Friday 31 May 2019

Leon Redbone RIP

Image result for leon redbone guardian
Vessel of Antiquity
Influence, invention, and the legacy of Leon Redbone

Megan Pugh
Oxford American
19 March 2019

Leon Redbone’s first guitar, or at least the first one anyone seems to remember seeing after he emerged on the Toronto folk scene in the late 1960s, was a Harmony Sovereign, transformed according to his vision. He painted the headstock to cover up the brand name and drew a meticulous pattern around the edges of the soundboard that, from the audience, resembled inlay. He used it to play old tunes from the 1920s and ’30s—country blues, ragtime—his voice shifting from molasses crooning to gravelly yowls. Dressed in the natty suits and ties of a Mississippi riverboat gambler, a Kentucky colonel, a dignified bluesman, or a Jimmie Rodgers–styled railroad brakeman with the right cap for the job, Redbone invited audiences into a tent show of American musical history where folks like Rodgers, Blind Blake, Emmett Miller, and Jelly Roll Morton could still draw crowds. His face was partially obscured by a hat and dark glasses. Sometimes he’d set a piece of fruit on the stool beside him: comically mute accompaniment. Redbone bought other guitars as his career took off, but his artistic ethos remained constant: Cover up some origins and conjure others. Craft an illusion and make it real. Bring the past into the present. Look at things slant. Do something beautiful, be careful about it, and keep your sunglasses on.

“The only thing that interests me,” said Redbone in a 1991 interview, “is history, reviewing the past and making something out of it.” He came of age in an era when plenty of musicians were looking backward. But where the folkies dusted off old songs like sacred artifacts, Redbone settled into the past like it was a familiar rocking chair, leisurely tuning his guitar with a sly growl of “Rise, Lazarus” or using it as a paddle to traverse an imaginary lazy river. Onstage, he took photographs of his audience, so that they—not he—became objects of attention. He blew bubbles, built a small table outfitted with an exploding device that he’d set off during “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and engaged band members in banter lifted directly from the vaudeville era. Other jokes unfolded more quietly, with deadpan delivery—“This song has been around for over a hundred years,” the clarinetist Dan Levinson remembers him saying, “so you’ve had plenty of time to learn it. If you know the words, please hum along”—or small, masterful movements: a cock of the head, an exaggerated waggle of a hat brim. For years, Redbone would play a recording of the Hungarian opera singer Sári Barabás as his hands danced along, making shadows against a white cardboard screen.

Musically speaking, Redbone wasn’t as experimental as Tom Waits or Frank Zappa, but on the strength and strangeness of his persona, he was often compared to them. “He manifests himself as some kind of link between Robert Johnson and Richard Brautigan,” wrote Tom Nolan. Record stores tended to file his albums in the rock section, even though, as Levinson, who played with Redbone for years, points out, that was “the one style of music he didn’t play.” Redbone believed American music had begun a steep decline when big bands started churning out what he described to one interviewer as “blatant sound for people to dance to.” He preferred sentiment, melody, subtlety, and romance—qualities of an earlier era that he brought forward with enough oddball visionary sensibility to get people to pay attention. At the same time, a sense of melancholy suffused his work: his version of “Shine on Harvest Moon” has an ambling sweetness, but he starts it off with an eerie, wobbly moan.

Redbone, who retired with health problems in 2015, was both a musical artist and a performance artist. His very identity was part of his creative output. Over his four-decade career, he released twelve studio albums and five live ones, acted and sang for film, TV, and commercials, and played thousands of shows across North America and Europe, introducing audiences to old melodies they might never have heard otherwise. Onstage, remembers cornetist Peter Ecklund, who accompanied Redbone in the 1970s and ’80s, he’d “create this alternate environment, this alternate universe, and you’d sort of live there for the duration of the show.” His refusal to reveal anything about himself other than what you might see onstage or hear on a record amplified that feeling. He invented himself from a Southern past he never experienced first-hand, and for years, no one seemed to know where he’d come from.

