|Recordings: The Leo Kottke Anthology (1997)|
Leo's Song Notes
I'm telling you, when I saw thing song list, I was really impressed. It is a little different that the lists that other people compile, and I was really happy to see that. I think these are really great choices. There is a lot of stuff to plow through, so if there has to be a representative collection, this look good to me".
-- Leo Kottke
The Driving of the Year Nail
"We didn't know about sequencing, so the record (6- and 12 String Guitar) is in the order it was recorded. That was exactly how it went down. "The Driving of the Year Nail" was the first song. The record took 3 1/2 hours to do, and I all had to do was sit down and play everything I ever knew. We did it in a warehouse with sheets hanging around me for a studio. They were sort of the walls. [Laughs.]
In one of Joseph Campbell's books there was a drawing that was reproduced, concerning the Driving of the Year Nail. It was a sperm cell with a man, a woman, a goat, and a small bush in it. [Laughs].
That was the name of some kind of Etruscan calendar celebration. It is about the new year. I think it is Etruscan, even though it seem sunlikely, since we don't know a damn thing about the Etruscans.[Laughs.] I just remember being crazy about the phrase.
"Ojo" was a word that I thought I had made up, but it turns out to be, among other things, the name of a Mexican curse which means "cave eye". I don't know what "cave eye" is, but in the beginning, it wasjust my word and I like the sound of it. If somebody gives you the Ojo, it is "cave eye".
I later recorded "Ojo" on A Shout Toward Noon. I think I prefer the original, but what I think about the Private Music cut is it has a modulation in it that I didn't figure out until about 20 years later. [Laughs.]
A lot of my tunes have something featured that makes them a "first" for me and, at the same time, nails it home. I will never forget them. "Ojo" is one of them. That may be why I made up that word, because I had a real problem in that tune. I knew what the melody wanted to do, and I could feel it, but I couldn't make it happen. I sat down and worked on one bar of that thing for 12 hours straight. I remember coming out of it in a kind of daze. I was looking for a way of turning a rhythm around within a bar, in order to support what the melody had to do. That "j" [in the word Ojo] is where the rhythm turns around.
I turned out to be leading with the index finger at a point that you would normally only lead with the thumb. That was the first time I solved that kind of problem, and it was very liberating. "Ojo" has a global effect for me. Right away, I could put that to use everywhere. After that, I had a way of moving through structures without sounding so structured.
By the time I had discovered the thing in "Ojo," I discovered that the guitar could be a toy. If you got loose enough with it, it could stretch itself. The real rhythm actually lifts you off your feet. It actually pops you up, but it won't happen without that surprise. I was happy with that, and I thought I had something worth putting on tape.
This business of turning the beat around was really the nut of the whole thing. It was a technical kind of release that really got the ball rolling -- that and John [Fahey] saying give me a whole record of this stuff.
Vaseline Machine Gun
It is a title that I wish I had never thought of. It doesn't mean the same thing to me that it meant in 1967, or whenever I wrote that thing. I still love the piece, but I have to live with the title. I thought it was poetry back then, and now I think it is failed poetry. [Laughs] I honestly can't remember whether I thought it was a metaphor. A lot of my titles aren't. They just stand there, because they trigger something that feels the same as the tune.
For as long as I have been alive, and as long as I hope to be alive, [the year] 1968 was a s tough as it gets. Friends of mind died in all kinds of ways, and a lot of people were just getting started.
I had been in the Navy in the submarine service. We were tied up on the Thames River, in London, where I was stationed. We were one of the outside boats standing watch. I remember standing on the Halbeak, which was the boat I was assigned to, and we have been told to expect two canoe loads of Peaceniks. That was the actual word they used -- Peaceniks. I was told to load my clip. So I was standing under that huge bridge they've got with a loaded. 45, expecting two canoe loads of Peaceniks. Nothing ever felt sillier to me, and nothing was ever more obvious then. We have a submarine, and they have two canoes. Why don't we go inside and close the door. End of problem. But it wasn't how it was going to work. The Peaceniks never showed up.
