turnover at the garage (Dover has over 500 employees for the 105 taxis; it hires between five and ten new people a week) makes it easy to convince yourself this is only temporary. Working in a factory is like surrender, like defeat, like death; drudging nine to five doesn’t fit in with a self-conception molded on marches to Washington. Now David’s been at Dover for the past two years and he’s beginning to think cab freedom is just another myth. “I’ll tell you when I started to get scared,” David says. “I’m driving down Flatbush and I see a lady hailing, so I did what I normally do, cut across three lanes of traffic and slam on the brakes right in front of her. I wait for her to get in, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. It was only then I realized I was driving my own car, not the cab.”
David has the Big Fear. It doesn’t take a cabdriver too long to realize that once you leave the joy of shape-up and start uptown on Hudson Street, you’re fair game. You’re at the mercy of the Fear Variables, which are (not necessarily in order): the traffic, which will be in your way; the other cabdrivers, who want to take your business; the police, who want to give you tickets; the people in your cab, lunatics who will peck you with nudges and dent you with knives; and your car, which is capable of killing you at any time. Throw in your bosses and the back inspectors and you begin to realize that a good night is not when you make a living wage. That’s a great night. A good night is when you survive to tell your stories at tomorrow’s shape-up. But all the Fear Variables are garbage compared with the Big Fear. The Big Fear is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible show-case will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office every since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after twenty years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.
The typical Big Fear cabdriver is not to be confused with the archetypal Cabby. The Cabby is a genuine New York City romantic hero. He’s what every out-of-towner who’s never been to New York but has seen James Cagney movies thinks every Big Apple driver is like. A Cabby “owns his own,” which means the car he drives is his, not owned by some garage boss (58 per cent of New York’s 11,787 taxis are owned by “fleets” like Dover which employ the stiffs and the slobs of the industry; the rest are operated by “owner-drivers”). The Cabby hated Lind-say even before the snowfalls, has dreams about blowing up gypsy cabs, knows where all the hookers are (even in Brooklyn), slurps coffee and downs Danish at the Belmore Cafeteria, tells his life story to everyone who gets into the cab, and makes a ferocious amount of money. But mostly, he loves his work. There aren’t too many of them around anymore. The Dover driver just doesn’t fit the mold. He probably would have voted for Lindsay twice if he had had the chance. He doesn’t care about gypsies; if they want the Bronx, let them have it. He knows only about the hookers on Lexington Avenue. He has been to the Belmore maybe once and had a stomach ache the rest of the night. He speaks as little as possible, and barely makes enough to get by. He also hates his work.
Pelecanos was a writer, story editor and producer for “The Wire.” He wrote crucial scenes as different as the ex-junkie Bubbles’ breakthrough at a 12-step meeting and the western-style standoff in an alley between Omar Little, the street legend who robs drug dealers, and Brother Mouzone, the prim shootist from New York. Pelecanos also created Cutty, a character who turns away from the street life and opens a boxing gym, and gave “The Wire” its Greek gangsters, even providing the background voices shouting in Greek when the cops raided a warehouse. In story meetings, he refereed arguments between Simon and Ed Burns, the show’s other co-creator.
“Ed and I are often butting heads in a way that somebody who doesn’t know us might think is toxic,” Simon told me. “George’s essential role was to be the gravitas, to make the decision. We’d present our best arguments, and he’d sit and listen until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He was the one with the storytelling chops to decide. He has a really strong ear for theme and idea. He writes books and scripts that are about something. When George says you won an argument, you feel good because it means the idea was good.”
Expanding on his description of Pelecanos as a moralist, Simon said: “We didn’t know we needed Cutty until George invented him. It’s not about plotting, it’s about defining some aspect of human endeavor that wasn’t covered by other characters. Institutionally, not much is redeemed in ‘The Wire,’ yet all of us believe in the individual’s ability to act. George said, ‘We need a moral center.’_”
Burns told me a story about scripting the death of Wallace, a likable corner boy gunned down by his pals. “It could have been just Bodie, who was pretty much a monster back then, who would just walk up and kill him. But that would have left nothing for Poot, and it would have sealed Bodie as a character. The way George wrote it, Bodie can’t finish it, and Poot, who’s a good friend of Wallace, has to step up and do it. That transcends genre; that’s squeezing all the juice out of a scene.” Bodie opens up as a character from that point, grappling with a dawning understanding that the large forces bearing down on him make it almost impossible for him to act honorably and survive. “That’s why you hire writers like George,” said Burns, “because they find what’s inside a scene, what’s inside the character.”
