|Recordings: The Leo Kottke Anthology (1997)|
I hesitate to say it, because it depends on what I have had for breakfast, but I think "Mona Ray" is one of the best tunes I have been able to come up with. It is being covered a lot these days by a number of classical players. It is slowly seeping into the academic repertoire. I think it is because the structure of it is very clean. It has a nice motion.
For me, the who reason for the tune was the woman's name....Mona Ray. I was sitting in a motel at the airport watching the tube and she was a customer in a commercial for a furniture store in Santa Barbara. Underneath her [on the screen], the flashed her name, Mona Ray. You don't get many thrills in a motel room, but that name was poetry to me. If you can ever attribute a source, that is as close at it gets.
When Shrimps Lean to Whistle
That is a quote from Khrushchev in a speech he gave at the U.N. He said there would be American ships in the Bosporus when shrimps learned to whistle. Finally, one of these yokels came up with a metaphor. I hate to hear those guys talk, because they sound like they don't have any fun at all. [Laughs]
The Scarlatti Rip-Off
I think "The Scarlatti Rip-Off" worked, but in my memory, Chewing Pine, [the album the song is on] was not one of my favorite records.
This is one song that is very hard to do now, because it was from the era when I was using fingerpicks, and I don't use them anymore. They screwed me up, because I played too hard. As a matter of fact, when I got rid of the fingerpicks, I suddenly had much more access to the "pocket" [the correct, natural feel of the piece]. But it was a real tough transition. There is a kind of muted slap on that tune in one section that I can do, but it is hard to reproduce without picks, especially without a thumbpick. Also that very rolling, rapid arpeggio section is also hard to do without picks, because it is hard to get that fast of a release without them.
As some point I stopped using the fingerpicks. I suspect that is followed the tendonitis, which was what forced me to get rid of them all together. I was trying for a long time to make the transition away from using them without having to hurt the sound I was getting, or without having to hurt the tendonitis. It was either 1976 or 1978 that I finally got rid of very prop.
Open Country Joy (Constant Traveler)
I took me a while to realize it, but I had written this thing called "Constant Traveler." When I finally looked at it, it looked an awful lot like "Open Country Joy." When I put "Open Country Joy" on the anthology [Leo Kottke 1971-1976/Did You Hear Me?], I thought I would make the proper nod to John [McLaughlin, leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra]. It pissed a few people off, expecting to hear something that they hadn't heard before. The similarities [between "Open Country Joy" and "Constant Traveler"] are not as strong as I thought they were at the time, but they are close enough.
I had done a lot of show with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and that was just phenomenal fun. I didn't know if it was going to work. I was knocked out by their first record [The Inner Mounting Flame], and I had no idea whether I could get over with that crowd, of [if] any of my people would show up, or if any of them would have anything in common. It was kind of unnerving.
The first show that we did was at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. It was a beautiful hall. John's first words to me were, "Boy, you sure travel light." [Laughs]. He pulled up with all those drums, semis, and things.
There wasn't a night that it didn't click. One of the greatest nights I ever had was at William & Mary, where we played in some kind of a beautiful chapel that had an oval room with a frescoed ceiling. It was a gorgeous room. I went out there that night and just murdered it. It was one of those nights. It just sucked right down to the ground and never [took] an unsure step. It was just so satisfying and good. The crowd exploded. When it really works like that, you feel so cleaned out and together and glad.
So I walked off, and instead of the usual break between the support and the Mahavishnu, they walked on and picked up where I left off and just took it off the planet. I will never forget that night. It was many that worked so well. It was a great privilege to be part of something like that.
I remember hearing that tune as a kid and liking it. It is one of those naturals. In a sense, it is one of the first things that you would do on a guitar, but nobody ever did it, except for Buck Owens' guitar player. I love those kinds of tunes. They are so obvious that no one ever thought o them. You hear them and every guitar player on the plant stops and says, "Why in the fuck didn't I think of that?!? Jesus!!" [The song] was played a lot in Australia, because [there] "buckaroo" is sort of a term for a guy out in the country. It kind of hit home there.
The White Ape
This song features a Whitebook 12-string guitar. I walked into Westwood Music and found that guitar. I played it and said, "Sold" and walked out. I later found out that Ry Cooder had been in just before me and played [the guitar]. He had gone home to think about buying it. He came back that same day, and they said, "It's been sold."
Somewhere along the line, I talked to Ry about that, and he said, "Yeah, that is the only 12-string I ever liked." He probably wasn't too happy about that. [Laughs].
"The White Ape" sounds like a B movie. If there were two Tarzans, this would be the "B" Tarzan. It has that kind of Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of feel about it. I've always been into B-movie music and the serials and the way that they baldly play some kind of mood music for this or that. Always a kick.
Jack Nitzsche did all of the arrangements on that record, and it was a great treat to work with him.