More than anything else, I'm sure that at the time, something about "Vaseline Machine Gun" sounded good to me. It is the most rerecorded tune I have got. I usually don't revisit things, but that one I just rerecorded for a brand new record at the producer's suggestion. It felt about right this time, mainly because I am willing to fess up to the title now.
I was standng on the roof of the Minneapolis coffeehouse that I started out playing in, called The Scholar. It was where Bob Dylan started, and Simon & Garfunkel played there early on. ("Mississippi") John Hurt and quite a few people managed to blow through.
["Spider"] John Koerner [the legendary blues guitarist of '60s Elektra recording artists Koerner,. Ray & Glover] and I had been admiring his new bicycle, which was chained to a lamppost down the street, when a cab came around the corner and hit John's new bicycle and busted it. john is another one of those guys who hasn't gotten enough recognition for what he does.]
John [Fahey] wanted to produce. I owed him another record, so I said, "Well, let's produce me..." And we moved to Capitol. Denny Bruce, who was our manager at the time, shopped that deal and off we went. Denny set up the players and the studio for the first record, but the label threw out half of what was given to them and sent me down to Nashville to replace that.
We Went to Wayne Moss' garage, which was called Cinderella Sound. Wayne is the bass player on most of these tracks. half of the stuff from Mudlark was from The Sound Factory in L.A.
"Cripple Creek" is just kind of a central tune to me. I just rerecorded it on this new record, in a slightly different form. "Cripple Creek" was D-tuning, also way down . That is where a 12-string should be, as far as I am concerned. I don't like them up to pitch.
When I was in standard tuning on the 12-string, it almost depended on what month you found me in. I would pitch the guitar depending on how dead the strings were. When they were new, I would be up higher. My low E was never above a C, and it was quite often a B-flat. When I went for a G-tuning, I was going down from B-flat a whole step. I was way down there.
Eight Miles High
This is an arrangement that a band called Page Three did. That band was made up of two guitars and a harmonica, and the main guy was Al Gaylor. I recorded [a lot] of the tune at his lair called "Tiny Island." This version of "Eight Miles High" is very close to Al's arrangement of [it].
At one time, we had spent hours and hours together, because w roomed together back then -- he and his wife -- in a house on 4th street in Minneapolis. We spent a lot of time listening to "Eight Miles High." It's my favorite Byrds tune. There's a [Peter] Seeger influence -- not just because I covered a couple of his songs. He's in there. Seeger just comes up through that Byrds stuff.
I heard this somewhere about two years ago, and I remember thinking, Boy, I like that. Like a lot of those early records' vocals, I would now change the lyric, but that was a lot of fun.
Among other people there at Cinderella Sound, I was playing with [drummer] Kenny Buttrey. I was a Buttrey fan. I loved what he did with Blonde on Blonde and he was a great resource on that record. He was really a lot of fun to play with.
We did [the] The Sound Factory stuff with Putter and Paul Lagos first, and it was a real interesting thing to see the difference between what happens in L.A. and what happens in Nashville. It was a whole other experience, and he was really a lot of fun to play with.
At Capitol they wanted vocals, and they wanted a rhythm section. I thought that the vocals were unnecessary. The rhythm section was something that I wanted to try, but if I was really going to make any more of these records, my interest was never to record any more vocals.
When I started playing at the Scholar, and the few gigs I had here and there before that, all I did was sing. The audience that I had in the Twin Cities was entirely built on my singing. The guitar just happened to take off.
The first thing that got my playing going and moved me from just stumbling around to actually being able to float around a little bit, was learning Peter Seeger's "Living In the Country" off a live album called The Bitter and the Sweet. That blew my stack. Everything I did vocally was defined by what the guitar was doing behind it. So the vocals were kind of an excuse for playing the guitar. I loved to sing, but it was a different kind of singing then . I was a real shouter. You know it [Kottke's singing style at the time] has nothing to do with what I heard; it had to do with how I could support my voice. It wouldn't work for me unless I was way up on top and just going for everything I was worth.