This piece is featured in a compelling new collection of Rotella’s non fiction work: Playing in Time.
As soon as they heard Levon Helm was coming, the guys in the band began to imagine him sitting in with them, playing the drums, maybe even singing “The Weight.” It was one of the songs they did when they got together on Friday nights, finished with another week’s filming of a TV drama called “Midnight Caller,” just letting the music ease them out of the harness. There was music everywhere on that show, from the old MGM Studios in L.A., where we wrote it, to San Francisco, where we filmed it. You couldn’t go a day without someone turning you on to an album or talking up a concert. Or you’d walk into the executive producer’s office and find him practicing a new lick on his guitar, a pleasure that almost always seemed to come before business. But the executive producer knew he was a better singer than a guitarist — fitting, I suppose, since his name was Bob Singer. He sang lead for the band that came into being when four kindred spirits found each other on the soundstage, and the band bore his name, Bobby and the Bonemasters. All of which meant it was Singer who would have to ask Levon Helm if he was interested in hanging out with a bunch of rock-and-roll dreamers.
Of course Levon’s primary purpose on “Midnight Caller” had nothing to do with music or his history as the soul of the band known as the Band. He was guest starring as an ex-convict who wanted to go back to prison because it was the only place he knew how to exist. The script was my contribution to the proceedings. I had pictured Levon in the role from the day in 1990 that the idea hit me, not because he was a trained actor but because he was one of those naturals who seemed as real as calloused hands when he was on camera. He had been pluperfect as Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and it was hard to forget his easy grace as he lit Robbie Robertson’s cigarette in “The Last Waltz.” What I didn’t find out until later was how much acting he’d had to do in that documentary about the Band’s final concert at full strength. He was brimming with anger because he thought Robertson was sacrificing everything they had accomplished for his own selfish purposes.
But acting ability ceased to matter as Singer tried to work up his courage to approach Levon on the Bonemasters’ behalf. It was Levon’s earthy, soulful voice that haunted Singer now — the juke-joint joy of “Rag Mama Rag,” the grief and defiance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon had plunged into the musical fires of the Sixties with Dylan and emerged playing the most quintessentially American rock ever with the Band. But he was its only American, a cotton farmer’s son from Marvell, Arkansas, surrounded by four Canadians. He drummed, took an occasional turn on the mandolin, and like the Band’s other two singers–Rick Danko and Richard Manuel–made memories with his voice. He had been on stage at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight and on the cover of Time magazine, and now Singer was going to invite him to the Bonemasters’ lair in the lunchroom of the converted San Francisco printing plant where “Midnight Caller” had its soundstages. Somehow that didn’t compute.
To calm himself, Singer concentrated on remembering how gracious Levon had been when they’d met in L.A., a true Southern gentleman with a bushy beard that made him look older than the 50 years he was then approaching. Singer figured that if he got shot down, it would at least be painless. So he took a deep breath, explained about the Bonemasters and offered his invitation.
“Y’all gonna have any beer?” Levon asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Singer said. “We’re gonna have beer.”
“I’ll be there.”
That was, in its way, a historic moment. Other musicians had guest starred on the show, but only Levon said yes to the Bonemasters. When Billy Vera, a rhythm-and-blues stalwart from L.A., turned them down, it was with a contempt that suggested he would rather eat road kill. Hoyt Axton, the country singer whose mother wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” never got invited because he was too busy living the life that enabled him to open concerts by saying, “Hi, I’m what’s left of Hoyt Axton.” But Roger Daltrey would have been welcomed if the part he played hadn’t cranked up his anxiety level by requiring him to sing a non-Who song. Still, he gave the cast and crew something to remember by loosening his vocal chords with a kick-ass version of “Hey Joe.”
Some of the Bonemasters started thinking their night with Levon Helm would be solid gold when filming wrapped at 8 that Friday, a good three hours earlier than usual. Singer, however, wasn’t one of them. He was worried that Levon would get a load of the lunchroom, with its linoleum floor and pea-green walls, and decide it was too small-time for him. Or maybe he’d get chased off if Jim Behnke, “Midnight Caller’s” unit production manager, went on one of his guitar solos that got lost in space. Or maybe Singer himself would do the chasing if nerves cracked his tobacco-cured baritone.
