Joseph Sabino Mistick: Leon Redbone & an elixir for our time
Leon Redbone died last month. The 69-year-old singer and guitar player stopped performing a few years ago for health reasons, but he had a long run and kept his loyal followers happy with 17 albums and a raft of club appearances for nearly five decades.
In his family’s announcement of his death, they said “… Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.” And, “He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat.” It was perfect.
Redbone favored old American songs — some blues, some ragtime, some folk, some hard to pin down. Many were from a century ago, songs like “My Walking Stick,” “Champagne Charlie” and “Shine on Harvest Moon.”
His voice ranged from gravelly to falsetto. And sometimes he mumbled, especially when he talked to his audience, all the while picking his acoustic guitar.
If Redbone’s music was from a simpler time, so was the man, in some ethereal time-travel way. If you saw him once, you never forgot him. He dressed old but sharp, in dated suits, tightened up ties, dark glasses and brim-down Panama hats.
He was uncommonly gracious. But personal questions were softly rebuffed or misdirected with tall tales, creating fanciful biographies. He called the details of who he was and where he came from “complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office.”
But once folks gave up wanting to know all the things they had no need to know, they settled down and just listened to his music — sweet songs, sometimes meaningless except for the good feeling they left behind. He knew that we talk too much and listen too little.
“He was a celebrity protesting celebrity, with its mandates of self-disclosure and sensation. And he was getting out of the way so the music could come forward,” according to Megan Pugh, in her recent Oxford American article on Redbone.
Redbone performed in McKees Rocks one night in the 1970s, at the kind of joint where his genteel manner set him apart. He ambled on stage, sat in a plain chair beside a small side table and lamp, and played for a crowd half of which was there for other reasons.
When the fight broke out, Redbone played through without picking up the beat. And when a chair flew close to his drink, he finished his tune, got up slowly, thanked everyone for coming and took his leave.
I was there that night and shy of sober, so some of that story may not be entirely accurate. But it doesn’t matter, because I remember his music clearly and that’s what counts.
When Redbone described his music, he said, “It’s painting something, it’s you creating a mood. You can create a mood anywhere you want, with colors, noise, yelling and screaming. I myself prefer serenity, calm, peace and quiet.”
If that’s what you are looking for, too, grab one of his albums, maybe a live one with a little of his banter. Then, quiet the house, turn down the lights, hide the cellphone, and just sit there and listen.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at [email protected].