|Acoustic Guitar, November/December 1992|
Words and Music: Leo Kottke's travels with guitar and voice
by Jim Ohlschmidt
Perhaps Kottke's most endearing trait as a concert performer is the way in which he brings audiences into that intimate sense of place. Rather than keep his deeply personal connection to the instrument a strictly internal piece of business on-stage, throws open a window on his curious pscyhe with mostly spontaneous, sometimes rambling, often wildly colorful monologues -- spiked with keen observations and a droll sense of humour -- that have become as integral to his performance style as his music. "When somebody goes on-stage and only plays, they have a real uphill battle," Kottke says. "I think even with the great virtuosos, there's a separation between the performer and the audience that inevitably takes place, and most audiences are willing to endure that separation because they want to hear the music. But I think the really great players will always bring their audiences in. Joe Pass, for example, only says a couple of words in a set, but they're perfect. Sooner or later you have to decide what it is you are willing to do in a performance and what's required of you. It's tough -- so tough that it just defeats some people. There are performers who are so damn unaccommodating that you just want to throw them into the orchestra pit. There has to be some kind of personality going on, some kind of inclusion. You have to risk some kind of communication beyond the instrument.
"The first time I spoke on-stage, I had been playing for almost three years quite regularly [at the Scholar coffeehouse] in Minneapolis. I would sit up there and play, but I couldn't even look the audience int he eye, and I couldn't talk -- I just played and sang." One night while battling with a gooseneck microphone stand, Kottke remembered an experience he had on a farm, trying to kill a chicken that "just wouldn't die." "I said, out of the blue, 'Has anybody here ever killed a chicken?' --before I could stop myself or become self-conscious about it--and they laughed. I laughed, too, and then I couldn't stop talking about it because it just cracked me up. I told the whole story, how we finally backed a tractor over the thing, and how it was still kicking with the tractor on it. We just had to walk away and leave it there. After the set, the club owner, Mike Justin, was furious. "Do you now how many songs you just played? Two!" It was a 45-minute set and I had talked for 40 minutes! Then he said, 'And it wasn't funny!'
"So I went from sheer terror to sheer babble, and I had to come back in the other direction. But I did find out that you could really lighten the load and that it was fun talking to an audience. You could set up the tunes. When it really works, it's like a bunch of little launching pads, not so much for each tune but for the layers of a set."
When so much of the entertainment industry has gone ultra high-tech, there's something fundamentally refreshing about watching a performer whose only gimmickry is a sharp wit and a pair of deft hands. Although in his years of concertizing Kottke has always come off as, in his own words, "a little too unbelievably middle class, father-of- two, with a station wagon and a job behind a counter in a drug store," he has given considerable through to how he presents himself and how best to use his opportunities on-stage.
"When you play, after all, it is show business. Eventually you get the urge, at least I have, to take advantage of the situation, and at times I almost feel obliged to do so. That's one of the reasons why after 20 years I stood up to play. It seemed wrong somehow that people would pay to come and hear me play, and I'd walk out and sit down. I started feeling a little remedial. There are some real advantages t standing as far as your playing goes, but it also seems to release nervous energy. It kind of passes through your feet instead of building up in your head."
Kottke's awareness of presentation has occasionally extended to staging experiments and even to his attire. "Sometimes I've thought, 'Gee, maybe I should wear a suit,' and for a while I did," he says. "I got a lot of shit for it too. Years ago Denny Bruce [Kottke's former manager] had a partner named Sepp Donahauer. This was the first time we were in L.A., and I played at the Ash Grove. Before the show, Sepp took one look at what I was wearing: I had some thongs on and some really big bell-bottoms, with the mattress ticking material. Sepp was mortified. He literally took off the shirt he was wearing and made me put it on, and he actually found some other pants. About a week later, Sepp walked by my car and he saw this home haircutting kit up on the little shelf behind the back seat. He was with Denny, and Sepp turned to him and said, 'You know, I don't think this guy's too him," and he dumped the partnership. Just left. Saw that home haircut kit and realized that he was working with a hick. This guy is Gomer Pyle. He knew he could make money off me, but he just didn't want it, like it was tainted."
Near the end of the interview, Kottke seems a little restless. He reaches for the nearest guitar, momentarily cradles it and then begins to pick little chords and figures, like a writer doodling in a notebook. For a while, I let the rare pleasure of hearing Kottke one- on-one in his own living room transfix my attention. At an appropriate pause, I regroup and ask him one last question: How has he managed to maintain his interest in the guitar over all these years?
"That's the big question," he says almost immediately, as if he had heard the question before it was asked. "Ninety percent of it is just luck, at least for me. That's how it all started, the guitar came and got me. I tried other instruments, but the guitar was pointed right at me, and so it took care of itself for decades. I did hit a spot at the end of my record contract with Capitol where I'd exhausted that part of the thrill. When that contract expired, I was really flat. My noodle was empty. They were willing to accept a record from me every nine months instead of every six months, which was the original provision, although I couldn't make them that fast anyway. I left the company because I was afraid I was going to destroy my capacity to even enjoy the guitar. I was working too hard, playing too much. You should never do 23 cities in Germany, especially in a row. You can do six cities and cover everything. I know now that doing 23 cities is just a way to milk them."
So here in the '90s, Kottke's career rolls along on a more human scale. A while back he began driving to dates in a Ford Aerostar mini-van (the Eddie Bauer model) whenever possible, in an effort to stay off airplanes and get back in touch wit the solitary freedom of the highway. How else does one experience such roadside wonders as a truckers' chapel in Texas, nerve gas in Nevada, and the Louisville "hot brown" sandwich? And who else but Leo Kottke can evoke so clearly these strange signposts of the American landscape, night after night, with just a voice and a guitar? [The End]
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