Levon walked into the room as if he understood that a heavy step might destroy the equilibrium. The Bonemasters were already playing, so he grabbed a beer and one of Singer’s harps, then plugged into an amplifier and settled in a corner. Everything was fine until he started to play along with the band. “I’m not getting any sound,” he said. “The amp’s not working.”
Great, Singer thought. He’s been here 10 minutes and we’ve already proven what rank amateurs we are. He’s going to take off.
But Levon didn’t so much as blink even when he discovered there wasn’t another amp. He just played the guitar Singer wasn’t using, and when it came time to blow harp, he did it into the microphone. It didn’t sound as good as it would have through an amp, but the important thing, the absolutely crucial thing, was that he stayed.
At first the Bonemasters looked to Levon for requests–they were up for anything–but he told them, “You go on and play what you want to play.” So they dove into a repertoire that included songs by the Beatles, the Stones, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. As usual they were at their tightest when they did “Honky-Tonk Woman.” “Boys,” Levon said, “I’d keep that one in the set.”
The next thing the Bonemasters knew, he was teaching them some country songs, the kind he’d been listening to since he was six years old and saw Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys at a tent show in Marvell. And when they got back to rock and roll, Gary Cole–the Bonemasters’ drummer, the star of “Midnight Caller,” and the future Mr. Brady in the Brady Bunch movies–asked Levon if he would like to take a turn on the drums. Levon couldn’t resist. He sounded just the way he did on all those albums with the Band, the tasteful fills, the clever way he got behind the beat, everything so tight, so perfect. Cole and Singer stood off to the side and hoped they weren’t gawking.
They were seeing more than a great drummer at work, though. This was Levon’s life in microcosm, a life filled with nights like the one they were living with him, nights that go beyond getting rich, famous, high or laid and exist for the undiluted joy of making music. You could trace them back beyond the Band and Dylan to Levon’s stops with Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks and the Jungle Bush Beaters, all the way to those stolen hours as a kid listening to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters on the radio and imagining himself in their world. And if you follow his trail forward from his session with the Bonemasters, you will find more of the same, as a solo act, with the RCO All-Stars and the reconstituted Band, right up to the midnight rambles he hosted in Woodstock until throat cancer sent him off on his last ramble.
After a life so full musically, it is hard to imagine that Levon remembered sitting in with the Bonemasters, but there are pictures to prove he did. One of “Midnight Caller’s” prop masters came down to the lunchroom and snapped a bunch of them -– Levon surrounded by Singer, Cole, Behnke and Kenny Collins, the assistant director who played such solid bass. When the guys in the band checked out the pictures later, there was no denying that Levon looked like he was enjoying himself. But there shouldn’t have been any doubt as soon as he said his friend Clarence Clemons was in San Francisco and offered to invite him over to play some saxophone, the way he did for Bruce Springsteen. It didn’t happen, though, because one of the guys had kids at home and a babysitter going off duty at midnight, and that’s the way the real world goes around.
So the Bonemasters reveled in what they got with Levon, which was more than they ever expected and remains the first topic of conversation on those rare occasions when they run into each other more than 20 years later. In fact, the only thing Levon wouldn’t do that night was sing one of the Band’s songs, not that Behnke didn’t try to tempt him by playing the intro to “The Weight” at every opportunity. “The Weight” was a Bonemasters staple and it begged to be sung, but Singer, who usually did the honors, felt sheepish about it. After all, the man who put the song over the top for the Band was there with them. Finally, Levon said, “You sing it, Bob.”
There was no backing out–the load was right on Singer. He tucked into “The Weight” with no goal beyond getting to the end of it. It’s a surreal parable about a good deed that consumes its doer, and it’s filled with the kind of characters more often found in Flannery Connor’s novels than a rock-and-roll song. By the time he finished with Crazy Chester, Jack the Dog and all the rest of them, Singer wasn’t sure if he should take a bow or run for the hills. Then he looked over and saw Levon grinning and flashing him a thumbs-up. A fellow could live a long time and not have a finer moment.