Protest Band Leader's Notes From the Edge

Max and the Marginalized -- Max Bernstein, left, Jon Ryggy and Dave Watrous -- brings its political protestations to D.C.'s Velvet Lounge tonight.
Max and the Marginalized -- Max Bernstein, left, Jon Ryggy and Dave Watrous -- brings its political protestations to D.C.'s Velvet Lounge tonight. (Plan A Media)

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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008

CHICAGO -- Last year, Max Bernstein's pop-rock band, the Actual, released an album, joined the Warped Tour and performed with supergroup Velvet Revolver.

Bernstein celebrated his most notable year in the music industry by breaking up the band and stage-diving into the broadside business.

His latest proffer is political protest songs -- blunt musical statements about the Bush administration, abortion rights, Sen. John McCain's position on Iraq, the mainstream media, civil liberties and such.

They're something like punk-rock op-eds, which is perfect given that Bernstein, 28, is the son of one of the most famous figures in journalism: Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward. (His mother, author-screenwriter-director Nora Ephron, isn't exactly a footnote herself.)

"It's absolutely like writing an opinion column -- a liberal one," says the younger Bernstein, whose new band, Max and the Marginalized, performs tonight at D.C.'s Velvet Lounge.

No longer interested in writing songs about the usual alt-rock themes -- as with the Actual's "This Is the Worst Day of My Life" -- Bernstein began working up more-topical material in October. He started with "Standing in the Driveway Holding Cardboard in the Rain," a song about the death penalty.

Nothing particularly notable there (lefty musician sings lefty protest anthem!), but Max and the Marginalized were just getting warmed up, with much more indignation to come.

Updating the protest-song form for the Internet age, the trio (singer-guitarist Bernstein, Dave Watrous on bass, Jon Ryggy on drums) has written and recorded a new diatribe every week since, posting all 43 of them on MySpace, Facebook and the Huffington Post, the widely read liberal news and opinion Web site whose contributors also include Bernstein's mother.

The songs are always free -- the message more important than the money, Bernstein says in an interview before a concert this week at Chicago's Beat Factory.

"I don't think anybody gets into the activism business trying to make money," he says. Instead, it's about using music as "a viable form of social and political mobilization."

Imagine Frank Rich fronting Ted Leo's group, or maybe a Matthew Yglesias mash-up with Husker Du, Bob Mould's old punk band whose logo Bernstein has tattooed on his left forearm.

"I'm a political junkie," Bernstein says. His politics, distilled: Several clicks left of center but not exactly on the radical fringe.


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