Jack came out to Minneapolis for that cut, and Herb Pillhoffer, the owner of Sound 80, was in the studio with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and sort of struck up the band and [then] stopped and said, "Hey, where's the guitar part? What do you want me to do here? There is no guitar part on the chart." Jack said, "Well, you know, we will run it by just a couple of times, and it'll be obvious where you are in and out and what you are doing. Don't worry about it."
It was really an impossible thing to do, but Herb did it. He would start the orchestra at a guess point and then hold them with his baton, no matter what, through the whole piece. He was just dubbing the orchestra over the existing guitar part.
Shortly into it, Herb got it exactly right, and I thought, There it is! I waited for my producer, Denny, to say something about it, but he didn't say anything. Jack was talking to somebody else, and Martinson was just looking embarrassed. Nobody said anything, and to my permanent discredit, neither did I.
We kept the next take. I should've said something, because the orchestra is a couple of beats off on that take. The weird thing is that it doesn't matter a whole lot. When it was dead on, it was really something. When it was right, that little oboe solo happens in a much better place. What we ended up getting is nothing to sneeze at either.
"Airproofing" has been a longtime favorite of mine. After that tune came out, my father-in-law said, "What does that title mean?" I said, "I don't know. There's waterproofing and maybe there is airproofing, tighter than a nut."
He said, "I'll tell you what it means to me." He proceeded to tell me this long story about a decapitation that happened in North Dakota. So I guess if you have no head, you are not going to breathe. You've been "airproofed."
My father-in-law sold raw alcohol to Lawrence Welk's band during the Depression. He was a bootlegger of sorts. You would pour some of your pop soda out and then you would pour the raw alcohol on top of that and shake it up.
Welk's drummer and one of the reed players were driving around in a car, and the drummer forgot to shake his soda up. He took a big gulp, while he was driving, and got this raw, who-know-what alcohol right down his gullet and started to choke. He lost control of the car and ran into a bridge abutment. The reed player lived, but the drummer was decapitated.
My father-in-law quit being a bootlegger, even though I suppose he kept that on the sideline [laughs], and became the drummer for Lawrence Welk. My father -in-law got the gig. It's a pretty convenient tale for that song.
I love this song. It just feels great to me. I had been missing that kind of tune, one that had some kind of exuberant pull-out stuff. you kind of go in different territories in different times, and I hadn't been able to get into that territory for awhile. "up Temp" finally came, and that was a real happy time.
"Up Tempo" was also a big hit in Australia. That got a lot of mileage down there. It got less mileage here than I expected. I thought that was really going to get some radio play, but radio is a hard place for instrumentals.
I saw Nick Lowe do "Endless Sleep" when I was in Britain one year. They had a little film clip of him playing in Dingwalls, which was this local CBGB's at the time. The whole attraction to that tune for me is the chorus -- where the melody goes and what the lyric is saying there. It was very different.
I recorded that, and most of that album [Burnt Lips], in the basement of my house. I moved a remote truck out to my house. I had the bright idea that, if I could just go hit the "on" button, when I felt like it, I could maybe get some good takes. It didn't work that way. When I finished that record, I thought it was a source of deep embarrassment for me.
A few years ago, I heard Burnt Lips again, by accident. I would up listening to almost the whole thing and liked it. I think that record stands alone. It has a peculiar kind of quality to it, partly because it was recorded using an old idea called the Madsen Shadow. It was a technique invented by an engineer named Madsen, who worked for the BBC After the war. It was a way of using two microphones without getting cancellation. The mics would be parallel, and you would put something between them. In my case, it was a Coney Island pillow. I think Madsen used a circle of Plexiglas.
The appeal of the Madsen Shadow is that it makes amazing stereo, but the speakers more or less have to be the same distance apart as the microphones. What that means is that it only sounds right, stereo-wise, if you listen with headphones. You get an absolute dead-on center image and an absolutely complete stereo spread. But if you put it in ordinary stereo, it sounds a little odd. It sounds really odd on the radio, unless it is mono. It is the most beautiful mono you can ever have.
Sonora's Death Row
"Sonora's Death Row" was sent to me by Dan Bourgoise of Bug Music. I forgot what was going on, but somehow [he] thought I might be interested in Kevin Blackie Farrell. [I was sent] two tunes by him. "Sonora's Death Row" absolutely lit me up.
Another thing about that record is [that] both "Endless Sleep" and "Sonora's Death Row" have this Stella 12-string guitar on it, like Leadbelly's axe. It was strung largely the way he strung his, with very heavy strings, way down there. That is nice that you get a little Stella on this collection.
This is a pivotal song for me, and for a lot of people, because it is second only to [Pete Seeger's] "Living in the Country" as a kind of kick-start in my own writing. I don't play it the way it was originally done. As a result, it loses something, and it gains something.
That was especially fun to do with [Kenny] Buttrey. It was nice to hear his take on that tune. That record was a little hard to do, because Buttrey was metronome, and he didn't want to bend. We put in some work on that one, just trying to get me to shape up, but it eventually go there. He was a good guy for me to be around, but that was really hard.
