Rolling Stone, August 29, 1974

Machine Gun Kottke:  Into the Myth Gap

by Tom Murtha

      New York -- In the fall, 1969, I arrived in Minneapolis from St. Cloud, Minnesota.  I hung around outside the crumbling dives and coffeehouses on the West Bank, hoping to catch a phantom strain of Koerner, Ray or Glover or maybe Dylan, not yet faded from the chill north wind.

      But John Koerner was in Denmark, Dave Ray was in hiding and Tony Glover was writing, resisting pressure to compose his memoirs, and doing late night radio.  Dylan was long gone, except from late night smoky conversations.

      Guitarist Leo Kottke had preceded me -- he'd been thrown out of St. Cloud State a year or two earlier.  Except he was old enough to get into the bars.  It was left to the thousand copies of his first local release on Oblivion, 12-String Blues (1969), and his weekend presence at the Scholar Coffeehouse to fill the myth gap in Minneapolis's sentimental night life.

      Kottke, though self-conscious, was not self-centered.  Still isn't.  He sought what he provided.  "I sometimes had the feeling I was hanging around a dead person," he said to me in New York one afternoon last May.

      In 1974, he is riding Ice Water, his best seller at 185,000 copies.  It is his seventh album not counting the Oblivion re-release two years ago.  6 and 12 String Guitar is on John Fahey's Takoma label (1970), and a 1970 remake of the Oblivion Circle 'Round the Sun is on Minneapolis's Symposium, not nationally distributed by Takoma.  Sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom -- it may have been.

      The last four, Mudlark, Greenhouse, My Feet Area Smiling and Ice Water, are on Capitol.  Leo has become what is known in the biz as "solid product."  That means his recordings will never lose money, because he is not a "pop star" but a "virtuoso" by prevailing critical classification.

      Or, if you like classifications, here's a new one:  pop virtuoso.  That means people are beginning to realize he is not only a definitive 12-string guitar stylist but also, "hey, pretty fast."  Presumably, this will soon free him to add a gold record to his wall every few months, with cutouts and finally reissues bringing up the rear, until at least he is consigned to the ethnomusicologists for the final eulogy and copyright battles.

      This bothered Leo for a while.  "When I was in a blue mood, I used to think, 'Is that all people are really interested in is all that...'"  He spattered his tongue against his front teeth like a child playing a toy machine gun.  It made Leo feel guilty , like it was his fault or something.  Bad enough that John Fahey told him his voice sounded like "geese farts on a muggy day."  Between all that and Holiday Inns, Leo went into a decline, stopped writing and started crooning -- as best he could.  His third Capitol album, live from his annual gig at Minneapolis's Tyrone Guthrie Theater, is the best example of that stage.  He played through all those Vaseline Machine-Gun tunes as fast as he could, to get them out of the way and get back to the business of proving to himself that he could still tug those long, hanging melody lines, like the early "Easter in the Sargasso Sea," from within himself.

      Last summer in Germany, Leo proved to himself that he was still Leo.  "I was completely shocked at the tunes that got the best response," he said.  In May, with 3500 people present at the Felt Forum with Procol Harum, Leo seemed again to be playing to those 30 hearties at Minneapolis's Scholar, even though proprietor Mike Justin was not on hand to frump at the high school kids to shaddup and listen to the music or get out.

      Leo onstage communicates an oblivious sort of intimacy, involvement with his instrument and the individuals in the audience, if not the mass.  "I'd like to think all share one idea through the song," he says.  He forgets himself and falls off his stool.  Or is startled from his reverie by a heckler screaming something incomprehensible out of the din.  "Huh...wha--"  His eyes blink through the stage lights.  "Dave, are you here?"

      The fantasy of mass adulation swirls around him.  With his feet on the ground in such a heady atmosphere, he seems mildly ionospheric by juxtaposition.  Leo's career has been governed by the practicality of corduroys or white jeans, and knit V-neck sweaters, even though his music now provides the sound track for "Thought for the Day" on New York's WHN, "Sermonette" in Dallas, the morning commuter traffic report in Boston, and The Dating Game on TV.  "They gave away a trip to New Orleans, and a ticket to one of my concerts.  I tried to meet them after the show but they didn't come."

      The 1970 Takoma release was Leo's first brush with renown.  (John Fahey occasionally wandered through the Twin Cities to gig at the Scholar.  In fact, two years ago he broke his leg brawling with an out-of-state high school wrestling team staying at his hotel for the state championships.  Rumor has it Fahey won the match but lost the bout while trying out a drop kick he'd picked up in karate lessons.  On the same gig, Fahey ripped off the prize tortoise from St. Paul's Corso [?] Zoo to add to his turtle collection.)

Up Next
Interviews & Reviews | Recordings | Concerts | Tour Schedule | Songs & Lyrics | Guitar Tab
Audio & Video | Photo Gallery | Kottke Network | Links | Search | Credits

Home (Frames) | Home (No Frames)

Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to