A tribute to Leon Redbone, a musician from another time

Like many other music fans, I was saddened to hear last week that Leon Redbone had died at the age of 69 — which isn’t really that old, in the grand scheme of things (I find that as I get older, my definition of old continues to increase). According to friends of the family, he had suffered from dementia for some time, which could be why he stopped performing in 2015. I saw him play in Toronto just two years earlier, at Hugh’s Room in The Junction, a lovely little bar/restaurant that itself seemed like something from another time, with a handful of tables grouped around a low stage in the corner.

Leon came out and sat in a chair with a small lamp beside him and a stool, and a young man accompanied him on piano as he ran through some of his favorites, like Shine On Harvest Moon, Walking Stick, and Marie. In between, he indulged in some classic Redbone patter, making jokes about himself and his music, starting and stopping songs multiple times to offer asides about this or that. After the show, I stopped him in the lobby where he was signing CDs to tell him how much I enjoyed his music, and he growled “Thank you very much” in that classic Redbone way. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’m really glad now that I took the time — those were his last filmed performances, and they appear in a short documentary about him that came out this year entitled “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

Every fan says this about their favorite musicians, but I’m pretty sure there was no one quite like Leon — he appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Toronto in the late 1960s, playing at various folk and jazz clubs. Word got around about this strange man with the unusual name, who played ancient blues and ragtime songs from the 1920s and 1930s, with the low growly voice and the amazing finger-picking style. I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, and he seemed like something from another time, with his riverboat-gambler style outfit, fedora and sunglasses, staring at the floor as he played the ancient hit “Champagne Charlie” (starts around 25:25 in the video below).

According to an article in the Oxford American — the most comprehensive piece I have ever read on a man who was pretty much a mystery, even to some of those who knew and played with him — Redbone’s mysterious style even drew the attention of Bob Dylan, who arrived unannounced at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto islands in 1972 because he wanted to meet Redbone. At the end of the day, Dylan and Redbone and Canadian folk superstar Gordon Lightfoot slipped away on a boat Dylan had rented. Folk star John Prine, who was also there, recounts the scene in the documentary that came out this year.

Even when he lived and played in Toronto, no one knew much about Redbone — whose real name was Dickran Gobalian (he was the son of Armenian parents who fled the genocide in that country). The Oxford American says one local musician remembers that whenever someone gave Redbone a lift home, he’d ask to be let out at an intersection in Forest Hill where there was a large apartment building, but the only time anyone saw him enter, he walked back out moments later and climbed into a cab. “Another time, recalls musician Michael Cooney, someone dropped Redbone at a hotel, and he went in the front door and came out the side door and went into the subway.”

In those days, the only way to reach Redbone was by phoning the pool hall by the subway stop at the corner of Bloor and Yonge Street and asking for Mr. Grunt, though the guys there also knew him as Sonny. Redbone was something of a shark, stalking the billiard table and sinking balls with graceful ferocity. A 1973 profile describes the way that, “Right foot back, pool cue resting emphatically on thumb and knuckle, he double-banks a red into the side pocket and prepares to make an eighty degree cut black.” Then he proclaims, “‘I don’t have a past. The past begins tomorrow.’”

No one — not even his wife and manager Beryl Handler, or his two daughters, Ashley (who runs a recording studio in New Haven, Conn.) and Blake — know how or when he taught himself to play guitar, or why he adopted the music of the 1920s and ’30s, or why he took the name Leon Redbone (Redbone was a term used to describe people of mixed race in the old South). He appears to have created this persona out of whole cloth and then stepped into it and embodied it for the rest of his life — even off-stage, behind the scenes, the persona was the same. “I spent an afternoon with him in a hotel room,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone, “and I was wondering when he was going to become normal. He never did.”

