|Community Newspaper Company (February 9, 1999)|
Master guitarist Leo Kottke talks -- and talks and talks By Ed Symkus, CNC Senior Arts Writer
Let there be no mistake about the musical prowess of Leo Kottke. Over the past 30 years of his recording career, the Minnesotan guitarist pretty much reinvented the idea of finger-style picking, playing with such a hard physical edge that he eventually developed a form of tendonitis in his right hand. That led to him having to reinvent his own technique, and the problem has long since been remedied.
A master of both six- and 12-string guitars, most often performing instrumentals but never fearing to let loose with his oddly soothing baritone voice, Kottke comes to Harvard's Paine Hall for two solo gigs on Feb. 13 and 14.
His passion is music, but his interests - as displayed in an interview via phone from his home outside of Minneapolis - range in an inordinate number of directions.
Talking about the infamous self-penned liner notes from his groundbreaking 1969 Takoma album, "6- and 12-String Guitar," which mention boyhood subjects such as squashing his hand in a car door and beating up a schoolmate named Herby Stipe, Kottke says it's all true.
"It was a finger in the car door," he explains. "I've done that about three times now, all on the left hand. The primary knuckle on my index finger is kind of large compared to the others, but it still works. Aside from the problems that kind of thing causes you, the biggest pain seems to be the humiliation. I mean, slamming one of your own body parts in a car door says things about you that you don't want to hear."
And yes, when he was 11, he did indeed beat up Herby Stipe.
"He deserved it," Kottke says defensively. "He'd been beating me up. It was sort of his way of passing the time. That was in Cheyenne. During that stretch for some reason I was one of those punching bag kids, and one day I was watching another fight and there was just sort of an epiphany. A punching epiphany. And I said, 'Hey, I think I'll fight back.' And afterward I remember Herby saying, 'You made me bleed!' as if that was a really a terrible thing to do in a fight."
But Kottke insists he's not a tough guy.
"No, I never succeeded too well at that," he laughs. "But I did succeed at not being available any more.
"It's funny about that fighting business," he says, going off on a sidetrack. "I think all of that stuff about courage and resolve and ethics and all that other crap that's such a staple in adult fiction or movies or whatever, really doesn't much apply to adults. But it does apply to kids. Kids are the ones that have to be John Wayne or Einstein or Gandhi, and they have to figure it out all by themselves, and I think they do it generally."
It's become obvious that having a chat with one of the best musicians in the Western hemisphere doesn't necessarily have to have much to do with music.
Politics might not interest him much, but Kottke readily admits he's thrilled that Jesse Ventura is now his state's governor, and that he voted for him.
"More power to him," says Kottke. "I'm really glad he's here. I'm so sick of that earnest act that every politician seems to think they have to adopt. That's such a load of crap and it's so demeaning to them and to us. This guy doesn't bother with that, and it's exciting because you don't know what's coming. You do with everyone else but not with this guy."
Kottke is also wont to add his few cents on another of his passions: reading.
"I'm a hard-core reader," he says proudly. "I just read all 19 of the Patrick O'Brian books in a row. It's the story of a British sea captain and the ship's surgeon in the Napoleonic wars. You don't have to read them in order, but order is great. The first one is pretty damn good and they just keep getting better after that."
It seems the only way to get Kottke to talk about music is to trick him. He's asked if, aside from his own playing getting better with time, there's any difference between his current performances and when he first started out at the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a college hangout in Minneapolis.
"Yeah, for the first three years at the Scholar I didn't look up," he remembers. "I couldn't look up. I was so afraid of the crowd, I couldn't do it. But then one night, when I was around 20, the [microphone] goosenecks weren't working and I remembered trying to kill a chicken when I was a kid. I looked up and asked if anyone there had ever killed a chicken. And they laughed and I laughed, and I couldn't help but talk about it. I had totally forgotten about it and as I went through it I was cracking myself up. And when I was done I had kind of like gotten over some emotional hurdle. And for the first time I was kind of in the same room the rest of the audience was in."
Kottke has done his share of both solo and group recordings over the years, but the lion's share of his live performances have just been himself and his two Taylor guitars, one a six-string, one a 12-string.
"I did play one night with a rhythm section: a bass player and a drummer," he says with a hint of the bitter memory blues in his voice. "The drummer wore headphones and because of that and because the engineer turned the headphones way down, the drums were unbelievably loud. It was hilariously loud. You could feel your hair part back there. The audience hated it and we hated it. So I never tried it again."
But he's quick to add that he vastly prefers solo performance, anyway.
"I think it's easier," Kottke explains. "There is a certain element that strikes some discomfort into the heart of people who are used to playing with others. Because it is all right there in your lap. There's nowhere to hide. But you don't have to depend on anything else. You don't have to follow a set schedule. You know, if you get a wild hare you can chase it around the stage, no problem."
Who knows what that means, but Kottke makes it perfectly clear that his Harvard shows will feature at least a few new tunes from an album he's currently working on.
"It'll be the two guitars and me going on with some new material and some old material and just following my nose."
Leo Kottke performs at Harvard's Paine Hall, Cambridge, on Feb. 13 & 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $24. Call (617) 496-2222.
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