BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
You probably don't know me from Adam, maybe only as a tag-along colleague of John Wooley's. We've talked only a few times, on rare occasions when you let down your veil of eccentricity and granted an interview.
I write this open letter to you, though, because after seeing you launch the show for Joe Cocker on Monday night at the Brady Theater, I wanted to address you directly instead of merely preaching to the asylum choir, as it were. Who knows if we'll ever speak again. This is likely my last concert review for this publication, so I'm feeling rather audacious.
Concerts are not competitions, by any means. That's good, Leon, because Cocker kicked your butt Monday night.
It was a little shocking. Granted, I was in my mother's womb when the two of you were romping across the country as the infamous Mad Dogs and Englishmen, but I've seen you in that concert film stealing Joe's show.
Heck, you stole his very fire.
I've listened to and reported the stories and legends about that event for more than seven years as a pop critic for this newspaper. People speak of you as if you were some kind of shaman — in hushed tones, the awe still palpable after three decades. But it's an awe rooted in that heyday. It's old.
Obviously, so are you. In body, that's one thing, but in spirit — somehow I didn't expect that. I should have: you've been giving this same show for a decade, at least.
Monday night was no different. Maybe a little worse, really. You sat motionless at your keyboard, wheezing through songs you were reading off a teleprompter, never looking at the audience — never even acknowledging us.
You plowed through the set without so much as a breath between songs. When you mashed your last chord Monday night and removed your sunglasses, I saw your eyes for the first time in years. They looked vacant, maybe a little uncomfortable.
Most telling, though, you looked insanely bored.
I actually expected boredom and autopilot from Cocker. I've never been fond of that old hack, but he blew me away. He had the sell-out crowd on its feet for an hour-and-a-half.
He's three years younger than you, but Monday night it looked like 20. His trademark spasmodic arms were wringing out some hot soul, and — during his smooth, reggae take on "Summer in the City" — he convulsed his entire body to make incredible wails come out.
Did you see the women dancing as he sang "You Can Leave Your Hat On"? No, I guess you didn't. You'd left the theater before his set started.
I wish you had seen it — not to ogle the chicks but to watch Cocker in action. He should be a washed-up has-been by now, but he was a master Monday night.
Maybe he needs Viagra at his age, but he hasn't forgotten what his blue-eyed soul is all about. It's about sex, and he can still conjure it.
What's your music about these days, Leon? Is it just down to the bottom line? Are you touring simply because you have to pay the rent? Your show reeks of that motive.
There's no showmanship. There's no entertainment. There's absolutely zero passion. All you had up there Monday night was a bunch of fine songs smothered by synthesized instruments, polyester arrangements and desperate, break-neck speed.
This sub-Best Western lounge act may work for you. Fine. You're obviously able to book plenty of shows, and you've got your record label humming. But if Cocker wasn't on the bill Monday night, we'd have gone home restless, feeling cheated.
You were once one of the greatest showmen in rock 'n' roll. I don't mean to crack the whip and insist on the same level of energy and psychosis; I just somehow expected greater maturity in your act instead of this much self-parody.
For whatever it's worth — they don't call this "two cents" for nothing — I, the young upstart with virtually no on-stage experience, offer these suggestions for your future endeavors:
1. Go unplugged
Get rid of that silly synthesizer you cling to. The synchronized synth-piano effect you played so frequently Monday night is tinny, harsh, awful.
If you must have the teleprompter screen, those can be rigged to sit anywhere, such as the music stand on a piano. You're a techie, you know this.
The Brady Theater has a beautiful grand piano in the house. I'd pay good money to see you play an actual piano again. I think it would do you good, if I might be so bold. Piano keys kick back in a way keyboards don't, and it looks like you could use a little reaction from your music, a little challenge. Plus, all that synthesized noise has no dynamics.
Every song you played, from the jaunty "Tight Rope" to the exquisite ballad "A Song for You," came at us with the exact same hammering force and volume. There was no loud and soft, no give and take, none of your trademark subtleties. Also, lose those synth-drum pads. Better yet: bring back Teddy Jack.
2. Get up, stand up
We've all heard about your legendary (or mythical) shyness. Is that why you never move? Is that why the only time we hear you speak is to introduce the band?
All that beautiful, long white hair — and it just lays there. I don't expect it to fly like it used to when you were running around the stage in 1970, but I hardly think it's a lot to ask that you move around a little.
Turning your neck to the left would be a start. Look at us. Here's a biggie: smile. The Brady was filled to the brim Monday night with people who shelled out hard-earned bucks — amid both the Christmas shopping season and a bad economy — to see you. Sure, they want to hear the songs, but your presence is also part of the bargain.
If you want to make your career strictly about songwriting and steer clear of the stage, more power to you; you're one of the best writers around. But if you're going to strike the deal and perform for us, commit to the physical aspect of it. Even Jimmy Webb rocks back and forth and chats a little.
3. Put a spell on us
Speaking of Webb, take a page from his book. Grow a little mystique around yourself. In fact, go away for a while, if you can afford it. You're in league with people like Webb as a songwriter, but you're more than that, really.
I think of you more along the lines of Van Dyke Parks — an arranger, a writer, a maestro. Play on that, and flaunt a little ego. Don't play every venue offered you. Seeing you live should be an event, a rare and precious opportunity.
This was your third show here this year. If you're going to stay in Nashville, work behind the scenes with other artists who will speak of you reverently in their interviews. You are the master of space and time, right?
4. Come home
Actually, don't stay in Nashville. Your kids are grown now, and technology allows us to live anywhere we want and still do business. So move back to Tulsa.
Get away from that den of dumbing-down. Sure, Tulsa's not as classy as Nashville (depends, however, on your definition of class), but it's a nurturing musical community. You'd be welcomed with open arms.
Remember the Tulsa Sound? Everyone here still claims you were one of its founding fathers, that it's a style of bluesy rock that's more about the space between the notes.
Listening to that onslaught of eighth notes unleashed upon us Monday night — a sweet little song like "Hummingbird" whipped up into a suffocating tornado of music — who would still make that claim?
Come back, even for a little while. Dig up your roots. Maybe you could host a monthly jam down at the Cain's Ballroom. Heck, Garth doesn't need a Nashville zip code.
5. Suck it up
The bulk of the people who bought tickets to Monday's show wanted to see you perform, and they wanted to see Cocker perform, but they really wanted to see the two of you perform together.
First time on a bill together in three decades — of course, we all expected it. Surely whatever bad blood that once existed between you would have drained away by now.
Alas, you never showed, and we were left to come in through the bathroom window for Cocker's encore, in which he knocked four numbers outta the park.
At the very least you might have been inspired by the ol' codger, picked up a few tips from his sheer production values. He's got soul, for sure, but you've got spirit. You used to have grace, and you could at least have been gracious. If not for Joe, for your fans. It's all for your fans.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.