I’m tired of writing about dead people, but people keep dying. Now it’s the musician Leon Russell, who died on Sunday at seventy-four. He’s the archetypally long-haired Southern dude who had his hand in a million hit songs without the public ever growing wise to him. He wrote “A Song for You.” He played piano on the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Elton John called him “the master of space and time,” which I just learned from the New York Times obit. His solo work is an easy slurry of rock, country, and blues: it has an aw-shucks accessibility at first but soon reveals its raw edges and winsome tattered patches. Here’s his song “Hummingbird,” later covered by B. B. King:
The uninitiated should seek out a cogent, sober introduction to Russell and his music—and that is most assuredly not what you’ll get when you watch A Poem Is a Naked Person, the documentary Les Blank made “about” Russell in 1974. But I’d enthusiastically recommend A Poem if you’d prefer to be immersed—fully submerged, even—in Russell’s life as he was living it in ’74, and if you want to see all the barbecue he was eating at that time. This is one of those shaggy, fly-on-the-wall works of cinema verité that draws a rollicking, nervous energy from all the tumult and confusion it chronicles; it is, as Alan Scherstuhl described it last year in the Village Voice, “whiskery and restless, grooving and grotesque.” It features, among other things, a snake eating a baby chick, a glass-eating skydiver, a scorpion bottler, and a long interval of psychedelic mural painting. Sometimes there’s live music, too.
Russell was baffled by the film. He seemed to regret, sort of, hiring an experimental documentarian for a straight-ahead tour flick, and he refused to let A Poem see a proper release until last year, even as Blank’s reputation grew. “I thought it might be of value in the future,” Russell said. And so it is. The movie’s great title comes from Bob Dylan’s liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home, which are strangely apropos given Dylan’s recent, contentious Nobel win and all the more powerful in the wake of Russell’s death:
my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion / divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes / subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness – seen at times thru dark sunglasses an other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself / i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person … some people say that i am a poet
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.