Redbone also deliberately resisted attempts to dig into his personal life or his history. All that mattered was the music. “Some people seem to believe that as soon as you perform on stage you lose your rights as a private citizen,” he complained. “They want to find out who I am, what I am, where I was born, how old I am—all this complete nonsense that belongs in a passport office.” When a radio interviewer mentioned that they had seen Redbone with his family in New York, he said that they “might’ve been a rental for the day.” In another interview, according to the Oxford American piece, he said: “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention. “I’m just a vehicle.”

A colorized, speed-corrected video of Paris in the 1890s

This is a fascinating video, consisting of a series of remastered prints from the early days of film, with scenes of downtown Paris from sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. The speed was adjusted to make it more life-like, and the film was also colorized. Ambient sounds were added later. The films were taken by the Lumiere brothers, who more or less invented modern cinema — you can see the two of them at the end of the second-from-last clip, where they jump onto a moving sidewalk that was built for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.

A bizarre mansion built by the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune

Sarah Lockwood Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, who died in 1881 of tuberculosis and left Sarah his fortune, which at the time amounted to $20 million (about $450 million in today’s dollars), since he was a member of the family that invented the Winchester repeating rifle. She moved to the Santa Clara Valley and started building a house, one that she kept adding onto until her death in 1922, which has come to be known as the Winchester Mystery House. By the time she died, the building covered more than 24,000 square feet.

The main mystery is why she built the house the way she did — not only did it have 160 rooms (including 40 bedrooms) and a number of towers and other features, but it also contained a number of bizarre rooms and features that seemed to have no purpose. There’s a staircase that ends at a ceiling, a closet that is only an inch deep, a “door to nowhere” that opens into empty space, and a magnificent stained glass window that is behind a wall, and so doesn’t receive any light with which to illuminate it (the house has about 10,000 other panes of stained glass to make up for it though).

Ancient physical representations of 3D information

This was something I had absolutely no knowledge of until I read about this at Jason Kottke’s blog — which is a must-read by the way. Many ancient cultures used a variety of methods to create 3D physical representations of information they needed to know, like the one below, which is a visualization of ocean wave patterns created by Micronesians in the Marshall Islands. They would apparently pass these on from person to person and memorize them before heading out to sea in their boats. Straight sticks represent regular currents, curved sticks are ocean swells and seashells are islands.

Kottke also writes about how the Yakima tribe of native Americans used strings of hemp tied into balls as a kind of visual or tactile journal of their lives. So every major event was represented by a knot, a bead, or a shell. It was called an Ititamat or a counting-the-days ball or just a “time ball,” and it allowed the owner to recall specific events and times merely by touching and unwinding it. Those who lived long lives might have several, and when they passed away, the balls were buried with them.

/via kottke.org

Meet Walter Pitts, the Homeless Genius Who Revolutionized Artificial Intelligence

Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. The boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old

Source: The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic

This is a fascinating story about someone I had never heard of before. Walter Pitts was born to a working-class family in Detroit, and had taught himself Greek, Latin and high-level mathematics by the age of 12. After getting the letter from Bertrand Russell, he eventually ran away to Chicago and found odd jobs at the university, until he met Warren McCulloch, a 42-year-old, chain-smoking philosopher poet who “lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before 4 a.m.” At the time, Walter was just 18, a shy young man with a squat, duck-like face.

McCulloch was trying to come up with a mental model of the brain, and a paper by Alan Turing convinced him the brain was a computing machine, and the functioning of the neurons could be modeled just like the Principia modeled complex mathematics. He and Pitts started working on it, and Pitts moved into McCulloch’s house in a suburb of Chicago. Together, they described what would become an entire field of mathematics and computing called “neural networks.”

