|Recordings: The Leo Kottke Anthology (1997)|
Inside front cover notes by Mark A. Humphrey:
It's difficult to whittle a career down to its essentials. And Leo Kottke's is no exception. His recording career was launched nearly 30 years ago in the Minneapolis basement of a polka king whose kids roller-skating on the floor above made for trying conditions. A year or so later a demo was sent to John Fahey, the eccentric genius who had single-handedly made a concert instrument of the steel-string acoustic guitar. "This cheap cassette by Leo Kottke, with a lot of distortion, came to us," Fahey recalls, "and I listened to it and said, 'Wow, that's great! It's beautiful music, and I bet it would sell.' Everyone else in the Takoma Records office said, 'Oh, no, he plays just like you, it will never sell'. But I was running things, so we put it out." Since 1969, 6 & 12 String Guitar has sold around half a million copies and still serves to define Kottke's music for many fans.
Despite the daunting task of following up such a brilliant debut, Kottke's recording career continued at a gallop over the next two decades. More than 20 albums have seen the light since then, and Leo frankly regrets that there's quite so much of him to collect. Still, he allows there are always moments, some of the best of which are anthologized here.
Kottke may be famous for such storming instrumentals as "Vaseline Machine Gun", but full-throttle showcases are only one facet of his music. He actually gained some success with Tom T. Hall's "Pamela Brown", crooning the words in the voice he once likened to "geese farts on a muggy day" -- one of many ironies in Kottke's career. Further ironies include being a bottleneck guitarist with marginal interests in blues and a 12-string guitarist who, on some level, is a frustrated banjo player. Pigeonholing Kottke hasn't been easy. He's been racked in music sections labeled "Folk" and "New Age", and one sage aptly called him a "Pop Virtuoso".
Anyone who has seen Kottke in concert has experienced his dry autobiographical soliloquies, exercises in purposeful befuddlement laced with absurdity and insight. Leo was born in 1945, which is worth noting, because he came of age when that tale-telling medium, radio, reigned supreme. Second only to his guitar, Leo's great instrument is his voice, muggy, migratory flatulence and all. It's a storyteller's voice, and those of you who've heard it can well imagine it relating the following "song of himself".
- Mark A. Humphrey
Leo Looks Left
My family, as far back as we can trace it, is German. Germans tend to think of Kottke as a German name with Polish origins. And in Polish, with a slightly different spelling, it means "kitten".
My mother was Dorothy Clugston and my father was Larry. My mother came originally from Indiana, but they met up here [in Minnesota]. My dad grew up in North St. Paul. That's where he learned to golf. The thing he's proudest of is the caddy championship he won here in '39. And he played golf regularly with Sam Snead for about two years. He taught hand-to-hand combat during World War II, was a referee and a hockey coach, but eventually went to work for the VA. During most of my growing up he was working for the VA. He was the entertainment director at a few hospitals. I probably came here because of the fact that they both had their roots here. It was a place I would see generally every summer for about a week. Wherever we were, we'd come back.
My mother played the cello and the piano, but I only heard her play piano. But when I was real little, she would play [recordings of] Stravinsky. She had "The Firebird" and "The Rite Of Spring". I don't remember this, but she said I [was] insane for Stravinsky. I drove my parents nuts, because I had to hear his music all the time. I would exhaust myself screaming along with Stravinsky while running around the place until I literally dropped. He still hits me that way. I was driving somewhere a few months ago, listening to "Petrushka", and there's that thing towards the end where all of the big strings -- basses and cellos -- are doing this real nuts kind of honking thing, and I screamed again.
I've been playing since I was five years old on something, but my first ambition was to be an announcer. I wanted to be a guy named Martin Agronsky. When I was six, he had some kind of current affairs show. What I remember is his voice and his sponsor -- he was sponsored by Butter-Nut Coffee. And I thought he was broadcasting from a coffee can. That was my idea, and I could picture it pretty clearly: it had a wire running out of it, sort of drooping over the horizon.
