Newsday (April 2, 1993)

For Kottke, Home Is Where the Guitar Is

by Denise Flaim

     "Deprivation followed by glimpses of reality."  That's how acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, who performs tomorrow at Inter-Media Art Center in Huntington, describes his teenage stint as a Navy enlistee aboard a submarine.  It's an apt metaphor for the steel-string picker, who for the past 20 years has maintained a rigorous travel schedule replete with rental-car exhaust and Days Inn checkouts, only to surface for performances that reinforce his cult status.

     "Home is really the guitar," explains the 47-year-old, who identifies his physical residence as Wayzata, Minn.  Last year, Taylor Guitars unveiled the Leo Kottke signature-model 12-string, and his music is included in the curriculum at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

     But Kottke shrugged off his instrumentalist label last year with the release of "Great Big Boy," his 21st album, first all-vocal recording and "probably my favorite recorded effort." Like eclectic singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, who contributed background vocals on a few of the album's cuts, Kottke creates unabashedly poetic, frequently ironic lyrics about what he calls "clumsy livers - people who don't match their emotional age to their chronological one."

     Initially deprecating about his vocal ability, Kottke tamed his baritone by getting pointers from Linda Ronstadt and analyzing eructation ("When you burp and you try to amplify your burp - that's almost the same as singing," he says in total seriousness).  It's ironic that Kottke could find vocal salvation through such a basic bodily function; the songwriter referred to his voice in the liner notes of his first album as "geese farts on a muggy day," a quote that has dogged him - pardon the mixed-species metaphor - through the decades.

     Kottke's life is bound up in still more gallinaceous imagery: Chicken feet have been flung onstage more times than the eccentric Midwesterner cares to mention.  "That keeps happening," sighs Kottke, who has an onand off-stage habit of launching into surreal but curiously endearing anecdotes in the manner of Spalding Gray.  After three years of performing without ever addressing his Minneapolis coffeehouse audiences, and frustrated by his fumblings with a stubborn gooseneck microphone, Kottke says, he turned to his audience and inquired: "`Has anybody here ever killed a chicken? That mike reminded me of the time I was trying to help an albino kid named Roger kill a chicken, and we couldn't do it.  We backed a tractor over its head, but even that didn't work; it was still animated.  We left and came back a half-hour later, and finally we had a dead chicken.  And that's all we really wanted."

     These days, with a quasi-religious devotion to the guitar that began at age 11, all the itinerant Kottke really wants is to keep playing.

     "Retirement used to be a big question for me," he admits, adding that he found the answer during "one of those weeks where I thought I had the wrong job - it did seem deprived and truncated and inhuman."

      Kottke's opening act was right out of a nursing home - "a seven-foot-tall nearly octogenarian ukulele player in a baby-blue suit and white boots." When Kottke asked the senior citizen why he continued to play at such an advanced age, the man threw him a look that would have melted concrete, and finally replied, "Well, it's what I do."

     "So I won't retire," concludes Kottke.  "Until something gives."

Leo Kottke.  Tomorrow at Inter-Media Art Center, 370 New York Ave., Huntington, 549-ARTS.  Show time 9 p.m., $20 cover.

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