At 16, I thought rock and roll was what you heard on the radio and scratchy records, what you glimpsed occasionally on TV shows like "In Concert" and "The Midnight Special," what you read about in Rolling Stone.
Then I tagged along with my best friend to see Leon Russell at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum on August 11, 1973, my first arena concert. Suddenly, rock was more than tasty ear candy doled out in three-minute doses.
A scruffy dude with an Oklahoma accent and silver hair draped down his shoulders showed me and 15,000 other gaping witnesses that live music transcends mere recorded sound. This skinny, 31-year-old piano player and guitarist unleashed a rollicking, free-spirited life force that made your senses buzz like a stack of amplifiers. To keep up, all you had to do was let go.
I didn't know much about Russell before that night. I knew he played with George Harrison two summers earlier at the Concert for Bengladesh at Madison Square Garden. And I loved "Tightrope," his quirky, carnival-like single from 1972. It would be years before I realized the B-side of that 45 was "This Masquerade," a Russell song that George Benson made much more famous in 1976.
Russell didn't do "Tightrope" that summer night. Instead, he and his band conducted a rock and roll revival meeting that swayed with gospel-tinged songs like "Prince of Peace," "Stranger in a Strange Land" and a kick-ass medley of "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Youngblood." Three hours went by in a blur that had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.
After the house lights went up and the roadies started to break down microphone stands and pack away instruments, my buddy and I moved closer to the stage. I think we simply wanted to get closer to all the energy that had just been generated, to absorb every atom still ricochetting through the arena.
We were 10 feet away when our night got even better: Russell strolled back onstage all by himself with a plastic cup of beer in one hand and sat down at the piano. No one was expecting this, not even the roadies. Half the crowd was already gone when Russell, both fists flailing, started pounding out "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."
To this day, 43 years and hundreds of concerts later, I've never seen a more unexpected, impromptu encore.
That moment came flooding back five years ago, when I saw Russell join Elton John onstage at Madison Square Garden to do a few songs from their duet album, "The Union." Russell's long hair and beard were now an incandescent white. He walked slowly, shakily, with a cane. Plagued by health woes, the guy who I had once seen jump on top of his piano at Nassau Coliseum was now all but motionless on a bench. But once he started to play and sing, he was 31 again and I was an awestruck teenager bearing grateful witness.
Russell was 74 when he died in his sleep Sunday at his home in Nashville. In tribute last night, I played 1973's "Leon Live" album in its entirety. The three-LP set is like an aural postcard of the night I saw him at Nassau Coliseum.
When it was over, I was caught somewhere between long ago and eternity. The rocker who first showed me the power and magic of live music has left the stage for good this time. But that doesn't mean I won't keep an eye out for the unexpected encore.
Rock on, Leon.