“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.” It became de rigeur for journalists to try anyway, usually arriving at the contradiction that, as a 1991 Baltimore Sun headline put it, REDBONE DIGS INTO PAST FOR MUSIC, BUT WON’T LET YOU DIG INTO HIS PAST. What was his background? “That’s a memoir question. I don’t answer memoir questions.” Was it true, as the Toronto Star reported in 1986, that he was born Dickran Gobalian, in Cyprus, and came to Ontario in the 1960s? “I’ve read that,” he told another interviewer. “I don’t believe everything I read.” The mystique made for good publicity, but it wasn’t just a ploy. He was a celebrity protesting celebrity, with its mandates of self-disclosure and sensation. And he was getting out of the way so the music could come forward. “I’ve never considered myself the proper focus of attention,” he explained. “I’m just a vehicle.”

Due to his health, Leon Redbone can no longer be interviewed. In a way, he’s become a version of the old-time musicians he so admired, about whom little is known: You can only reach them through recordings, archival materials, and the accounts of other people. Longtime friends and band members tell me they knew never to ask about his past. Others say they were sworn to secrecy, and intend to keep the secrets. His own family members say they know little about his early life.

But Redbone himself doggedly chased the trails of his heroes. During down time on tours, he would head to county clerks’ offices and local libraries, hunting down information about the singer Emmett Miller. Miller, a white man who performed in blackface, emerged from the tangle of love and theft at the root of American popular culture—a history that fascinated Redbone, who took a term for a mixed-race person as his last name and performed songs written almost exclusively by other people. Miller played jaunty, ragged tunes and had what a 1927 reviewer called a “trick voice” that leapt from plaintive wails to high yodels. He recorded with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920s—Gene Krupa, Eddie Lang, Tommy Dorsey—and, for Redbone, recalls the pianist Tom Roberts, Miller was one of the “Rosetta Stones for American music”: Study him enough, and all might be revealed. On the 1985 album Red to Blue, Redbone and Hank Williams Jr. did a comedy bit from an Emmett Miller recording before singing “Lovesick Blues,” a winking acknowledgment of the fact that Miller’s version of the song preceded Hank Senior’s. Redbone used Miller’s name as an alias when staying at hotels, receiving mail, or dodging phone calls: call up his old clamshell, and a voice would tell you to leave a message for Emmett. He considered writing Miller’s biography, and while that never happened, he amassed an archive of Miller material at his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He had another for Lee Morse, a slight, deep-voiced vaudeville songbird from rural Oregon who was reputed, at various points, to have come from Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas—supposed origins that worked in part to “authenticate” her blues singing.

In different ways, Morse and Miller both performed as people they weren’t, which may be part of what resonated with Redbone. But it was their artistry that earned his devotion. “His knowledge of these people was vast,” remembers dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, who sometimes accompanied Redbone in his research on tour, “but it was not only academic. It was personal.” For a while, at every show, he’d announce that if any family members of the 1920s clarinetist and contortionist Wilton Crawley were in the audience, they should see him “immediately.” No one did. But Redbone loved these artists’ work so much that their tunes alone weren’t enough. He wanted to know where they came from, and how they became who they were. It’s an understandable impulse.

Leon Redbone and Bob Dylan at the Mariposa Folk Festival, 1972. Copyright Arthur Usherson

Redbone showed up in Toronto in the late 1960s—from where, no one seemed certain. He was from Shreveport, Louisiana, people said, or from New Orleans, or maybe from Cleveland, dodging the draft. One musician detected a British lilt to his phrasing, but by the late 1970s, an interviewer heard “a New England accent” in Redbone’s “low, nasal speaking voice.” Redbone later claimed to have been born in Bombay, the love child of Jenny Lind and Niccolo Paganini; in Manhattan, the day of the 1929 stock market crash; and in Memphis, Tennessee. When an interviewer asked where in Memphis he’d gone to school, he changed the subject.

In Toronto, he was a regular at Fiddler’s Green, a folk club that rented space a couple nights a week in a run-down house owned by the YMCA, and his gigs there landed him a spot at Mariposa Folk Festival. But his earliest appearances may have been at the Pornographic Onion, a coffeehouse at Ryerson University that hosted hootenannies sponsored by the Toronto Folklore Center in the 1960s. Shelley Posen, who used to emcee those shows, 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. No one knew if he lived there. After exiting the car, he stood on the sidewalk “and waited there, waving goodbye, until the car disappeared from view. If the car didn’t move, he didn’t move.” Once, says promoter Richard Flohil, someone did see Redbone enter an apartment building, only to walk back out a few moments later, climb into a cab, and head off. 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.’” Another bank shot.

