|Recordings: 6 And 12 String Guitar (1969)|
Leo left Minneapolis for Los Angeles and the glamour of acoustic guitar stardom. It was not initially all he had imagined: While waiting for the world to pick up his album, Leo encamped at the Fahey abode (along with John's collection of turtles) and worked as Takoma's shipping clerk: "I used to pack them [Takoma LPs] up in boxes and take them down to the post office, tiptoeing through the turtle shit on John Fahey's porch," Leo told Tim Murtha of Rolling Stone (August 29, 1974).
But in time, Kottke graduated from shipping boy to concert guitarist ("pop virtuoso" was the honorific offered by one critic), the most celebrated graduate of Fahey's school of "American primitive" guitarists. Writing in the Minneapolis Star, Murtha enthused: "His unpredictable melodies extract a truth from the instrument every guitarist has always known is there but as never been able to state himself. The notes stay within the mind, then return to the listener when he last expects them...That is why so many listeners who hear Kottke's music for the first time have a feeling they have come to the end of a long search."
The simultaneously self-effacing and self-assured Kottke painted this self-portrait for Rick Walters in a 1981 Musicians' Industry interview: "I take -- and this is why I think so many people like it -- a totally different attack; the things I want to hear, and the things I want to know about, aren't a part of the established body of guitar knowledge. I'm a very eccentric player, and I go for the same thing Fahey's talking about...I think my stuff is much more accessible than some people who are better players than I am, and the accessibility is the kick you get out of hearing it."
More than 20 years since he first blindsided us, it's still a swift kick to hear the 24-year- old Leo Kottke rip, roar, and revolutionize our sense of the 6 and 12 String Guitar.
"The Driving of the Year Nail": With a wink and a nudge, Leo says "Howdy" with a briskly played ragtime evoking Blind Willie McTell on amphetamines.
"The Last of the Arkansas Greyhounds": Just when you think he's going to play "Tennessee Waltz," Leo descends to the depths Fahey calls "The Void," only to bubble aloft on a winsome major/minor modulation.. Hispanic tribulations and holographic harmonics ensue.
"Ojo": A tune you can whistle (go on, try it), upcountry yet melancholy, baby.
"Crow River Waltz": Waltz time isn't a Kottke trademark, yet he glides sweet and sure- footed across this reverie.
"The Sailor's Grave on The Prairie": With a title evoking "oceans of waving wheat" and a tipsy tune suggestive of "Buffalo Gate," this showcase for Leo's superbly singing slide (an Almaden Mountain Red table wine bottleneck) hints at what Santo & Johnny (of "Sleep Walk" fame) might have sounded like had they been coffeehouse folksters.
"Vaseline Machine Gun": Bottleneck "Taps" and then an infernal chugging spiral of sound: The hit of the album cranked as few had dared crank before, naked and unplugged. Leo was first inspired to try slide by Fahey's version of Bukkha White's "Poor Boy," and it's woven amidst the undulant fabric here. Asked by Rick Walters if he wearied of the much-requested "Vaseline Machine Gun" (a stoned epiphany of a tune title), Leo replied, "It would be disconcerting if not for the fact that every time I play that particular tune, I still get off on it."
"Jack Fig": Here's the full-bore barreling optimism of Leo's playing at its sunniest.
"Watermelon": Leo has fondly remarked on what he called the "quack" of his original Gibson B-45, not to be confused with his infamous comparison of his baritone voice to "geese farts on a muggy day." His 12-string happily quacks up a storm here, seeming the harbinger of some expected windfall.
"Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring": Leo's arrangement of this J.S. Bach standard is a deft rendition of classical repertoire for the steel-string folk guitar. Bach has always been one of Leo's favourite composers: "everything that he writes," he told Michael Brooks in a 1972 Guitar Player interview, "is perfect. Just perfect. He couldn't do it any other way."
"The Fisherman": Hints of "Doc's Guitar" and, in the minor section, "Windy and Warm" make this breezy 6-string workout an apparent homage to the gentle guitar giant from North Carolina, Arthel "Doc" Watson.
"The Tennessee Toad": Fahey's Void snarls at us again, a "Mr. Ghost Goes to Town" spookiness gauzed in phantom whistles behind Leo's spidery bottleneck. Bundle up and bolt the door!
"Busted Bicycle": Leo rips, building ascending spirals of sound around a lift from "holy bluesman Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way to Get Along/Prodigal Son." Asked if he'd heard Wilkins' song, Leo replied, "I think I did years ago at Fahey's. There's a lick in 'Busted Bicycle' that turns out to be an absolute steal from that." (Fahey once said: "If you're gonna steal, steal from obscure sources.") For a guy who has claimed indifference to blues, Leo has found creative ways to have fun with (and around) the idiom.
"The Brain of The Purple Mountain": More sunshine and shadows, recalling "Wheels," "Windy and Warm," and Leo's Doc Watson influence (with darker strains intermingled).
"Coolidge Rising": In the year of Nixon's first inauguration, Leo invoked the spirit of Calvin Coolidge, who haunts us still. His offertory to Silen Cal churns with hot, steaming "quack," shades of Dylan's take on Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die," and even hints of British Folkster Bert Jansch, who shares with Leo and admiration of jazz read master Jimmy Giuffre. This impressionistic stew was the sizzling climax for what became one of the most influential solo guitar albums ever waxed.
To those of us awestruck and wondering at Leo's source, he supplied this cryptic explanation to Gil Podolinksy: "Picking up to the guitar to me is like chewing your nails, it's a nervous habit. In the process, things pop up." [The End]
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