As a kid, I played trombone. Lowell Lehman was the best bandleader I ever had. I first ran into him in the 7th grade in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Years later I realized what this guy meant to my musical life. He just had a way, and I remember it clearly, of reminding everybody in the band how much fun this was. While he was up there directing, he told us again and again: "Don't take this too seriously, but you've got to like it. If you don't like it, you can just leave." He'd be on that, day in and day out. I remember that every now and then he'd have us construct certain changes, certain chords, and certain rhythms just to show us how bad it could get. We'd play this horrible change, and we'd all groan and he'd say, "See? Compare that to this other experience." He'd really demonstrate it to you. Those changes showed up later when disco was coming out. I'm not lying.
My sister was younger than I was by a year. She'd had a series of brain tumors and brain surgeries since she was five or six. When she died, I went on a real downward spiral and wound up getting every disease in the book. I'd get things like chicken pox and mumps and measles, and it wouldn't stop. I kept getting worse. I wound up flat on my back with a real bad dose of mono. I'd been in bed about two months. They were concerned about rheumatic fever. ; I wasn't supposed to move. My mother brought home this toy guitar, because you can't play a trombone flat on your back. It was plywood and had a cowboy stenciled on the front. This was in Muskogee; I think I was 12.
The toy guitar cured me, literally. I was out of bed in a week. I invented an E chord; it was the first chord, other than on a piano, that I'd ever played. I'm convinced that it's the sound of a guitar that, for some reason, is made for my brain. I got it all in one super-compressed little ball. In computerese, you'd call it a squirt. It went straight to my brain, and it's been expanding there ever since. I was just one of those lucky people who happened to stumble over the instrument they were made to play. I would have spent my life on the trombone in perfectly good cheer thinking that that was it for me.
That's as close as I'll ever get to a religious experience. It was an extremely pivotal moment in my life. Everything about the guitar happened all at once that day and has been unfolding ever since. I don't pursue the guitar; I really just follow whatever all this is. It led me to John Fahey, most importantly, and then all these other players and a whole way of life. Still I am surprised that it became a job. I never need that part of it. Once I had the guitar, everything else in life was essentially irrelevant to me. It still is that way to a great degree. I could have done any kind of work, but I'd have been happy because I had the guitar.
I spent more and more time alone with [the guitar]. When I wrote "Ojo," I spent 12 hours on [just] one bar of that tune -- this rhythm problem that I couldn't solve. It takes time before you can go that long doing it.
The year I made the Takoma album I finally started taking off instrumentally, I was getting ideas right and left and just having an absolute ball playing the guitar. The tunes never came so fast as they did then. If I would get one, I would get three. The only thing I hated was that it was exhausting, because you'd get these ideas, and they'd usually come in bunches. And you could spend forever getting them worked out. You'd get crazy after a while, but it was a great time.
The 6- and 12- String [Guitar] Takoma record took three hours. The way [the songs] appeared on the album is the order that I played them in during the recording, because we didn't know anything about sequencing. It was recorded at Empire Photo-Sound [in Minneapolis]. there was no studio; they hung up some sheets in a warehouse. I played inside the sheets. And I still love that sound on the original vinyl.
Annie Elliot had drawn an armadillo logo on the calender for one of my appearances at the Scholar [in Minneapolis] and I asked her if we could use that for the cover [of the album]. She'd used the armadillo because I complained about having one inside my guitar [a Gibson B-45 12-string]. Some days that guitar could sound awful, and one night I mentioned, "There's an armadillo in my guitar." That's where the cover came from. I love that cover. Somebody at Takoma put the scroll stuff around it.
The record came out in '69, and it wasn't long until things started happening. It got a rave review in Rolling Stone, and I remember finding out from a club owner that WLS-FM was playing it in Chicago. That was back when you had open formats. WLS was a big station, so other stations picked it up. They played the usual breadwinners like "Machine Gun." I think "Watermelon" got played a lot. "Busted Bicycle" got played a lot, as I recall. these stations were so much more wide-open then, they had room for stuff like me.