The bio he submitted for the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival program reads as follows: “I was born in Shreveport, La., in 1910, and my real name is James Hokum. I wear dark glasses to remind me of the time I spent leading Blind Blake throughout the south, and I now live in Canada as a result of the incident in Philadelphia.” The editors noted that, when asked for a photograph, Redbone had sent them a picture of Bob Dylan, but they didn’t print it. The joke proved prescient: Dylan showed up at the festival unannounced, searching for Leon Redbone. John Prine describes the scene with delight in the new documentary short Please Don’t Talk about Me When I’m Gone, produced by Riddle Films: there was Redbone, followed by Dylan and his wife, followed by hordes of adoring fans. The festival took place on an island, accessible by ferry, but at the end of the day, Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Redbone sailed away on a private boat.

A few months later, Atlantic reportedly made overtures to sign Redbone, and Jerry Wexler hoped Dylan might help produce him. When that fell through, Dylan invited Redbone to meet him at a hotel in New York City. No one seems quite sure what they talked about. But in a 1974 Rolling Stone article, Dylan is quoted as saying that, if he had his own record label, he’d sign Redbone: “‘Leon interests me,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been this close’”—Dylan held his hands out, a foot and a half apart—“‘and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him.’”

Warner Bros. signed Redbone and released his first album, On the Track, the following year. When he played “Shine on Harvest Moon” and “Walking Stick” on Saturday Night Live a few months later, sales jumped from fifteen thousand to one hundred ninety thousand. SNL had him back several times, and his career seemed made. Redbone had been reluctant about performing on television, but his wife and manager, Beryl Handler, knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Her role in his career, their friends say, is hard to overstate. They met when she was a student at the University of Buffalo, helping run the 1972 Buffalo Festival, and while he is a cautious introvert, she has had the pragmatism and drive to bring his talents to the public. They have two daughters, though he has avoided speaking about them: when a radio interviewer mentioned having seen Redbone with his family in New York, he countered that they might’ve been “a rental for the day.”

Handler secured Redbone’s television gigs, negotiated contracts for his commercial work (including ads for Budweiser and British Rail), and licensed his songs, which have been used in several films as well as two ballets choreographed by Eliot Feld. (In one, Mr. XYZ,Baryshnikov plays a sort of weary vaudevillian, complete with hat and cane.) Handler also coproduced most of Redbone’s records. Today, she and their daughter Ashley, who manages a recording studio in New Haven, are working to digitize troves of old tape, some of which will almost certainly be released in the years to come. “I’m in it for the banter,” says Ashley Redbone. She’s looking for the crackle and closeness of liveness, the sense of Redbone as a person—wry, playful, trying things out and seeing what worked.

In the era of music Redbone loved most, bands would record all together in a room. But in the studio, he and his producers usually had musicians lay down separate tracks, which they’d piece together later to achieve the desired effect. Handler compares the process to collage—they weren’t reenacting the past, but using present-day tools to evoke it. Redbone described himself, with deflecting modesty, as a tinkerer, but some of his friends prefer “inventor.” Dave Siglin, who with his wife Linda ran the Ann Arbor folk venue the Ark, encouraged Redbone to take out a patent after he attached wheels to a suitcase filled with gear to make it easier to carry. No one else could possibly want it, Redbone insisted, though someone else did patent the rolling suitcase, and doubtless made a fortune. Siglin also remembers Redbone stalking a street-cleaning machine, waiting for a metal tine to fall from its brush so that—under cover of a handkerchief—he could thread it through the strings of his guitar and make sounds like a steel drum. At his family’s home, Redbone built a deck and an outdoor oven, made a mosaic on the bathroom floor, gardened, welded, wired, and fixed plumbing. He had a darkroom in the basement where he’d develop the photographs he took. He drew charming sketches, some of which adorned his albums, or the cassette tapes he’d make for friends. He liked to pick things up and figure out how they worked. It’s how he learned to play not just guitar, but also piano, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, and zither.

Leon Redbone was both self-made and self-taught. In the late 1970s, he told Guitar Playerthat he was not one of those “people who can actually play things note for note”—instead, he went by his ear, doing what best suited him and his voice. This irked some purists: Dave Van Ronk grumbled that even with the legendary Joe Venuti in the studio, Redbone had recorded the wrong chords to “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Yet, points out the pianist Terry Waldo, musicians across the folk tradition have always taken what they heard and made it their own—Redbone “was authentic in that sense.”

