AT a recent reunion lunch for Fleet Street hacks, I was reminded of a boast I made in the late 1970s – ‘I’ve got more Leo Kottke albums than Leo Kottke has.’ The basis for this grandiose claim was that I possessed a full set of the great acoustic guitarist’s records to date, while I had read an interview in which he said he no longer owned a copy of one of his early LPs because it had ‘gone white around the edges and crumbled to pieces’.
Over the years I have inevitably failed to keep pace with every Leo release, of which there are many, but I retain a great affection for the quirky old fella and always enjoy a nostalgic visit to his work.
Leo Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, on September 11, 1945. His father Larry had taught hand-to-hand combat during World War II, then became involved with the US Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as entertainment director at several hospitals around the country. As a child, Leo played the trombone but after a bout of severe consecutive illnesses he was confined to bed and forced to lie on his back.
‘I wasn’t supposed to move,’ he told an interviewer for the liner notes of The Leo Kottke Anthology, released in 1997. ‘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 stencilled on the front. This was in Muskogee (Oklahoma). 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 was just one of those lucky people who happen to stumble over the instrument they were meant to play.’
After a spell in the US Navy Reserve during which he suffered hearing impairment caused by shooting practice, Leo went to university but left without completing his course and hitched around the country before settling in Minneapolis – the most dangerous city in America according to the novels of the great John Sandford, most of which feature multiple murders in Minnesota.
In 1969 Leo made the LP 6- and 12-String Guitar for the Takoma label, run by the revered guitarist John Fahey. It was recorded in a single afternoon, all tracks played solo, with most requiring only one take – ‘The record took three-and-a-half hours to do, and all I had to do was sit down and play everything I ever knew.’
According to music experts, the album ‘showcases Kottke’s early, hard-driving polyphonic finger-picking style’. I love it for its spontaneity, wit and outrageous skill which never fails to bring a smile. He explains on the sleeve that the LP is all instrumental because his voice sounds like ‘geese farts on a muggy day’. And each tune has its own little explanation; for example track one, The Driving of the Year Nail, is captioned (From an old Etruscan drawing of a sperm cell).
Crow River Waltz bears the note (A prayer for the demise of the canoe and the radar trap without which Federal prisons will have to be rebuilt to accommodate prepubescence.) Vaseline Machine Gun is explained as (For waking up nude in a sleeping bag on the shore of the Atlantic surrounded by a volleyball game at high noon). And a lovely version of J S Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring adds the information that (Bach had twenty children because his organ didn’t have any stops.)
OK, it sounds pretty puerile now but it was a refreshing antidote to some of the pompous nonsense of the music scene at that time. As indeed was the direct, unpretentious playing. Among those in England to enjoy the album were the band Procol Harum, who turned up at a Kottke gig in Boston, Massachusetts and asked him: ‘Do you want to do a tour?’ He replied: ‘Sure.’
‘I did two European tours with Procol Harum and had an absolute ball with those guys,’ says Leo. ‘They became very good friends of mine. I learned a lot from them.’
The record eventually sold half a million copies, a remarkable figure for such an apparently uncommercial venture, and Leo was snapped up by Capitol Records on a contract requiring two LPs a year. His initial release for them, Mudlark, came out in 1971.
The first track, Cripple Creek, starts out as expected with solo guitar but within 20 seconds comes a shock. Backing musicians! Bass! Piano! Drums! Track two is a cover of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High and, glory be, Kottke sings!
A pleasant baritone reminiscent in no way of farmyard flatulence. I am not sure how keen Leo was on this new approach but for his next LP, Greenhouse, in 1972, it was back to basics with no band – just him, his guitars and, on four tracks, his voice. Track one, Bean Time, could easily fit in with his earliest work. Tiny Island is a wistful vocal number written by Leo’s friend Al Gaylor in response to hearing about the death of Jimi Hendrix.
Side two kicks off with the classic Paul Siebel song Louise, which has also been covered by Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt among others.
In 1973 the rapid schedule continued with the live album My Feet Are Smiling, of which one critic wrote: ‘Performing solo and playing more slide guitar than usual, Kottke wows a supportive hometown audience in Minneapolis with some of the finest playing of his career.’ It concludes with the lovely medley Crow River Waltz/Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring/Jack Fig.
Two studio efforts followed promptly in 1974 – Ice Water and Dreams and All That Stuff. ‘It was a real exhausting struggle and it hurt the records,’ Leo admits. ‘But there were always a couple of things that fell into place quick enough in the studio and worked.’ Ice Water contains Kottke’s only US chart single, Tom T Hall’s excellent Pamela Brown, and an endearing version of the Don Robertson song Born To Be With You. Dreams etc has a truly dire cover, is probably my favourite Leo album and is his only all-instrumental release on Capitol. As suggested by the title, it is a relaxing, dreamy experience with highlights including When Shrimps Learn to Whistle and Mona Ray. Of the latter, Leo vouchsafes: ‘I hesitate to say it, because it depends on what I 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.’
Of the latter, he said more than 20 years later that ‘this is one song that it is very hard to do now’. The reason being that ‘it was from the era when I was using fingerpicks and I don’t use them any more. They screwed me up because I played too hard.’ Leo began to suffer from tendinitis and would eventually be forced to change to a classical playing style, altering the position of his right hand to place less stress on the tendons.
In 1976 Leo joined his mates in Procol Harum on the British label Chrysalis, because they were prepared to give him more time between album releases. His first for them, Leo Kottke, features mainly self-penned instrumentals and includes orchestrations by Phil Spector’s former right-hand man Jack Nitzche. Leo’s own favourite tracks from the album are Airproofing and Up Tempo, the latter being a big hit for him in Australia.
In 1978 came Burnt Lips, recorded at Leo’s home in Minnesota. It opens with the Nick Lowe song Endless Sleep and the theme of gloom continues with Sonora’s Death Row, about a cowboy who shoots a friend while drunk on mescal. Of the two songs, Leo says: ‘Both have this Stella 12-string guitar, like Leadbelly’s axe. It was strung largely the way he strung his, with very heavy strings, way down there.’ That same year he summoned up the energy to make Balance, perhaps his most conventional rock record. It opens with Tell Mary, includes the instrumental Embryonic Journey, written by Jorma Kaukonen, and closes with the lovely Buddy Holly song Learning The Game.
I can’t resist a link to this version by The Bunch, sung by the incomparable Sandy Denny.
Guitar Music (1981) is just that; all solo played on a Gibson J-45 and a Lundberg-Martin 12-string. Of Three Walls and Bars, part of Side One Suite, Leo admits it is ‘a musical evocation of my little stay in jail that lasted about three days’. His offence was ‘the standard drinking on the street and “you’re going to jail, buddy”. This was in St Cloud, Minnesota.’ The last track, the lovely Sleep Walk, was written by Johnny, Santo and Ann Farina. Leo says he first heard it ‘coming out of a speaker that was hanging over a pawnshop in Cheyenne, Wyoming’.
Leo’s last release for Chrysalis was 1983’s Time Step, with guests including Albert Lee and Emmylou Harris. Leo describes the song Julie’s House as ‘an education’.
He says: ‘Emmylou is doing something on that track that the Everly Brothers did, which is having the two voices switching parts. 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 about singing on that one track.’
There we shall leave the Leo Kottke story, but for those who would like to catch up on his later career, and learn why not all prison gigs are the same, I can recommend this excellent interview from 2018.