Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
"Maybe if I get something to drink," says Leon Redbone.
"Ah. Little hair of the dog perhaps?" says Danny the roadie, all smiles.
"I think a club soda. And maybe baked potato. Baked potato?What is that? Magnesium, potassium? Mmmm. Maybe the salad bar."
Two and a half hours before showtime at the Warner Tuesday, Leon Redbone, he of the diddy-wah-diddy, Chattanooga choo-choo tunes, the select musical taste and the sphinxlike personality, is very much against his will sitting in the dining room of a Howard Johnson's on Virginia Avenue.
"It comes from being alone," he says at last, breaking a great round balloon of soundlessness. "Mainly. At one point in my life. A good stretch, anyway. For about eight years."
He is talking about dead air and the need not to say anything.
This is going so famously (Danny the roadie has already gotten up and gone) that he decides to try the salad bar. Leon Redbone, reputed to be either 28 or 64 on his last birthday, gets up like a man with a very bad hangover. In a body cast. Then shuffles semi-duckfooted across the room, like Chaplin's tramp without the cane, his small black head clicking back and forth in tune to some unscanned inner rhyme. The jacket is velour (maybe felt). There is a fedora. There are black racing gloves with little holes on the top of the fist. And of course there are the smoked shades, behind which Leon Redbone must be cackling at the world.
Back now, seated, gloves off, fork aloft with three kidney beans precariously poised, he consents to talk about his "approach."
"Approach. Well, to put it essentially, my interest has always been European. Classical. I don't really know anything about rock 'n' roll. I don't choose to. Or I don't think I choose to. Some of the '50s stuff maybe, though I wouldn't play it necessarily. Depressing. Annoying also."
Pause here to swill a tomato juice. Not exactly a swill; more a cat-careful sniff. Mmmm. Just as he thought. This stuff isn't pure. They've added something. "Waitress," raising the firm little arm, "may I speak to you?
"This stuff isn't real tomato juice."
"All I do is serve it, mister."
"Did it come out of a tin?"
"A tin. A can. METAL."
"Beats me, mister. I just work here."
He must take this up with management. He isn't abusive - not in the least. Just firm. He has "acute taste buds." Food must be right or he will have none of it.
Waiting for the higher authorities, he reluctantly gets back to his musical approach, something that has interested Bob Dylan and Neil Young as well as increasingly large and rowdy audiences.
Not to mention folks at "Saturday Night Live," which Redbone has hosted several times, strumming and mouth-harping his eccentric way through the likes of "Sheik of Araby," "Shine on Harvest Moon," the songs of Blind Lemon jefferson and Jelly Roll Morton. Leon Redbone isn't exactly "hot" right now. But he's not playing tank towns anymore, either.
"To get the feel of what I do, you'd have to travel the back roads of this country. In the South, when ragtime was coming in. Back about 1890. You say 'ragtime' today and people think, 'aha, "The Entertainer"'. That's not what I do at all. Actually, I'd rather play Chopin at the piano than do anything else. But I can't anymore."
"Discipline, my boy"
The manager has appeared. "A problem, sir?" Redbone pushes Exhibit A across the table."It tastes watered-down and full of sugar." He will not budge.
Happy ending: The juice goes away and tea comes in its place. No charge. Five minutes later, the manager pops his head over a divider. "Everything okay, sir?"
"Oh, the tea's fine . . . but this water's another story." He's just kidding. Maybe. The manager retreats, content.
Leon Redbone says he's a little worried about his mildly escalating fame, the bigger audiences. "It's a sure sign you're getting worse."
Of course, you could do nothing else but get worse in this business, he says. "Playing in a place with screaming amplification, with people you, uh, have to put up with . . . it just turns out less than an artist would want."
This is a 10-week tour, now in its sixth week - Redbone's longest trek out. He won't really say out from where - that remains another Redbone mystery, part of his mystique. About all he'll venture is that he lives "somewhere on the East Coast." Forget trying to find his age - or what his real name is. He won't tell. "I'm a very stubborn fellow."
He considers this. He almost looks like he wishes to say something straight out, to come from behind the glasses and the cryptic talk, hang the curves. "Perhaps . . . to some . . . I am a very mysterious fellow. Not to me. I play music. I like recreation. I have a lot of interests."
What kind of interest?
A curvature of smile, a studied, sidelong little glance. "Oh, mainly things your basement. . . ."