I was 17 years-old in 1980 and somewhat of a loner. I worked as a clerk in a bookstore that summer and briefly dated a freshman in college on a gymnastics scholarship. I had stopped imbibing in the whiskey and vodka available at the weekly poker parties at a friend’s, something that distanced me from most of my closest friends. High school seemed like a waste of time but it never occurred to me that I could just quit and do something else.
The third of three boys being raised by loving and hard-working parents in a middle-class suburb of Seattle, I found myself in the shadows cast by my academic all-star older brothers. More often than I can remember, I was referred to by one of their names by teachers they had impressed, one teacher going so far as to admit his surprise that I might have thoughts of my own.
In other words, it was hard to find something that was solely mine.
Enter Leon Redbone.
I was channel surfing one night and saw him on some program, probably a Saturday Night Live rerun. I was smitten. Mostly at that time I listened to what others were calling punk rock, although my interests were never as hard-edged as that. While I was drawn to the emotion and anger in punk, I liked things a little more melodic. I sang along with Elvis Costello’s ballad “Alison” more than anything by The Damned, for instance. And while my brother was wearing out his copy of “Never Mind the Bollocks,” I’d just as soon listen to “Sh Boom” by The Crew Cuts as anything by The Sex Pistols.
Watching Leon that night, it was like someone had made this moment for me. Here was a musician who sang old songs with respect and talent, but with an overall irreverence that I think was what drew me to punk. To borrow an overused phrase, he was singing my tune.
The next day I went to Tower Records in search of Leon Redbone records and found two, “On the Track” and “Double Time,” available in the “Nice Price” section, meaning they were on sale. I bought them both and hustled back to my bedroom at home, anxious to drop the needle on the vinyl. “Sweet Mama, Hurry Home or I’ll Be Gone” is the first track on that first record of Leon’s and thus began my introduction to what turns out to be dozens of classic songs from the American songbook.
Just 17 years old, I hadn’t heard of most of them, so imagine my surprise when my mom overheard “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and made reference to it. She said something to the effect of, “That’s a strange version of that song.”
Later that summer, my paternal grandparents came to visit and I put “Double Time” on in the family room. My grandfather, who would die of cancer two years later, making me think this was the last time I saw him, was both confused and amused by Leon’s version of “Sheik of Araby,” which I remember thinking was as much a random recording of sounds as anything done by a punk rock band.
September came and the start of my senior year, which to my delight was delayed by a teacher’s strike. My girlfriend returned to college and we drifted apart, letters not being enough to sustain the relationship. I upped my hours at the bookstore. My friends kept up the drinking and I went to fewer and fewer parties.
I read somewhere that Leon Redbone was coming to Seattle, scheduled to play the Showbox on First Avenue, not far from Pike Place Market. This is the same venue where a year earlier I had seen my first show, Squeeze, with a group of friends. My eyes had been opened to downtown Seattle street life at night that included scantily clad women in picture windows beckoning passersby. Excited to attend the show and nervous to go by myself, I tried in vain to find someone to go with me. Ultimately, I bought my ticket and the night of the show drove across the floating bridge alone into Seattle.
Sticking out in my memory is that I drove what was considered to be my mom’s car, a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix hatchback. I remember this car as being the first front-wheel-drive car I had driven and, having a 4 cylinder engine, having no punch. Looking back, it was probably the perfect car for this 17-year-old suburbanite to drive into the heart of the big city to see Leon Redbone perform. I remember having to parallel park and then walking to the venue.
This was the first time I had walked by myself at night in Seattle. Other times, I would be with friends or family so I felt both small and grown up at the same time. I also recognized that this experience was mine alone. Those big brother shadows, which by now I learned I could also hide in, were nowhere to be found. I arrived at the Showbox, past the beckoning women in windows and x-rated theaters, to find a line forming outside. I took my place and soon a brown paper bag was being passed up and down the line. Clearly, the bag held a bottle and the camaraderie of the concert-goers involved sharing. When it reached me, I passed it along rather than drinking from it, something I’ve often thought about since.
Would I have exploded if I had taken a sip?
The line began moving and after showing my ticket at the door I found myself inside. I remembered the venue from the Squeeze show and having recently seen Devo there, but this was different. There was no stage and the floor had a few dozen metal folding chairs scattered about. That was it. People were taking seats so I did the same.
After what seemed like a long wait, the “opening act” appeared, someone who I swear I had seen busking on a street corner outside just moments before. He played a few songs and then the “second act” came on, a band I don’t remember at all. After that, there was a bit of a break. And then onto the floor came Leon.
Wearing dark sunglasses and a fedora, along with a thick mustache and sideburns, he held a guitar in one hand. He paused halfway across the floor, then turned to the audience, doffed his fedora, and said hello, or what I thought was a hello. Throughout the night, he more mumbled than talked. I decided he had a speech impediment and that I shouldn’t question it. Besides, he was a great showman and I was absolutely mesmerized by his guitar playing. Halfway through the show, he paused to take a picture of us, the audience. I still remember the flash of the camera bulb and wondering if he kept a scrapbook of pictures like this.
I don’t recall how long he played but I know I didn’t want him to stop. Seeing him in person and alone was something more than a little perfect in my life at that time.
Leon was mine.
This morning I learned that Leon Redbone died last Thursday. I’m sad about it, recognizing the passing of someone who marked a leap forward in development for me.
Thanks, Leon. You came into my life at just the right time.