Soon, Pitts had also impressed Norbert Weiner, one of the leading scientists at MIT and the father of cybernetics. Weiner was so taken with Pitts’ ability that he promised him a PhD in mathematics, despite the fact that he had never graduated from high school. He soon started collaborating with John von Neumann, a leading Princeton mathematician and physicist and one of the inventors of the first “stored program binary computing machine.” Von Neumann used Pitts’s theories about a mathematical model of memory to design the modern computer. McCulloch described Pitts this way:

He has become an excellent dye chemist, a good mammalogist, he knows the sedges, mushrooms and the birds of New England. He knows neuroanatomy and neurophysiology from their original sources in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German for he learns any language he needs as soon as he needs it. Things like electrical circuit theory and the practical soldering in of power, lighting, and radio circuits he does himself.”

McCulloch made it to MIT as well, and he and Pitts started working together again. But Wiener’s wife disapproved of the late-night parties at McCulloch’s farm in Connecticut, where whiskey flowed and everyone went skinny-dipping. She told Wiener that several of McCulloch’s friends had tried to seduce their daughter Barbara, who was staying at McCulloch’s house in Chicago. Wiener cut off Pitts, and Pitts sank into depression. He started drinking heavily, never finished his PhD and eventually set fire to his notes and papers. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969, at the age of 53.

Yes, there’s an e-sport called “Fantasy Birding

I love it when I find out about something that I literally had no idea even existed, and “fantasy birding” definitely falls into that category. What is it? Well, it’s basically competitive bird-watching, but instead of having to go out and actually find the exotic birds yourself, you bet on whether someone is going to do that for a specific bird in a specific region. Finds are tracked using a public-domain database called eBird, which is run by Cornell University and allows anyone to track their bird sightings. The fantasy part was the creation of Matt Smith, who tells Deadspin:

“Fantasy birding is basically the offspring of three unrelated obsessions of mine. One is obviously birding, which I fell into pretty hard as a kid in Mississippi. The second is sports, baseball in particular, which always turned me on because of all the numbers. And the third is making things for the web.”

Players select single locations on a map each day, and they get credit for a bird if a real-life birder spots that species within a 10-kilometer radius on that day. The fantasy birding league has already drawn 358 players, according to the Deadspin piece, and the user with the handle MaxBirding was in first place as of March, having spotted 549 species, including 50 rarities, since the competition began in January. My favorite comment from Matt Smith comes at the end, where he says:

“It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the thing you’re doing is. If enough people do it together, it’ll be a good time.”

A trip to Perugia, Florence and Pisa

As some of you already know, for the past half a dozen years or so, I’ve made an annual trip to Perugia, a lovely little hill town in the middle of the Umbria region of Italy, about two hours north of Rome. The main reason is an amazing journalism conference run by my friends Chris Potter and Arianna Ciccone, a five-day extravaganza that involves more than 600 speakers and a dozen beautiful venues in the old city. Most of the historic center was built in the 13th century, and was constructed on the ruins of an even older city, one of the capitals of the ancient Etruscan empire sometime in the 3rd century BC. And every year, my wife Becky and I take a few days either before or after the conference to visit somewhere in Italy — one year it was Rome, and then Venice, and then Cinque Terre, and then the Amalfi Coast (I put together an interactive travelogue if you want to take a tour of some of the places).

After an amazing week in Perugia, filled with great dinners with old friends and lots of gelato meetings at my “office” (also known as the gelateria near the Brufani Palace), Becky and I took the train to Florence, which is just a couple of hours west of Perugia. We checked into a great little Airbnb apartment right near what everyone refers to as the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers or the Santa Maria del Fiore, and then headed out to visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the premier collections of Italian Renaissance art in the world. It took us over three hours to see everything, and we still missed a lot — paintings by Giotto and Da Vinci, sculptures and busts and statuary everywhere. An amazing (and tiring) experience.

After the museum, we headed back to the Airbnb to relax a little and change, then we set off to meet friends at a local restaurant just across the Arno river, near the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. It was a lovely little trattoria — the Trattoria Cammillo — with excellent pasta and fish, including a local specialty called pasta Bottarga, with dried and salted roe (fish eggs) from bluefin tuna. After dinner, we chatted with the owners for awhile, who told us of the history of the building, which was partially destroyed in World War II, and showed us the water mark about eight feet up on the wall where the floods of 1966 crested (a flood that killed over 100 people and damaged millions of priceless works of art).

