Fact or Fiction?

Leon Redbone has no interest in setting the record straight

The riddle goes like this: There are two brothers. One always lies. One always tells the truth. The two of them stand on either side of a fork in the road. One direction leads to ruin; the other to paradise. As you arrive at this fork, you’re permitted to ask just one question of one of the brothers.

What question do you ask to determine the right path? And which brother do you direct your question?

The answer: “Which path would your brother say is the one that leads to paradise?” Then, of course, you’d take the opposite one.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar method of negotiating the truth from Leon Redbone. If the inscrutable dandy in the Panama hat and dark sunglasses had a truth-telling brother, Redbone would probably say he didn’t. And if he said he did, his affirmation would be suspect.

Leon Redbone first cropped up in the mid-’70s playing ragtime and blues numbers in Toronto. Word of his virtuoso guitar skill and easy familiarity with Tin Pan Alley classics spread, as did the praise for his “authentic” musical performances sprinkled with wry, disingenuous comedic asides. He found favor with mainstream figures like Johnny Carson as well as a cult audience. Some secretly suspected him of being Andy Kaufman. Others thought he could be Frank Zappa.

Redbone is characteristically cryptic about this early phase of his career.

“There is no beginning,” he says over the phone. “The beginning started when I was interested in music more than anything else.”

Even when pressed on what are presumed to be the facts about his emigration from Cyprus to Canada in the 1960s, he lobs a grenade of doubt.

“Somebody put this in an article, so 30- some years later it’s now been regurgitated and presented as being true,” he says. “Is any of it true? Who’s going to say? The reason why it has continued to be so is because I have no interest in correcting anything anybody has written. It would take way too much work.”

These, he says, are the reasons he regards publicity with a sort of jaded detachment. But his participation in the whole moot charade suggests he thinks otherwise.

“I don’t have an act,” Redbone says more than once with an assuredness that leaves no room for skepticism. And maybe it’s a rare show of candor. Or more likely, his denial of an act is all just a part of the act.

Leon Redbone • Friday, April 22, at 8 pm • Bing Crosby Theater • $25 • All-ages • ticketswest.com • (800) 325-SEAT

Built to Spill, Prism Bitch, Pappas, Itchy Kitty @ Lucky You Lounge

Thu., Aug. 11, 8 p.m.
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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.