Leo Kottke-1LEO KOTTKE

Ever Fascinatingly Weird Interplay Between Mind and Hands

I don’t know what it’s like being Leo Kottke, let alone playing 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars the way he does so singularly.

But it’s exhilarating to the point of exhaustion just watching him.

He talks, pauses, plays, pauses, talks, etc., etc., sometimes with coherence, always with edge-of-the-seat suspense: Will he finish a story? Will he start a tune? Is there any difference between the two?

He pretty much nailed it at the second of two City Winery nights last week when he explained that his playing was like “an argument between you and your hands: They all do things you don’t have anything to do with.”

The hands seemed to win every time, for sure on an especially blazing version of his 12-string slide showpiece “Vaseline Machine Gun.” Phrases and runs seemed to rush into, over, under and around each other without ever damaging the beauty of his chords.

“I live for major thirds,” he declared, explaining later how the ringing chords are considered “uncool” by those whose “greatest fear” is sentiment.

“It is a risk,” he conceded, “but if sentiment is excluded from music, you’ve got nothing but ideas.”

Hence his continued play of the 1974 Cymarron pop hit “Rings”—and he pointed out how Nashville veteran Eddie Reeves had co-written it about a wedding that “everyone in town knew should not take place,” yet had to congratulate the couple, “just as you would at a hanging.” The song is full of major thirds, he pointed out.

Nashville was further represented the first night, when he played a note-popping version of Tom T. Hall’s “Pamela Brown,” whimsically prefacing it with “Orville Redenbacher suggested this song to me.” And the second night he sang another old favorite, “Louise,” after refusing to play it the night before since it didn’t fit in with “the curve of the set.”

“Too bad they’re not here,” he said of the unlucky ones who requested it then. But clearly, Kottke was playing for himself as much as the audience, and as much as said so.

Leo Kottke“When you start playing, you’re trying to blow your own mind,” he said. “You find something, and go nuts. But then it turns out that when it’s your job, you have to learn to play with dispassion. In other words, I can’t blow my own mind anymore—but I forgot and went off on that vibrato on the last tune! It’s cruel.”

Then again, “Your best intentions are your worst enemies,” he stated. “Never trust your own judgment.”

Or putting it another way, perhaps, he asked, presumably rhetorically, “What good is a corpse to a sadist?” “I’m alone a lot,” he may or may not have answered, though he said this directly after, then added, “You have to find something to entertain yourself.”

In Kottke’s case, it was learning to play guitar after becoming disenchanted with the trombone back when he was 12.

“My whole life I’ve been trying to turn my thumb into a finger,” he said, then enacted the thumb-strengthening exercises he employed in order to virtually do just that. It should also be noted, though, that he also worked just as hard at getting his eyeballs to move independent of each other, a feat, alas, that he could never himself witness when looking into a mirror.

And speaking of faces, he made note of the jazz drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, who had a habit of making faces and “playing backwards.”

“I play like I’m in pain,” he subsequently offered. “Well, I am in pain.”

Sitting on a stool way at the front of the stage (the bass level was too high further back, he explained), he contended, on the second night (after proclaiming that he had on the same socks as the first night) that he was “staying out here because I want to intimidate the crowd. I feel the chill, so I know it’s working.”

He then invoked English jazz saxophonist Ronnie Scott, who once said, at his own club (“Ronnie Scott’s!”), that he should have stayed in bed, since there were more people there.

Kottke had started off the first night with another question requiring no answer: “Are you ready for some professional entertainment?”

His show, of course, is anything but, and thankfully so: He promptly started conversing with the people virtually at his feet at the table below him, then knocked over his 12-string. Looking embarrassed and annoyed, he muttered, “I bet Bob Mould didn’t do that last night!” as his fellow Minnesotan had been on the same stage the night before, no doubt further back.

Leading into a song called “Four Cents,” he discoursed on the nature of song titles—merely a convention, he said.

“My songs have nothing to do with the title,” he informed, gratuitously. “If it’s a song about Halloween, it’s called ‘Christmas.’ If it’s about Christmas, it’s ‘My Old Paint.’”

“Disassociating,” to use a word that he then brought into play, he rambled on about diaries he’d read by 17th Century English Parliament member Samuel Pepys and his contemporary, the English writer John Aubrey. He could just as easily, he suggested, have recited his medical history, or his time on the USS Halfbeak submarine SS-352, where, incidentally, his hearing problems had begun.

Instead, he shared how Pete Seeger “did things instrumentally that no one else did,” specifically, “his rhythm was within his right hand, and he had very sophisticated harmonies that somehow remained invisible.”

Kottke, after playing Seeger’s “Living in the Country,” also related how after asking Seeger for his phone number, Seeger instead drew a map to his house. Playing “The Last Steam Engine Train”—a tune, he said, that Doc Watson loved to play, he noted that “Doc always liked to sharp his B-string,” and that the first words Watson said to him when they met were, “Your low E is flat”; 35 years later, Watson actually reached over to sharpen Kottke’s E string himself.

And Kottke dusted off a song he’d “retired” 40 years ago—“Busted Bicycle,” after it became an “anachronism”—reinvigorating it with a lift from Tommy James and the Shondells “Crimson and Clover.” To top it off, he played orchestra leader Bert Kaempfert’s 1961 instrumental hit “Wonderland by Night,” along with his concert staple “Corrina, Corrina”—followed, as ever, by “Little Martha.”

And, as ever, the sets were marked by that ever fascinatingly weird interplay between Kottke’s mind and hands.

“It’s like I put a dent in the set at the beginning, then spend the rest of it pounding it back out,” he analogized. Pointing to his head, he also stated the obvious: “If I couldn’t play guitar I’d be in an institution.”

And at the end, he gratefully acknowledged, “It baffles me that after all this time, anybody still falls for this. I’m glad, because it took a lot of failure.”

As if to drive the point home—needlessly—he said, “My daughter, who’s married, won’t allow a guitar in her house. You can see why….”

Jim Bessman

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