I was definitely put to use. I was used on a lot of regional used car spots, and I'd hear [them] here and there. First time I heard me as a music bed was a sermonette in Dallas. It was "Easter"; [I guess] if the title seems to apply they don't care what it sounds like. So I was stoned or drunk or both, bouncing off the walls, and the sermonette came on -they don't even have those anymore. It was just before sign-off. Anyway, I heard this and said "What is that? It sounds pretty -- oh, that's me!" They played that for a long time; I never got a dime.
Procol Harum had hard the Takoma record in England, where it was handled by Sonet. They showed up at a gig I did at Paul's Mall in Boston and said , "Do you want to do a tour?" I said, "Sure," and off I went to Europe. They gave me Europe. The biggest I've eve been is in Germany, and it's only because of them, really. I did two European tours with Procul Harum and had an absolute ball with those guys. They became very good friends of mind. I learned a lot from them.
John [Fahey] and Denny [Bruce, Kottke's manager in 1970] got a production company going, which they sold to Capitol. I was their first act. The Capitol contract required an album every six months! It was a real exhausting struggle and [it] hurt the records. But there were always a couple of things that fell into place quick[ly] enough in the studio and worked. I loved Capitol Records, especially Brown Meggs, who was the president at the time. He hated the music business and liked people who were either impervious to the business or two dim to even know it was there. And I fell into one or more of those categories. We really got along; he liked what I did.
All of the records after the first one were done in Minneapolis with David Z and Prince. We were all standing around, making these things. I've always worked with the same rhythm section. Almost all of [the records] were engineered and mixed by Paul Martinson.
I went to Chrysalis because, according to Denny, I could not get out of the six-month stipulation at Capitol. My reason was to just get more time between records. I went over there and did a lot with Jack Nitzsche on the first record for them. He's inspired , and that's why I wanted to do it. He's hilarious. I haven't seen Jack in a long time, but we used to hang out a lot, and I loved what he did for the record.
I got into more of a head trip while at Chrysalis. n some cases that worked, in other cases I would get a little too drifty for my own good. I was trying too hard is how I look at it now. But, again, there are moments. What I remember is sort of a basic mood through Capitol and a mood through Chrysalis. [At Capitol] I was just trying to come up with tunes, and the recording was incidental. I was desperate to come up with tunes because of that contract. At Chrysalis I was really trying to come to terms with the idea of recording. Now I had more time to get into the idea of "What is a record?" That's dangerous. Once you start wondering about that, you're going to have to work through a few things. What I really needed through the Chrysalis years was a more involved producer. Essentially, I was the producer. It was not until the end of the Chrysalis stuff that I began to take advantage of producers. I learned enough to know I should leave it up to somebody else.
After the Chrysalis contract I decided not to make records. I was just going to stop, because it took so much time, and I'd rather be playing. I stopped for over four years, and at the end of that time I realized that there is some influence that records have on touring. So I fished out another deal with Private Music and started recording again. What I learned from that is you make records for promoters and club owners. If they know you're making records, they take you seriously. If you're not, you really have to hit 'em over the head to keep working. You have to scuffle more, and I didn't want to do that, because I'm a lazy bastard.
I've joined the soundstream, I'm part of that thing that was going through me before I could play, and now I'm swimming in it. That's the biggest privilege I've been allowed, really. All I know is that I fit in somewhere, but it's like fitting into a river. I can probably point to some bit of style or technique that has found its way into guitar playing, but I can't claim it. I may have dreamed up some of this, but I dreamed it up working through other players.
When I met [guitarist] Robbie Basho, I was still in high school, and he was drunk and a totally different guy from the Robbie who turned up at Takoma Records. [Basho was prominent among the American primitive-style guitarists recorded by John Fahey for his Takoma label.] Robbie was at one of my first gigs at the Unicorn [in Washington, D.C.] and I said, "I'm going to go up and play tonight, and I'm afraid I'm going to sound an awful lot like you." He said, "That's OK. We all go through somebody." Robbie was the first guy I went through, and people go through me, but they're on their way to somewhere else.
The whole thing has been nice. It's been a fairy tale, really. I've got my complaints but, Jesus, they're nothing.
-- Leo Kottke, from an interview with Mark A. Humphrey
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.