Saturday, May 21, 2005

Leon's Gone

Spent the tail-end of a dull Saturday afternoon checking up on some blogs, including the one by noted Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski, and was shocked to read that our old friend Leon Eagleson was dead. Joe Nick's post evokes Leon far better than I ever could, although it did bring back the memory of my visit to his mother's house in Nederland once he'd moved back there, where I watched some of the most pathological interaction possible between two people. I remember at one point, she'd been silent for a while (not, most likely, because of Leon's constant refrain of "Shut up, Momma") and Leon mentioned that Nederland once really did have a sign that said "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you here," and she sat up ramrod-straight in her chair and crowed "And I wisht it still did!" which, of course, provoked another "Shut up, Momma."

Later, we went to the barn or garage where his astonishing record collection was, and he challenged me to ask for any record. I'd never seen a Robert Johnson record in the flesh before, so I asked him if he had one. "Shit," he said, "I thought you were gonna ask somethin' hard," and then asked which one I wanted to see. And he really did have just about everything, from the country blues down to obscure Texas and Cajun sides that were great, even if nobody'd ever heard of them but him.

Even later, we somehow wound up driving to Port Arthur, still drinking, which we'd been doing all afternoon, and my only memories are a pretty much boarded-up downtown and us pissing on the grave of Harry Choates, the man who allegedly (and I do mean allegedly) wrote "Jolie Blonde" and died in the Austin jail, where he'd been hauled on child-support charges. I was still working at the Austin American-Statesman at that point, and I'd begun looking into the allegations that Choates had been beaten to death by an Austin policeman who was angry at all the noise he was making in the cell. The best information I got was from another drunk who was in the tank with Choates that night, and claimed that Choates was so drunk he slipped and fell and cracked his head on the bench in the cell, no cops in sight. Anyway, Leon and I agreed that Harry was probably thirsty and would welcome even our recyclings.

OK Records, Leon's store, was a frequent after-work hangout for me and Joe Nick. We'd head down there and hang out, watching Leon banter with the customers and hear him tell stories. I vividly remember one afternoon when some young black teenager was in there talking about how he was going into a life of crime because it was so cool. Leon impassively reeled off a graphic, detailed description of what happens to young boys his age when they get tossed into the general jail population, including a warning that involved a Folger's coffee can (I'll spare you). The kid, to his credit, kept up his bravado, but you could already see the second-thoughts forming across his brow.

When the first hip-hop records started coming out, there was no way in hell to get them in Texas, and I think this, as much as anything else, is what made Leon close the store. I'd hear of something and ask him if he could get it and it would take a month, if he could get it at all. By the time it became evident that this was the new thing, and that the impromptu Blue Monday jam sessions at the shacky bars just up the hill from OK Records were going to fade away, I think he'd made the decision to do likewise, and one day he just wasn't there. His part-time helper Huggy Bear made the transition more smoothly, but it was clear Leon wasn't interested. And now he's gone and faded away his own self.

Joe Nick said it better, but RIP, Leon. It was good knowing you.

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