He went by feel onstage as well, eschewing set lists and never rehearsing with the band. But his musicians knew his repertoire, and when he’d start playing a song, they were ready to join in. Occasionally they made plans in advance. Typically, when audiences requested “Seduced,” a song whose pop success Redbone seemed almost to resent, he’d reply, “Oh, behave yourselves,” and go right on playing the songs he preferred. Once, at a show in New Jersey, he told the band that when the inevitable request came, pianist Stanley Schwartz should pretend to count in “Seduced,” and then they’d all play different tunes at once—different keys, different tempos. The request came. “Stanley, count us in,” Dan Levinson remembers Redbone saying. The discord went on “for about ten to fifteen seconds and then he said, ‘Wait a minute, hold it, hold it. Let’s try that again.’ We did the whole thing again. ‘You know what, maybe we should play another song.’” No one requested “Seduced” for the rest of the night.

More - much more here:


Thursday 30 May 2019

Robbie Robertson on Music from Big Pink

Image result for robbie robertson
Robbie Robertson Reflects On ‘Music From Big Pink’ 50 Years Later
From being booed with Dylan to changing the course of music, The Band’s Robbie Robertson recalls a unique “circle of creativity”.

Laura Stavropoulos
30 August 2018

One of the defining albums of the 60s, truly encapsulating the cultural chaos and beautiful ruin of the decade, sprung from the basement of an aging summer home in upstate New York. “Big Pink”, as it would be lovingly called, was the genesis from one of the greatest debut albums on record, The Band’s Music From Big Pink released in July 1968.

Recorded during the famous sessions that birthed the songs later released as Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, everything about Music From Big Pink is immersed in rock’n’roll mythology. From the enigmatic portrait of five mysterious men on the back cover, to the creative commune from which the songs poured out, it both confounded and enraptured audiences, and set the stage for the amorphous musical movement that followed: Americana.

With a deluxe reissue of the album coming 31 August and a documentary on the way, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Robertson remembers how The Band finally stopped being background players and discovered their collective sound 50 years later.
“Everywhere we played, people booed”

While Music From Big Pink was their debut record, by the time of its release The Band had collectively been playing together for seven years. But even these road veterans were not prepared for the vitriol they would face when joining Dylan on the 1966 world tour, when the folk hero plugged in and went electric.

As Robertson remembers, “To think now that we played all of these places and everywhere that we played, people booed and sometimes threw stuff at us. I had never heard of anybody that got booed all over the world and got through it in some kind of successful way.”

After the tour concluded, Robertson joined by Rick Danko (bass, vocals, fiddle), Richard Manuel (keyboards, vocals, drums) and Garth Hudson (keyboards, horns) all decamped to a house in West Saugerties, New York, at Dylan’s suggestion, while Levon Helm (disillusioned after the tour) temporarily left the group.

At the time, Dylan had been recuperating at nearby Woodstock from a motorcycling accident and would become a frequent fixture of Big Pink. Robertson envisioned a clubhouse/workshop where the band could write and create freely without distraction. Situated on over 100 acres, the house became a fertile testing ground for trying new ideas without encroachment from the outside world.

Down in the basement, Robertson and the band had a lo-fi recording set-up complete with microphones, a mixer and a little tape recorder that would capture the songs they worked up in this informal setting.

As Robertson explains, the songwriting process was collaborative, with typewriters set up upstairs for the band to compose on, and a bare-bones studio downstairs to work out ideas.

“Everybody was in this circle of creativity and experimenting was going on,” says Robertson. “Garth Hudson, our amazing keyboard player, was building musical instruments and Richard Manuel was writing ideas, and he wrote ‘Tears Of Rage’ with Bob.”
Robbie Robertson And The Band - Music From Big Pink
Meanwhile, Robertson was polishing his own songwriting abilities, penning future classics like ‘Chest Fever’ and the band’s career-defining single, ‘The Weight’.

“I wanted to be a storyteller”, explains Robertson. “I didn’t want to be a writer that says, ‘I got up this morning and I had a cup of coffee and then I went outside.’ Some people could do that quite well. It felt like if I could write fiction that you couldn’t tell if that wasn’t real, that would be interesting to me.”