Learning the Game
I happen to love this song. You have to take the lyric with a little grain of salt, but it is a great sentiment. There aren't many tunes that I have done with that kind of vocal, and I think I pulled it off on this one.
I did a couple of tours with Linda Ronstadt, right After Heart Like A Wheel. Those were some great tours. I have lucked into some really neat timings, just when people were taking off and making their great music, like Mahavishnu or Linda Ronstadt. I either heard Linda Ronstadt doing this song during a sound check or I heard Andrew Gold's recording of it. He did a recording of it, and I jumped on it.
The Train And the Gate
[Film director and writer] Terry Mallick wanted me to do all the music for the movie Days of Heaven. I refused, like an idiot. They had Ennio Morricone involved, and in the end, they used all the stuff that Ennio did. I said, "Jesus, this is great music. Why would you want to lose that?"
Here, the guy asking me for the music is the director and writer. He should know what he wants. I know now what he was talking about. It doesn't matter whether it was great music; it was too grand and cinematic, and he just wanted some hick plunking away on a guitar. It would've worked.
There was this wheat field that was on fire from horizon to horizon, and he wanted a guitar for that scene. I said, "How can I measure up to that?" He said, "Easy! You don't play songs. I just want you to find something and then play that." He was absolutely right, and it would've worked great. I just wasn't listening. I said, "It wouldn't work. I can't support these things."
"The Train And the Gate" is the first thing Terry heard that he really liked that I was doing. We reduced it to its bare parts, and you hear those parts over and over again in the two scenes where it is being used -- where the main characters come into this farm on a train, and again when they leave the farm on a boat. It is a real nice curve. It takes up two pretty pivotal scenes. It works great and I wish I had gotten more going.
Side One Suite: Some Birds/Sounds Like.../Slang/My Double/Three Walls And Bars/Reprise -- Some Birds
I remember being really happy with that guitar sound on this record.
"Some Birds" was a case of where the title followed the tune, because it sounds that way to me. It sounds like a tree full of birds just talking to each other and doing whatever they are doing when they make all of that racket. It just has an aviary kind of feel.
The "Three Walls And Bars" was a musical evocation of my little stay in jail that lasted about three days. It was just your standard drinking in the street and "You're going to jail, buddy." This happened in St. Cloud, Minnesota. As for the other parts, I fell into a black hole either before, during, or After these tunes. I don't remember anything about them.
I still play this one. I first heard "Sleep Walk" coming out of a speaker that was hanging over a pawnshop door in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Santo & Johnny remain one of the greatest little duets to ever come down the pike. They did another one called "Teardrop" and another called "Long Walk Home." Somebody just asked me, "Leo, what was the B-side of 'Sleep Walk'?" I didn't know. They did.
Those guys didn't last long. Again, it was the same instrumental oblivion, even as unusual and good as they were. The last I saw of them was an album they made of Cowsills hits. I saw that at a truck stop in Milan, Italy.
That tune has been a hit three times. There has been a Spanish-language version, and Lobo also did it. He made some really interesting records for that niche he was in. Those were some pretty tricky records. I just always loved the song, and I finally got around to doing it.
That was the first record I did with T-Bone [Burnett]. We did another one later on. That was kind of a nice moment for me, because T-Bone was the first guy I ever heard in a studio. When I first go to L.A., my only exposure to a studio had been that warehouse in Minneapolis, where I made that Takoma record with the sheets hanging in the middle of the room.
At the time I had met Denny, and he brought me down to Paramount studios where Delbert & Glen were recording. I never had heard of Delbert & Glen. I walked in there, and they turned on the tape. Delbert & Glen started singing, and it was so good that I almost got back in my car and drove home. T-Bone was the producer and that was when we met. We would bump into each other. He had always been a big fan. I remember liking the Alpha Band. We finally got to go to work on that record, and we will probably do it again sometime.
We wanted to release "Julie's House" as a single, but the independent promoter said it was too down. Instead, he remixed "Rings" and put that out. The remix was just awful. The drums just went away. It was weird. That was another education, but one that I really didn't enjoy.
[Jazz guitarist] Joe Pass had been hearing about me and knew that we were going to work together in Australia, so he came to a show. He was standing by the promoter and said, "Oh, driving down the road. Driving down the road." That was his reaction to my stuff, and I liked that. And in "Rings" you are definitely driving down the road.
[This song] has always been one of my favorites. I really loved the track and the lyric. "Julie's House" was an education. Emmylou [Harris] is doing something on that track [that] The Everly Brothers did, which is having the two voice switching pats. It was something that I would probably never notice unless someone pointed it out to me. She would adjust my pitch. If I went flat, she would go flat, but not quite as flat. She could do it. She could make these little microtonic things happen that really helped that tune. Without her on it, I don't think it would've worked at all. She showed me so much stuff about singing on that one track. It was really nice. This is a great way to finish off this collection.
-- Leo Kottke, from an interview with Mike Clark
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