The Performing Songwriter, May-June 1994

"In Concert" With Leo Kottke

by James Jensen

     Leo Kottke wanders onto the stage, Jim Olson 6-string in one hand and Taylor's "Leo Kottke signature model" 12-string in the other.  Casually attired in an open-collared dress shirt and sport coat, he is following the tuxedo-clad [classical guitarist] Pepe Romero who was preceded by Flamenco's great Paco Peña and legendary Jazz virtuoso Joe Pass.

      As the evening's final performer on the "Guitar Summit" tour, Kottke settles into his chair, scrunches his face toward the spotlight, and mumbles in his trademark monotonic baritone, "I didn't really know what I'd do when they asked me to take part in this thing...but I figured that Joe, Paco, and Pepe probably wouldn't be playing a lot of slide."  The audience roars with laughter as Kottke removes a bottleneck from his jacket pocket and launches into a medley of his 12-string slide classics.  This is a typical example of Kottke's attitude -- proud to be included with these giants of the instrument, while relaxed and not taking himself too seriously.

      Kottke exploded onto the music scene in the late 60s when John Fahey's Takoma Records released his ground breaking 6- and 12-String Guitar album.  The 70s found Kottke enjoying the status of a near pop star, touring the world and producing ten records for the Capital and Chrysalis labels.  Around 1983, however, Kottke hit a detour.  He developed a debilitating sort of tendonitis in his right arm, the cause of which was the playing technique he had used to such great effect for the past twenty years.  Unwilling to give up his instrument, Kottke undertook a complete revamping of his playing style and resurfaced on the Private Music label three years later.

      The next major surprise in Kottke's career was his stunning development as a lyricist of not only great wit but wight with "Jack Gets Up" on his My Father's Face record.  Two years later, inspired by the reception to that song, Kottke released Great Big Boy, an album devoid of instrumentals (a first in his twenty-five year recording career).

      Nearly thirty years into his career, the ever-youthful looking Kottke is showing no signs of slowing down.  He is on tour with the "Guitar Summit" show and has just released the Rickie Lee Jones-produced Peculiaroso.

You've said that finding the guitar saved your life.  Is that true?

Yeah, I think it is true.   I was taking a nose dive somewhere between eleven and twelve because my sister had died, and I was practicing something that siblings do which is follow in their footsteps and die as well.  It actually does happen, and whether I would have croaked or not is one thing, but I had been in bed for a couple of months and I needed something or that's probably where I'd have stayed.  And the guitar was it.  I had been playing on other instruments since I  was five but there was something special about the guitar, and still is.

When you first began to play was it something that you were compelled to do in all your free time?

Absolutely, and it still is.  We had a day off here yesterday and I just sat in my room and played.  I really can't think of a better way to spend my time, and that's kind of stunted the rest of my life, but it's unbeatable.

Were you writing songs and instrumentals right from the very start?

Yes and for two reasons.  One, I couldn't find anything to imitate at the time.  And secondly, because what I heard on the radio didn't bear any resemblance to what I wanted to hear on the guitar.  I had been playing single note instruments and I wanted to hear a guitar played as a piano.

What compelled you to start performing for other people, and when was that?

The compulsion was free beer, and I was still in high school.  I played a set in a place called Basin's Lounge in Washington D.C., ordered my free pitcher of beer, and they charged me for it.  So I learned a lot in that first performance.

You had previously released a vocal album when you recorded the legendary 6 and 12 String Guitar instrumental album for John Fahey's Takoma records.  Who's [sic] idea was it for you to not sing on that record?

I had discovered the slide guitar through John's playing of a Bukka White tune called "Poor Boy," which is on my current record [Peculiaroso], and I went out and got a wine bottle and smashed it on the sidewalk and took off.  I don't come up with that much slide stuff anymore but I did in the beginning, and all of a sudden I was dying to write instrumentals.  I don't know why that was such a trigger because up to that point at least half of the set was vocal.  When I sent the audition tape to Fahey he said, "Don't sing, but I like your guitar playing."  I had been trying to solve some of the rhythm problems you have in the right hand in terms of trying to avoid repetition, and I finally started getting a handle on that specifically with the tune "Ojo."

With Capitol and Chrysalis, you went through ten years where you put out at least that many albums.  Are you that prolific or was it hard to write that much and tour?

It was demanding, but I didn't notice it at the time because I hadn't taken the time to add it all up.  I think that all of the records I made at that time suffered because of the time schedule, but I managed to get them out.  I was required by Capitol to release one every six months, and the fastest I could do with all my touring was every nine months.  And it would spook me very time because I never had what I needed and I really didn't want to do covers.  I went to Chrysalis to get away from the deadlines, and I got a little more room.  It was almost two years after I left Capitol that I put out the first one on Chrysalis, and that was really instructive because it was no better in particular than any other record I'd done.

Around the time of your last release for Chrysalis in 1983, Time Step, you faced a possible career-ending injury.

Yeah, I would feel it in my forearm and wrist, and it would radiate into my fingers.  It wasn't pain as much as if was a feeling of shutting down or paralysis.  It was a kind of paralysis you would get from tendonitis, and I would last about five to ten minutes into the set, and it would set in and I really couldn't play.  I would flounder.  It lasted a long time, and it was a horrible situation because I would go out to play knowing I would be awful and there was nothing I could do about it.

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