Perhaps it’s the beneficent gaze of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, the merest trace of something tantalizing and delicious at the corners of her smile, that lends this evening its clandestine thrum. Whatever the ontological underpinnings, a cabal of samizdat boosters and hipster ethnographers has gathered in Adam Parfrey and Jodi Wille’s bohemian bastion in the hills of Silver Lake to watch Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person, his long-suppressed 1974 portrait of musician Leon Russell, which Blank is legally enjoined from showing except in nonprofit venues, with himself in attendance. And so he has made the long drive from San Francisco at the invitation of Parfrey and Wille, partners in Feral House and Process Media, the local mom-and-pop publishing vanguard that meets all the ecstatic and transgressive needs of People in Black (vaudeville Satanism, cheeky ephemera, lurid criminalia). The couple’s Hollywood Storybook cabin, burnished wood with the odd nautical embellishment, is one of five houses on a four-acre compound, the first of which was built for Howard Hughes’ girlfriend in the 1930s. (Someone really should do an academic study of the contribution of mistresses to modern architecture.)
Wille has known Blank for 15 years, ever since he was an artist in residence at Ohio University during her undergraduate tenure, and she subsequently sent him her student film on Outsider artist W.C. Rice. “Les and I used to trade pets with each other,” Wille says. “Once he traded me one of his albino axolotles — kind of like a giant albino tadpole, with external gills that look like an elaborate, flamelike headdress — for four of my Madagascar hissing cockroaches.”
These private Feral House salons always bring out the local alt-oisie, and tonight is no exception. In attendance are ex-Hustler editor and Feral House author Allan MacDonell (the upcoming memoir Prisoner of X), Germs drummer Don Bolles (ditto: Lexicon Devil), DiG! directrix Ondi Timoner, actor Michael O’Keefe and the Feral House intern, a Suicide Girl with a celebrity-death cameo in the upcoming remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1970 cult film The Wizard of Gore. Past honorees include White Panthers founder John Sinclair, The Devil and Daniel Johnston director Jeff Feuerzeig, and author Daniel Pinchbeck, lecturing on ibogaine.
According to legend, the Leon Russell film was commissioned by manager Denny Cordell, a mid-’60s bon vivant who also discovered Joe Cocker, after the Mad Dogs and Englishmen movie had teed Leon up for stardom and The Concert for Bangladesh had made him one of the top 10 touring rock acts in America. Figuring the third time’s the charm, they invited Blank down to Russell’s state-of-the-art recording studio on the Grand Lake of the Cherokees in the Oklahoma Ozarks, 70 miles northeast of Tulsa, for what would be two years of intermittent filming. The result, if not quite “the greatest rock-&-roll film ever made” as some critics have claimed, is certainly a testament to its time, and might well go a long way toward bumping up its subject’s waning legacy, if only anyone could see it.
The film offers raucous concert snippets from Los Angeles, Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin and some Nashville sessions of country standards for what would become Russell’s alter-ego showcase Hank Wilson’s Back: Vol. I. George Jones contributes a transcendent in-studio version of “Take Me,” and a short-haired, clean-shaven Willie Nelson shows up long enough to sing “Good-Hearted Woman” at a Western swing club. A dust-up with reformed folkie Eric Andersen, just then angling for a comeback, rivals the Dylan/Donovan throw-down in Don’t Look Back. And almost imperceptibly, a veiled animosity toward the camera and its myriad intrusions creeps in over the course of the film’s 72 minutes.
Blank claims that soon after the film played Cannes, Russell and Cordell had a falling out, with the reticent Leon inheriting the film in the ensuing lawsuit. The parties allegedly entered into negotiations again last year, after a brief 31-year hiatus, and Blank is understandably anxious about making the situation any more complicated. “Don’t ask me why Leon doesn’t like the film,” he says. “He never told me.”
“Initially it was very frustrating, because as a filmmaker, especially back in the ’70s, I was dedicated to being a storyteller,” Blank adds. “I’ve tried to be true to my feelings — on music and in probing the depths of the human soul, all the things that an artist does. I thought I did my best, some people liked the film, and to not have it shown, it was like coitus interruptus.”
As Leon himself sings on camera, in Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind,”
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“How many times have you heard someone say,
‘If I had his money, I could do things my way’?
But little they know that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.”