As things were progressing, The Band called Levon Helm back into the fold. Robertson and Helm went back to when Robertson was only 15 and the two played together with Canadian rockabilly fixture Ronnie Hawkins. For a Canadian like Robertson, Hawkins’ band sounded like the song of the south, coming from the “holy land of rock’n’roll” and all those places he grew up hearing about. Hawkins took him under his wing, and soon Robertson and Helm were thick as thieves.

“ [Helm] just had music running through his veins,” says Robertson, “so I wanted to learn whatever I could from him and Ronnie [Hawkins] about music and about being in a rock’n’roll band.”

When the group acquired more members and started to musically outgrow Hawkins’, they struck out on their own, later hooking up with Dylan, with Robertson now 21 years old.

The way Robertson sees it, The Band is more of a collective than a group. With all their shared history, their hard-earned chemistry is what enabled them to play more dynamically on the record.

“We didn’t get musical instruments for Christmas and say, ‘Let’s start a band!’” jokes Robertson.

Following the Big Pink sessions with Dylan, The Band encountered through a bit of an identity crisis, trying to find their own sound after spending so many years adapting themselves to fit another artist.

“At this time, we don’t know what The Band sounds like,” says Robertson. “Because what we were doing in the stage had nothing to do with the sound that we made playing with Ronnie Hawkins, or what we did with The Hawks, and nothing to do with the way we played with Bob Dylan. This was a new dimension.”

When it came to finding a producer, the band hooked up with John Simon, who had produced Marshall McLuhan’s iconic record The Medium Is The Message. Robertson remembers being struck by how bizarre and surreal the record was, and felt Simon could capture the rebellious spirit behind the Big Pink sessions, so they headed back to civilisation to record at Phil Ramone’s studio in New York.

Back in the city, the traditional studio recording felt awkward and alien. Without the communal playing set-up they had at Big Pink, the band struggled to record. “If we don’t see one another, don’t have the eye contact and we’re not communicating musically by gestures of a movement of the guitar neck, that means there’s a break coming up,” explains Robertson.

They did their best to recreate the recording environment of their beloved Big Pink, setting up in a circle and rigging microphones on everything from the drums to the cymbals, bass and singers. While the engineers were sceptical at first, the band launched into what would become the album’s opener, ‘Tears Of Rage’, and had an epiphany.

“In that moment, we knew who we were and what we sounded like,” says Robertson. That was a big breakthrough at that time, after all the trails and everything that we had been through over the years, this is what The Band sounds like.”

But forging entirely new musical styles does not happen overnight. The group cut their teeth playing the chitlin’ circuit down South, absorbing each regional style like a roadside delicacy from a greasy-spoon diner: from gospel music to the blues, funk and New Orleans soul, rockabilly and mountain music and so on. Just as the music drew upon different folk traditions, Music From Big Pink’s artwork also represented a type of rootsy imagery. Eschewing a typical cover shot, instead Dylan famously painted the art, depicting the five musicians, a roadie and an elephant before ever hearing a note off the album.

No one quite knew what to make of Music From Big Pink upon its arrival. Released during the heyday of bad trips and social upheaval, the haunting harmonies and murder ballads felt foreign, untethered from any time or place.

“We would play it for people and they had a look of shock on their face and we wondered, Maybe it’s not good?” recalls Robertson. “But I thought, I hope that’s originality [laughs]. I hope it isn’t just avant-garde, or whatever people would call music back then that was unusual. Because you want to share these feelings, these sounds and these songs, and what we could do that nobody else was doing in that space.”

Adding to their mystique, The Band neither toured or gave interviews following the album’s release, partly due to their desire to continue to just make music instead of hitting the road, and also in part to a serious car accident involving Danko, which put him out of commission for a few months. This only stoked the public’s curiosity further: Who are these people? What are they doing up there in those mountains? The group wouldn’t perform live as “The Band” until 17 April 1969, at San Francisco’s Winterland.

Fast-forward 50 years and Robertson is still in awe of the original work. After hearing the new surround-sound mixes produced by Bob Clearmountain, he knew the album was in capable hands:

“When it glowed in the dark, you knew he [Clearmountain] had just aced it. I’d listen to it and you just wanted to swim in it.”

