Rolling Stone, August 29, 1974

Machine Gun Kottke:  Into the Myth Gap

by Tom Murtha

Page 2

      After the Takoma album was out, Kottke moved to southern California to make it, ad ended up mailing his own records.  "I used to pick them up in boxes and take them down to the post office, tiptoe through the turtle shit on Fahey's front porch.  John is probably the best friend I'll have."

      He was indigent in Pasadena when his present manager, Denny Bruce, found him.  Since he spent all his time with his guitar, he'd decided he'd better make some moves toward making a real living with it.  "Denny and I were made for each other.  Without him, I could have ended up stranded in a blizzard somewhere in South Dakota with my starving children, Billboard in my pocket.  Denny is a human being.  I told him once I was working too much.  So now I don't work so much."

      Work is maybe half the time, playing every night when he's out.  The rest of the time he is at his lakeside home in a Minneapolis suburb, Minnestoaka.  He has recorded or mixed his last three albums at Minneapolis's Sound 80 Studio, where he is presently recording Dreams and All That Stuff for Capitol, to be released in the fall.  He often works with local players -- jazz bassist Billy Peterson and drummer Bill Berg, for example -- and would like to record with classic-styled guitarist Michael Johnson, whose Peter Yarrow produced album flopped on Atco last year. Kottke and Johnson often show up unexpectedly in what few small Minneapolis coffeehouses are left.

      The Guthrie Christmas shows are the only gigs he ever works in town, except for the occasional spontaneous show-ups with Johnson in local coffeehouses.  "I wouldn't like it to feel any more like work at home than it does already."

      His one concession to notoriety is an unlisted number, two years old.  "When we lived at town in Lake Harriet, we had a diaper man who knew who I was.  He would call and tell my wife he was in love, leave notes with the diapers, stuff like that.  Now my Uncle Leo gets all the obscene phone calls."

      But Leo is fairly safe in his chosen haven, even as John Denver safely resided in gilded suburban Edina, Minnesota, before getting on a rocky mountain high.  To his hardcore original local cadre, he could never have gotten any bigger, and each ensuing release is just one more wonderful record for the library.  He's old friend to old hat -- respected as a simple contemporary.  To the young and older ripples on the edge of the local pop pond, the rock that caused the wave could have been dropped anywhere but in their midst.  Everyone in Minneapolis knows that stars come from "the coast" or Cleveland at best.

      "I will undoubtedly eventually expire there," Leo says.  "Something I read...Thomas Mann...what story was that...something about creativity being generated by contrasts.  In this case the seasons.  People who put up with that kind of winter have to have a certain kind of temperament.  When the spring comes again, it's like a surge, and you get up and ride the wave.  And when the winter comes, there's like this tinkling all around your brain and everywhere, and you sit back and ruminate..."

      For all his burgeoning fame and the increasing attention media bestows on him ("Last time in New York, it was People.  For two days they crawled through my brain from front to back.  Then they wanted my home number..."), his major reputation springs from fellow guitarists and guitar aficionados.  Fellow Takoma artist and progenitor of the guitar rags, Robbie Basho, says, "Kottke, Fahey and I are the forerunners of a new movement, the American classical guitarists."  Indeed, Kottke, as well as Fahey and Basho, have refined that instrument beyond Appalachian and Southern folk forms to free it from the limitations of conventional two- and three-fingered pattern picking and strums.  The result has been a new tradition of extended compositions and the short but complete melodies for which Kottke is especially famed.  Kottke in particular seems to have tapped the implicit logic of the guitar fingerboard, perhaps pensively fantasized by many but never played before.

      Kottke says, "I don't know about that classical stuff; Fahey used to talk about that a lot but doesn't really anymore.  I guess it would be nice if it all were the precursor of some sort of concert movement toward steel-string guitar.  It is pretty American, you know."

      But only inevitable chronology will tell how this generation regards its musicians through coming years.  For Leo Kottke, the great swell of time-trapped pop stardom may only be a short while away.  

[The End]

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