The next day, Becky and I took advantage of the cheap local train prices and caught a train to Pisa, which is about an hour west of Florence on the coast, a trip that costs about 8 Euros. We walked for about 45 minutes from the train station to where the famous leaning tower is, part of a complex of museums, cathedrals and other religious buildings that were constructed in the 12th century, when Pisa was a pretty powerful port city. In addition to the tower, there’s the Campo Santo — a massive enclosed cemetery lined with crypts and sarcophagi — and a huge cathedral that is almost as large and impressive as the Duomo in Florence. Over one of the many altars in the church is a see-through sarcophagus containing what is supposedly the body of Saint Rainerius, which some poor bugger had to put together from bits and pieces that had been scattered around the countryside.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had a great time wandering around the cemetery, the cathedral and the nearby museum — which had some marvelous watercolors that someone did of the massive murals on the walls of the Camp Santo, each of which told a religious tale in great depth, but most of which had been lost to time and the elements. There was also a small “Chapel of the Relics of the Saints,” set into the wall, which contained cabinets filled with goblets and reliquaries with bones and fingers and other bits and pieces of saints (allegedly). After a quick espresso, we made our way back along the river Arno to the train station and caught a local shuttle back to Florence.

After we got back to Florence, we spent the afternoon just walking around and then had dinner at a wonderful little restaurant not far from our Airbnb called La Boheme. And what a dinner it was, featuring a dish known as Il Botteca Florentine, or steak Florentine — a giant, two-inch-thick slab of beef with the bone in, weighing around 1.2 kilograms or so. The waitress seemed concerned that I was ordering it for myself, so I said that Becky would be helping, but as it was I ate most of it single-handedly. We then decided that a long walk around Florence was required, so we wandered down towards the river and through the various alleyways, watching people by the carousel in the main square and catching a sextet playing classical music near the site of the outdoor market. Becky and I both rubbed the nose of the boar statue known as La Porcellina, which brings good luck.

The next day, we had planned to head to the Accademia Gallery, where the statue of Michelangelo’s David is located. We had tried to book tickets online in advance, but by the time we got around to it they were sold out for the Tuesday. So we thought we would just see what the line was like, and when we got there it was about two blocks long, and a security guard said he thought it would take at least two hours. I had just finished saying to Becky that I thought we should just bail, when a man and his wife approached us and asked us if we wanted their advance-booking tickets — they didn’t have time to wait and see the museum, they said. Before we could even say thank you or offer to pay them the 24 Euros, they had left, and about 20 minutes later we were in the museum. And what a sight it was.

Although we didn’t take a tour, I learned a lot about David from reading the sign next to it (and also from eaves-dropping on other people’s tours). I didn’t know that a different sculptor started the legs of the statue and then either died or lost the commission for some reason, and the block of stone sat outside for more than 25 years, until Michelangelo — who was only 26 at the time — asked if he could complete it. The hands and the head are disproportionately large, which leads some historians to believe it was originally designed to sit high up on the roof of a cathedral, but when it was done it weighed about three tons (it’s 17 feet high) and so they decided not to put it there after all. The toes of the left foot were damaged by a deranged artist with a hammer who attacked them in 1991.

After seeing David and the rest of the paintings and sculptures in the Accademia Gallery (there’s a small musical instrument museum as well), we headed for the train station to pick up our bags — the free tickets for the gallery covered the cost of the bag drop service, so that worked out well. And then it was back on the train to Rome, which took a couple of hours. We had dinner with a friend who lives there and stayed overnight at the same quaint little hotel we have stayed at several times, and then caught our flight back to Canada. Another great trip in Italy, and lots of great memories. Until next time!