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Bob Dylan: Rolling Thunder Revue Box Set due

'When somebody’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth': Bob Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Review in 1975
Bob Dylan Preps Rolling Thunder Revue Box Set to Accompany Scorsese Doc
14-disc collection, new film set to arrive in June

Jon Blistein
Rolling Stone

A new boxset chronicling Bob Dylan’s famous Rolling Thunder Revue will be released as a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s upcoming documentary about the 1975 tour, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The boxset will be released June 7th, while the film hits Netflix and select theaters June 12th.

Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings will comprise 14 CDs and 148 tracks, capturing five full Dylan sets from the tour that were professionally recorded. It will also include recently discovered tapes from Dylan’s tour rehearsals, which took place at S.I.R. studios in New York. An exact track list has yet to be announced.

Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour took place between 1975 and 1976 and found the musician playing theater shows with little advanced notice. The tour famously featured Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, while one-off special guests included Ringo Starr, Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell.

The Rolling Thunder Revue box set has reportedly been in the works for several years (a selection of songs from the tour were featured on 2002’s The Bootleg Series Vol. 5). In 2017, a source close to Dylan’s camp told Rolling Stone, “It’s a great period and there’s so much music that was so well-recorded. I think that’ll be a great companion piece to the film. We have incredible, incredible stuff.”

Scorsese’s documentary about the tour was also long-rumored before Netflix confirmed its arrival in January. The film is expected to feature a rare on-camera interview with Dylan, as well as other performers from the tour. The majority of the interviews were reportedly conducted by Dylan’s longtime manager, Jeff Rosen, who also did the interviews for Scorsese’s 2005 Dylan film, No Direction Home.

Sunday 26 May 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing - review

The head of St Anne, c.1510-15

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing review – lines of beauty
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London
This superb show of Leonardo’s drawings reveals the craftsman alongside the visionary – and the sheer range of his curiosity

Laura Cumming
The Observer
26 May 2019

A stand of trees, deep and dense, shivers with daylight. The rising trunks are sap-full and potent, and every little leaf seems to flutter in the air. The scene lives in its moment, evergreen, fresh as today – and yet this tiny drawing was made in 1500, in chalk, with an almost unbelievable range of touch, the artist licking the tip to get the finest details. A humble glade of trees becomes a startling new spectacle by Leonardo da Vinci.

Everything about this magnificent presentation of Leonardo’s drawings amazes. Two hundred sheets are here reunited, after smaller displays around the country, in the largest exhibition of his work in more than 65 years. Although they have been in the Royal Collection since the 1670s, the sheer surprise of them never ceases; anyone who thought themselves fully familiar with his encyclopedic range – from the antique dragons to the fantastical grotesques – should think again. So much that Leonardo drew, from the stumpy legs of a plump toddler to the two men nearly dropping the heavy object they are carrying, Laurel and Hardy fashion, lies within our ken – in the world we see now. What staggers is the piercing probity of his linear investigations.
The Head of Leda, c. 1504-6 

What does a cornrow plait look like as it tightens over a girl’s cranium before unravelling in softly flowing freedom (like water, for one thing; and water runs through the whole show in the form of brooks, whirlpools, downpours and torrents, even an exact record of a flooding weir in the river Arno one autumn). What do the jaws of a horse look like when it is head down and grazing: Leonardo looks at this front, back and sides, and even from behind, in a view more or less through the horse’s legs, as if he wanted to be sure of the chomping from 360 degrees.

How do the muscles of a man’s biceps twine (here are the rhythms of flowing water, again) or the Gruffalo claws of a bear emerge from its toes? Leonardo dissected the left hind leg of an actual bear to make his observations. These animals have a plantigrade gait, meaning that they walk with their feet flat on the ground, like human beings. Quite apart from its anatomical revelations, the drawing seems fascinated by this extraordinary connection between bears and people.
Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515-18, attributed to Francesco Melzi

A portrait drawing of Leonardo by one of his pupils introduces this show, revealing his much-mentioned beauty, but also the lightness of his pale eyes (which one reads now as quite possibly blue). But with that, the hagiography is over. This could have been the standard approach to the Renaissance genius, raising before us a mind as cryptic as his mirror handwriting: hidden, unreachable, unimaginably mysterious. Instead, the exhibition brings Leonardo down from the cloud caps to the world of 16th-century Milan, where he is to be seen as an entertainer, a designer of masques and banners and armaments, drawing up variations on military cannons featuring swinging flails. Later, in 1514, he even produces a drainage map of the Pontine marshes for an engineering project in Rome. He was a visual thinker, above all, yet he was also a working craftsman.
The drapery of a sleeve, c.1504-8, a study for Salvator Mundi