I don't know what made that guitar happen. I got closer and closer into it, and I just knew that the tunes were possible. [John Fahey had a lot to do with it. I sent off a tape of about four tunes to him, and he like the instrumentals. John liked what I was doing, and that was the first real response from anyone else that played guitar.
This was one of the first piece I tried to [sight] read. I had been able to read the bass clef for years as a trombone player, but I couldn't read guitar music. Guitar is written on the treble clef, and everything is crammed in. So I decided that I would read piano music instead. At least I would know where the bass clef was going. I read "Bourée" from the piano score that I found, and I screwed it up. I left out a couple [of] things. It was a big favorite for a long time, and people wanted to hear it. It really hit a nerve, and I played it a lot live.
There was a bean time for me, which was working on my grandfather's farm picking beans. I just remember squatting in those bushes all day long. I hated it.
I like that tune. Every now and then, I still play that one. Greenhouse [the album that features "Bean Time"] and one called Dreams And All That Stuff were albums that guitar players tended to like a lot.
After Mudlark I just wanted to pull back a little [for the recording of Greenhouse], and I didn't want to record in L.A. or Nashville. That's when I met Prince, David Z, and Paul Martinson, the engineer who pretty much functioned as my psychiatrist for all the Capitol records.
Prince was either 16 or 17 and hadn't quite gotten a record deal, but he was in the studio recording a lot. He was very secretive, so you couldn't go in and listen. And he would turn his back to the control room if you were in there. So we'd just hang around in the halls. I remember we really liked that drum sound they were getting in there, which of course had to do a lot with David. He was really interesting to all of us. Nobody else was doing the [stuff that Prince was doing].
Al Gaylor actually wrote "Tiny Island" after hearing that Jimi Hendrix had died. I am especially attracted to that, because Al kind of wound up living that lyric. He lives in Hawaii. He would up on a tiny island. It is a great song. "Tiny Island" just nail me. It has always gotten [to] me.
In Christ There is No East or West
I loved Fahey's recording of that song, and that is his arrangement. After I recorded it, he figured out a much better way to do that, which is really neat.
You hear that word "churchy" in bluegrass, and I love that "churchy" sound. It is not exploited much, which has always puzzled me. You don't necessarily have to find it in a Protestant hymn to make it work. I have always thought The Everly Brothers had a real "churchy" sound. There's a mystery to it,. Something about that realm really appeals to me.
Playing the bottom third is a big part of that. It is funny, but I remember starting out, when bass players wouldn't play a bottom third. I would ask for it -- "Put a third on the bottom" -- and they wouldn't do it. It was like it was against the law. It happens all the time in those liturgical things. Nowadays it's done all the time.
Last Steam Engine Train
I got that from John [Fahey]. It is kind of an arrangement of what he did. I asked him where he got it, and he said that it was an old Sam & Kirk McGee tune.
From the Cradle to the Grave
Denny Bruce [Kottke's manager at the time] did a lot of good stuff for me, but one of the best was introducing me to Ron Nagle and suggesting that Ron write some lyrics for me. I wish I had gotten al lot more from Ron. he loves lyrics and he is really good at it. I suspect he still lives in San Francisco. He is a world-renowned potter. His ceramics are in a few museum collections.
I had originally written that song for my daughter. The lyric that I cam up with was intolerably sweet. I couldn't get away with it. She had just recently been born. So I [told] Ron, "I wrote this for my daughter, but I can't get enough detachment to get a decent lyric on it." So that's how he got involved. He added some sour to it, and that is a fact. [laughs]
Other than wanting to write something for my daughter, this is a good example of a tune that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the guitar part. The voice is really there to serve the guitar. On a lot of the vocal songs, that is really how it happens.
