Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) is seldom seen without a bandanna on his head in recent days. The congressman is undergoing chemotherapy and started losing his hair this month.
Raskin said his doctors have detected positive results already and he is feeling hopeful. “All I can say is, so far, so good,” he said, explaining that he just completed his third of six chemo sessions.
Still, it hasn’t been easy. He’s had lethargy and loss of appetite, as well as sudden, unwelcome changes in his appearance.
“We’ve got some very handsome, beautiful people without hair,” Raskin said, adding that he doesn’t think baldness suits him.
As he noticed his hair falling out, “I immediately thought about Little Steven, who I’ve always loved,” he said, referring to rock-and-roll musician Steven Van Zandt. “Little Steven was my inspiration.”
Van Zandt — who is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and played consigliere Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos” — is known for his trademark bandannas.
When Van Zandt heard that Raskin had been crediting him for his own chemo head covering, he was touched.
“That was an honor to me, and I wanted to reciprocate that wonderful gesture,” said Van Zandt, who is on tour and decided to send Raskin some bandannas from his own supply. “I just wanted to show a little solidarity.”
He put together a package in his hotel room.
“I sent him five scarves from my personal collection here on the road, and when I get home in a few weeks, I’ll send him some more,” Van Zandt said.
Raskin received the bandannas — which Van Zandt had previously worn (and washed before sending) — on Saturday. The congressman said he was stunned by the thoughtful gift.
“I was so blown away and moved,” he said. Evidently, Raskin said, “he realized that I needed a fashion upgrade.”
After privately thanking the musician, Raskin shared the story on Twitter. “The response was pretty overwhelming,” he said, adding that people began sharing their own cancer stories and saluting Van Zandt’s kindness.
“I’m hoping for a speedy and complete recovery for him,” Van Zandt said. “Part of that is keeping his spirits up, so if this helps keep his spirits up, then all the better.”
Van Zandt began wearing bandannas as a teenager, and they became a permanent fixture in his wardrobe in the 1970s, after he was involved in a car crash that left him with several scars on his head. His hair never grew back properly, he said, so he started covering his head. It quickly became his signature style.
“I was wearing the bandannas occasionally anyway, and actually it was Bruce that suggested to me that I just wear them all the time,” said Van Zandt, 72, who wrote about the crash in his recent memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations.”
The bandannas Van Zandt sent Raskin feature intricate yet subtle designs. Some are muted, and others are more colorful.
“Whoever is making his scarves is like the Michelangelo of bandannas,” Raskin said. “They are really in a class of their own. These are a work of art.”
Plus, he said, they are bigger than other bandannas and “they also have this little rock-star tail, which gives it a little bit of attitude.”
Van Zandt said his sister-in-law, Lori Santoro, who is a designer, makes all his bandannas by hand.
“She’s been doing my clothes for years,” he said.
In addition to hearing from Van Zandt, Raskin has received calls and messages of support from Nils Lofgren, who is also a member of the E Street Band and grew up in Maryland.
“I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen and E Street fan for most of my life,” Raskin said. “I love those guys. I’ve been to 13 concerts.”
Raskin said his respect for Van Zandt, in particular, deepened while he was in college and law school.
“He was somebody that my friends and I really looked up to,” he said. “We were trying to get all these universities to divest from South Africa. He had organized all the rockers to boycott apartheid South Africa.”
“He was very much a hero to us,” Raskin said. “He believes in the connection between music and politics and expression, and I believe in that, too.”
When Raskin started losing his hair, “I thought about how he always wore a bandanna. I didn’t know why he did, but I thought it was a cool look, and I thought ‘maybe I’ll do what he did,’” he said. “I ventured off on my own and got some bandannas.”
The congressman’s new look “was greeted with mixed reviews,” he said. “Some people said it looked all right, some people said I looked like a pirate.”
In any case, Raskin has continued wearing bandannas, and he shrugs off the occasional mockery.
“People have sent me snarky stuff, but that’s all right,” he said. “On Capitol Hill we try to stick to the substance.”
Since his diagnosis, Raskin — who has continued to work during treatment — said “people have been super supportive on both sides of the aisle.”
“For me, it’s been a fortifying experience knowing that there is a level of humanity and affection that underlies all of the political conflict and discord,” he said.
The kindness that has been shown to him — including by Van Zandt — has been a salve during a turbulent time, he said.
“He’s fearless and he’s a freedom fighter and he’s always thinking about other people,” Raskin said of Van Zandt. “That makes him a role model for me.”