|Acoustic Guitar, November/December 1992|
Words and Music: Leo Kottke's travels with guitar and voice
by Jim Ohlschmidt
Of course, on Great Big Boy and other recent records, Kottke's guitar playing is only part of the story. Works like "Driver" (see transcription, page 54) comprise an important new step in Kottke's evolution as a songwriter and, if you will, a poet. In that song, Kottke paints this scene in three haunting and concise stanzas:
Way down there it's raining dust
and snakes police the roads.
And a truck weighed down with misery
stops and unloads.
And eighteen broken passengers,
their blood as thick as mud,
beg for water -- for anything.
The driver waves good luck.
The sun's been frying lizards
hidden under rocks.
And now it fries the refugees
and turns their brains to chalk.
Eighteen men and women,
and one brand new pair of shoes,
and the driver's back at the border.
What's he got to lose?
The night wind screams
across the freezing ground.
There's no one left to tremble
or to fear for him now.
They are bones and scattered,
drifting like the snow
that falls each night and settles
all around his soul,
all around his soul.
"This record has gotten the best reception from radio, from the press, and from listeners that I've had in 15 years," Kottke says. "Something has finally fallen into place. It started with the song 'Jack Gets Up' [My Father's Face]. I'll never write another one like that. I felt spooked by the tune, because it revealed so much. But it only revealed a lot to myself, and it taught me that you do have to take a risk and put yourself on the line."
Kottke's growing repertoire of spoken word songs is his more fertile lyrical ground. The esoteric word-play and overlapping imagery of "Jack Gets Up" and the pathetic but hopeful human caricatures in "Husbandry" [That's What] are along paths of twisted logic and hip hyperbole similar to those plumbed by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; Kottke's more rhythmically intense pieces, like "The Other Day (Near Santa Cruz)" and "Nothin' Works" from Great Big Boy, have a less organic, a more urban -- dare we say it -- almost a rap quality. Kottke bristles at the suggestion.
"I'm certain a lot of rappers would be deeply offended to think that anyone would mistake my music for what they do," he says. "Anyone who thinks this should just spend a couple of seconds listening to it, and they'd hear no resemblance. It comes out of the first experience I remember that I would call art, and that was listening to an announcer named Mark McGronskey who was on the radio when I was six years old. I was mesmerized by his voice. At about the same age I thought Paul Harvey was fantastic. There was something about his voice that knocked me out. That's been ruined by his content as I've grown up.
"As a kid, I listened to a lot of the spoken word records that Caedmon put out. They specialized in authors reading their own works or their favorite works. There's a fantastic record of Tennessee Williams reading Hart Crane, and it's perfect because Williams was obviously a big Crane fan, and Crane was a real hard case and so was Tennessee Williams. He had just the right amount of lisp and whine to make these things sound like you had never heard them before, but absolutely correct. Later on there was Ken Nordeen, who put out an album called Word Jazz , which is great, funky, hipster stuff that reaches a lot of people, like Tom Waits, for example. And he's working. he's still doing it. There's a whole genre of spoken word stuff that's predated any rap and that has its own place. That's what makes speaking over the guitar seem familiar to me. It's right and it's valid. It's not an attempt at something else."
Kottke has had similar revelations about this singing. "I needed to find out -- and I finally did on the last couple of records -- what the hell I was opening my mouth for, " he says. "On a technical level, it was something as simple as admitting I wasn't a tenor. That was hard to do because I love tenors. They get the best parts and it's by far the most popular voice for radio, etc. But I'm a baritone. A false note is admissible, but falsity is not, and that comes from singing out of character. I'll never forget seeing Ethel Merman on the 'Tonight Show.' She sang a disco song with a drum machine. I'm not an Ethel Merman fan, but hearing her do KC and the Sunshine Band was something, first of all, to be avoided like the plague, but not to be missed. It was unbelievable! And every minute you knew that she knew that she was dying. With every breath she was just killing herself. Up until that moment, she knew who she was, and I'm sure that during it, she knew who she was not."
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