"Louise" was sung for me in a Detroit club called The Poison Apple in the dressing room. The Poison Apple was about to close, because that was the year that Detroit was on fire. Mick E. Clark was gonna be following me into this club, and I had been in there a week. Mick came in and sang that song for me, which was a Paul Siebel song.
Mick was the first guy I heard who was using a straight country voice. Mick was the real article, and he knocked me out. He was a great singer, and I haven't heard anyone who could do what he did. His voice had a very startling and pleasing quality to it. God, he could sing that tune. He had very simple guitar playing. That is what got me, and that is when I started doing it. Later on, I met Paul [Siebel] and we played together in New York. "Louise" is one I am still doing.
I am not very happy with the way I sang it back then. I can sing that song better now. I like the Greenhouse version, over the one on My Feet Are Smiling, because that is the one that caught Bonnie Raitt's ear. She like the way I did it.
"Easter" had always been one of those tunes that his the spot for me, because I like both to have more rhythm and sustain acoustically than a lot of players go for. That little pulled harmonic always gets me. It was the first time I had heard anything like that. "Easter" was just finding out that there were other ways to make noised on the guitar. In that case, it was from pulling the B string behind the nut and treating it like a pedal steel.
Medley: Crow River Waltz/Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring/Jack Fig
One of the things that haunted me back then was that all of my tunes were three minutes long. The "Medley" gives me a chance to stretch and doo something a little more dramatic over a longer period of time. It was a real natural thing to do. Since then I have continued to play some kind of version of that at the end of a set. The piece that I play now are different than what is in there, except for "Jack Fig." [Leo usually now plays a combination of "June Bug, Vaseline Machine Gun, Jack Fig and sometimes the Train and the Gate].
My Feet Are Smiling is a pretty popular record, so it is always a little dangerous to disparage it, but it rushes like crazy. Everything just speeds up. I might start with something resembling a tempo , but within just a few bars, I would step on the accelerator.
I have learned that one of your worst enemies onstage is to get excited in the wrong way. There is a way to have too good of a time, and you cannot do that. You have to learn that it is not about the playing; it is about the piece, whether you are improvising, or whether you are playing a composition.
On that record, and for a long time, I would take all of my energy and inclination and just give it full rein. I wouldn't moderate anything. I wouldn't measure anything, and it is a very "young" way to play. I was very susceptible to that kind of thing. Nowadays I am better. I still have to watch out, because I still have too much fun [Laughs].
"Pamela Brown" is a Tom T. Hall song that was given to me by Ron Nagle. Ron was being harassed by an arsonist who called himself The Torch. He was in the neighbourhood in Berkeley, and he would leave notes in people's mailboxes that would say, "Leave $20 in your mailbox, or I will burn your house down. Signed, The Torch." [Laughs]. The Torch wasn't too bright. Ron, to his glee, got one of these notes in his mailbox, and it didn't take long to catch this guy. He set a few fires. He set a trash can on fire.
Ron and I were talking about The Torch and he said, "hey I just heard a tune that would fit for you, and he played it for me. It just knocked me out, and I think it is the best tune Tom [T. Hall] has written. That is one of the tightest lyrics I have ever heard. There is hardly a wasted word.
You Tell Me Why
Sal Valentino sang this. He's one of my favorite singers. "You tell me like was meant to be one-third good, two-thirds misery. You tell me why."
Born to Be With You
"Born to Be With You" is not a tune that many other people would be comfortable with sticking on a record, but I've never cared too much for that way of thinking. The guy who wrote it is name Don Robertson. Robertson was, evidently, the originator of that Floyd Cramer piano-style that a lot of piano players would like to kill him for. I always liked it. But Robertson always demoed his tunes on the piano. This is how he always played. Floyd supposedly heard some of that and started adopting that approach. It doesn't really matter, because everybody goes through somebody, but it has always interested me.
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