Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Coupla Numbers From Leon"

Leon Russell--"Magic Mirror" (mp3)
Leon Russell--"Delta Lady" (mp3)

An homage, if you will, for two lost friends.

There is one death I have never quite come to terms with--as evidenced by the fact that I don't know exactly when it happened or why or how. For most of us who knew Bob (no relation, for you existentialists), suicide is the most likely explanation.

The last time I saw him was about 16 years, when he came through town on his way back west. He had checked himself out of a mental hospital against doctor's orders and declared himself cured of the overwhelming depression that left him unable to get off the bed and take a shower most days. We had a good time here, including a night of Jaegermister and a favorite cd's competition.

I knew Bob in both high school and college. He was that kind of friend who pulled his shy suburban friend into all of the situations he wouldn't have gone to otherwise, but may have needed to--first rock concert, first beer, first date, first marijuana, first trip without parents (with them not figuring out what was going on until they compared notes as we were riding away on a bus). He got me to start playing guitar. He got me to read all kinds of counterculture books. In college, he flamed out freshman year because of his hyper-achieving parents, whose coup de grace was a Valentine's card that read "Happy Valentine's Day. We know you'll bring home all A's. Love, Mom and Dad." Within two months, he had joined the Moonies cult out in Booneville, CA. After his parents had him deprogrammed, he returned to Penn and, out of sync with me, became close friends with my brother instead.

After college, we lived on a farm outside of Lansdale, PA, where he was in a rock band and I was writing a novel. From there, he went back to California, dated an ex-girlfriend of the Dead's Bob Weir, started a cheesecake business, got an MBA, and, though as far away as possible from his parents, crashed anyway and ended up in a hospital.

After the last time I saw him, he worked for my brother in Chicago, had a falling out with him over some stolen checks, and ended up back in California, where he changed his middle name to his last name to break connection with his parents. And eventually died in an ambiguous way.

There are large portions of my life that don't make sense without him, and for about the last six years, my attempts to understand his life have made no sense either. He got lost, and I lost him.

The other lost friend is Leon Russell. Because of a thriving elderly population, Venice, Florida, where I spent Thanksgiving, has an exceptional library system, and we would go there just about every day ourselves. I especially enjoyed ransacking their electic, almost unexplainable, cd collection to see what I might slap into the condo's boombox while we're down there. This time, The Best of Leon Russell was among the many surprises waiting for me.

I'll bet it's been 25 years since I last listened to Leon. If you don't know him, he's probably not known anymore, but if he were, it would be for several notable accomplishments. First and foremost, he is a gifted songwriter, having crafted a number of stunning ballads, like "This Masquerade, " "A Song For You," and "Superstar" (classically done by both The Carpenters and Sonic Youth), that were hits for other people. But he is/was quite a performer in his own right. If you ever heard or saw George Harrison's Concert for Bangledesh, you know that he is the one who rocked the shit out of that staid, self-important affair. When George mutters, "Coupla numbers from Leon," all rock and roll hell breaks loose. I know what kind of hate mail I would get if I declared that his "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is better than the Stones, but he made the song his own and rocked it like the bastard son of Jerry Lee Lewis.

The connection? Bob, of course, introduced me to Leon Russell and championed him during those glitter rock high school years of the later '70's. May my friend finally rest in peace.

The Best of Leon Russell is available at Itunes.


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Bob said...

I think you may have unwittingly given the impression that Leon Russell is also dead. I'm told he's not.

Bob said...

You may be right (this is Bob, the author). The photo, though, is fairly contemporary, though Leon doesn't seem to have abandoned his Tom Wolfe meets ZZ Top style sensibilities over the years. My use of "is/was" in terms of his performance is simply because I didn't know what his shows are like. I thought I heard he had gone bluegrass.

Anonymous said...

jeez, i just passed over this site: as an old Leon fan and a friend of the family I say you should use your internet skills to look up "leonrussellrecords" to view Leon's proliferative discography since the 70's (although that truly was his time)It is now 2010, have no idea this will ever be seen. Leon's never stopped touring all over the world, getting ready to make a record with elton john and tbone burnett. He deserves better recognition for his massive accomplishments in music.

Big_Stones_Fan said...

But it IS better than the Stones' version. Much better.