For those who refuse to rock, Redbone salutes you
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Not much seems to excite Leon Redbone, and certainly not the stuff of pop culture, with television and rock ‘n’ roll high up on the list of things he disdains. “All I’m interested in is history and music,” Redbone said, in an appropriately gruff voice, by phone from Eugene, Ore.
Redbone doesn’t seem to be high on the Internet, either – or at least, not the sort of overload of information that Wikipedia and Google searches turn up. Even a matter as simple as his age turns into an attack on the Information Age. When I ask if he was, in fact, born in 1949, Redbone responds with a grim laugh, and observes, “That’s the kind of mundane fact I’m not interested in,” before launching into a reasonably thoughtful, and even sympathetic, assessment of the upheaval being experienced by the world of journalism.
But in at least one aspect, the Internet has been a source of joy for Redbone. A person with a curiosity about something far outside of the mainstream culture – say, early 20th century songs, as is the case with Redbone – can get their hands on almost anything he could want.
“A lot of young people are not at all interested in what is being presented to them,” Redbone said. “There are a lot of young people interested in finding reissues of what would be considered strange music. If they’re exposed, they might like it. You have to have that personality that asks: What else is out there?”
Since Redbone was born – possibly in 1949, possibly in Toronto, possibly with the name Dickran Gobalian, all bits of information that come off his Wikipedia page, but none that Redbone would confirm as true – he seems to have taken it on as the question that guides his life: What else is out there? Whatever the year of his birth, it’s safe to say that Redbone came of age in the era of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Beatles. It had no effect whatsoever; Redbone was attracted to opera – or, as he prefers to put it, “operatic recordings.”
“My first interest was operatic recordings. That’s what was available and that was my introduction to music,” Redbone, who performs on Thursday, May 6, at Belly Up, said. “Not only was I not interested in rock ‘n’ roll, I wouldn’t even accept it as music.”
Among the things about rock that turned him off was the volume. “I’ve never been a fan of loud music,” he said. But perhaps even more of an irritant than the music itself were the things that deflected attention from the music. Redbone is a purist who keeps things simple, an excellent guitarist who sticks to acoustic instruments. Apparently, even other musicians are a distraction: Redbone has never been in a band, preferring to play solo and accompany himself on harmonica and lip-whistling. So things like Elvis’ shaking hips, Buddy’s thick-rimmed glasses, and the Beatles’ moptops and hordes of screaming teenage women turned him off to rock ‘n’ roll as much as the sounds they made.
“The music and the sentiment and the expression – that’s what interested me, not anything else,” he said. “I was interested [in opera] because of how it was presented, not who it was, or what style it was.”
Redbone figured he was never going to make it in opera – “I can’t sing,” he said, an observation that would probably get plenty of agreement in most circles, but would be disputed by fans of, say, Tom Waits, or Bob Dylan, who told Rolling Stone that if he ever started a record label, Redbone would be the first artist he would sign. So instead of opera, Redbone cultivated an interest in old-time music: early blues, guitar jazz, Depression-era ragtime, classics out of Tin Pan Alley, all of which he plays with a Vaudevillian style.
As much as the fashions that are meant to embellish the music, Redbone takes offense with the way certain forms of music are elevated at the expense of all others. For all of his adult life, he has seen rock ‘n’ roll dwarf virtually all other styles, and has seen listeners cling to rock without pausing to ask that essential question: What else is out there?
“Most people seem to be stuck in categorization. And most people are stuck in rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “I think what’s happened over the years, it seems like the entire country has been cemented into rock ‘n’ roll as the one and only music. The main problem is, conformity seems to be the rule of today. What you will be shown on TV is the familiar music, the rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s it. It’s as if you’re in the army – they call out your tag number, you respond.
“My world doesn’t work that way. If you don’t find that to be music – high volume, screeching guitars – then you have to go off and find music for yourself.”
For someone so removed from popular culture, Redbone has made a surprising number of appearances on TV and in movies. He performed frequently in the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” did the voice of the Snowman – Leon the Snowman, in fact – in the movie “Elf,” and had a memorable guest role on the acclaimed ’90s TV series, “Life Goes On.”
I asked Redbone if there was any old music he had discovered recently that had an impact on him. He didn’t answer; apparently, that was another of those mundane journalist questions. But eventually he did get around to mentioning Norah Jones (after struggling to remember her last name).
“She’s very captivating, in a strange way,” Redbone said. “I don’t know what she’s doing now, but she caught me. It was quiet, quiet and moody. That appeals to me more than anything else.
“When I start hearing noise, it sounds like everything else. Noise has never been of interest to me. But noise seems to be what’s in.”
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