I recently purchased the Elton John-Leon Russell album The Union, which is not only an agreeable collection of retro blues-pop choogling (I especially like the song “Hey Ahab”), but a means through which I’ve conquered one of my greatest childhood fears: the face of Leon Russell.
The best record shop around when I was a kid was not strictly a record shop but the basement music section of Korvette’s, a chain discount department store in the greater New York City area. I guess it was a precursor to places like Target and Costco, because my mother somehow needed to shop there nearly every weekend, and we kids were left to roam the record department until checkout time. This was the early to mid 1970s, when rock musicians were at their most hirsute and sinister-looking. For me, the sensation of flipping through those record shelves was akin to the perverse pleasure people take in watching horror movies: they know they’re going to be scared, yet they dig it.
I never liked horror movies, but I couldn’t help but look, repeatedly, visit after visit, at the scary faces of scary musicians on scary-looking album covers. I was mesmerized/traumatized by Edgar and Johnny Winter, the albino brothers from Texas who were then in their heyday as blues guitarists:
Edgar’s combination of albinism, nudity, and glam pancake on the cover of They Only Come Out at Night was particularly haunting. The glammy thing then going on was as frightening to a small child as the long hair and Mephistophelean beards people had. I was equally spooked by the covers of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and the glam-meets-Dresden chaos relished by the members of Kiss (those preening goons! those exploding flash pots!) on the (to me) apocalyptic cover of Alive!:
But nothing compared to the abject terror inspired by Leon Russell album covers. In the years since, I’ve come to learn that Russell, a pianist, was a core member of Phil Spector’s band of sixties session men and a universally liked and respected member of the rock fraternity, employed by the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, and the Byrds. Back when I was a kid, though, he was, for a pocket of time in the seventies, a credible top-forty solo artist and the meanest, scariest-looking man in rock. This was partly through forces over which he had no control (he was prematurely graying and had sunken, ringed eyes), and partly because the guy worked it—with greasepaint makeup, albums with titles like Carney, and scowly cover expressions even on the albums he recorded with his then-wife Mary:
You cannot understand how unsettling it was to flip through this man’s body of work circa 1970-75, encountering various iterations of this nasty visage in the darkened, windowless space of the Korvette’s record department. It’s ironic that Elton John should be the one to rescue Russell from semi-obscurity with their Union album, for Elton’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was the first LP I ever bought in Korvette’s with my own spending money. (Theretofore I had only ever purchased singles; I had an older sister and brother to buy new albums and bestow musical taste upon me.)
Leon is still pretty scary in appearance to me, but if Elton is comfortable with him, then so am I.