But look at this map, so beautiful – and so pioneering. Leonardo starts with all the geographical knowledge he can amass, but then his mind takes flight. He imagines the sea off the coast of Tuscany, snug to the curving bays, meeting the land like a fitted blue carpet. The image, in chalk and watercolour, is partly a map and partly a relief, for the landscape is wavy with mountains. But mainly it is a vision – the first? – of how the sea-covered world might look from up in the air, where the high birds fly.
A deluge
A Deluge, 1517-18

Back on earth, man and beast coexist, very often as rider and mount. Horses gallop through this show from first to last. In the thunderous drawings for one of Leonardo’s several lost masterpieces, The Battle of Anghiari, they rear and recoil, tumble and surge, harnessed forces of war. He draws them with and without riders, homing in on the way they launch heroically upwards from crouched back legs to the peculiar bathos of their knobbly knees.
A study of a woman's hands, c.1490

His studies for another lost work – the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza, commissioned by his son in the 1480s – are sublime in their elegance, precision and rigour. As the captions to this show wittily remark, the more he drew the horses, the less he bothered with the man (who was, in any case, dead) until Francesco was scarcely even a consideration.
A Rearing Horse, 1503-4

Almost the earliest horse in this show, c. 1480, seems to express something about Leonardo’s way of looking and thinking. It is an appealing and even slightly humorous drawing of a living creature, with shaggy Thelwell hooves and unimpressive ears. If you couldn’t quite pick it out of a racehorse lineup, it nonetheless has some semblance of separate identity. But it is overlaid with straight lines marking out the relative measurements. He observes the specific horse but from it he seeks to deduce the universal proportions.
The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman, c.1509-10

This is made even clearer by the arrangement of the show, which is grouped by subject yet remains approximately chronological. This is the work of Martin Clayton, also the author of the superb catalogue. I doubt I will ever see a more intelligent presentation of Leonardo in my lifetime. Each of these groupings – horses, machines, visions of clouds, rock formations, deluges, and so on – would have made a whole show in itself.
Just to see the botanical drawings alone is to witness Leonardo’s mind in action – noticing the underhanging weight of brambles on a prickly branch, the whorl of teasels like some tousled wig, or the abrupt cylinder of a bulrush halfway up a reed. Everything is made singular in these drawings, and yet together – as here – the connections emerge, between waves of water and hair, between the seed in the pod and the foetus in the nutshell womb.
The head of St James, and architectural sketches, c.1495, a study for the Last Supper

It is not controversial to prefer Leonardo’s drawings to his paintings; many people do. But the show also allows us to remember the paintings. Perfectly positioned on one of the gallery walls, almost as in Milan itself, is a vast reproduction of The Last Supper. Below it are drawings of the apostles, young and old, of drapes and hands. There is even an ink sketch in which the artist is working out the seating arrangements, as it were; trying out different ways to fit 13 people – all of them in action, all of them equally visible – along a single side of the table.
Recto: The skull sectioned. Verso: The cranium
Recto: The skull sectioned. Verso: The cranium, 1489

One sheet shows a woman’s head and shoulders in a revolving sequence of torsions, gracefully twisting and turning, from every angle, even the rear, in exquisite metal point on pinkish-buff paper. Leonardo’s line takes the eye round and round, in and out, and through the movements in an extraordinary perpetual mobile. It is the graphic equivalent of an entire ballet danced by a solo performer. And there, among all these variations, is the actual pose he used for the serpentine figure of Cecilia Gallerani in that surpassingly strange portrait Lady With an Ermine.

The painting emerges from the drawing, it seems, like the tree from the seed. And the seed contains all of Leonardo’s knowledge: his observations, his scrutiny, his penetrating inquiry into the world and all of its marvels, from the origins of life to the obliterating darkness of night, in the late works. One wishes that Leonardo had drawn everything.

● Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, until 13 October

Thursday 23 May 2019

Neil Young in Seattle - and the post-coital Rustfest at the Pine Box (courtesy of Gary's Westside Towing...)

"No photography was permitted during the show.......unfortunately. I got an 'upgrade' to the 2nd row. Neil on top form, with some new songs."

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Seattle Rustfest, May, 2018

That guy in the back row. Where have I seen him before...?