|Concert Performances: Champaign, Illinois (October 31, 1975)|
... out. His latest album, released this year, is "My Father's Face." He has just made a European tour where he had a sold-out audience in London. On behalf of the City of Kettering Parks and Recreation Department and the Kettering Arts Council, allow me to present to you Mr. Leo Kottke.
[Audience member yells out "Watermelon"]
[Leo plays an instrumental version of "Morning Is the Long Way Home"]
LEO:[Leo accidentally pulls out his guitar cord]
I usually wait at least another five minutes before I open my mouth. But my guitar is migrating.
A more professional act would have a longer guitar cord.
My urge is always not to say a thing, actually. I suppose I wouldn't open my mouth for about half an hour or 40 minutes. It's more inevitable that I would get up here and play until I was sick of it, and then talk. But I've learned that if I don't speak at least by the end of the second tune, that a kind of tension begins to grow in the crowd that very shortly turns into an absolute hostility. So, I'm trying to forestall that by opening my mouth.
I know before opening my mouth, even at this point when I have an excuse like a guitar that's misbehaving, that nothing's going to come out of my mouth that I'm prepared for. And the least amount of trouble that I get into by doing that is the trouble I'm in right now. And it's far preferable to the disaster that develops if I say nothing at all. So even thought I don't know what I'm saying, it's important that I'm saying it.
The entire guitar ... oh, well ... see, I found the one that was out, and I tuned everything else to it. That's my habit.
I'm trying to bring the whole guitar down now because ... this is a nice way to spend an afternoon, isn't it? ... because if it stays up a quarter tone like it is, on the next song, on which I sing, I will blow the top of my head off. There was a time when I enjoyed that, but not anymore.
[Leo plays "Everybody Lies"]
[Leo plays "Eggtooth"]
This is a song that I wrote, and the last of these old ones I'll play for awhile here in the set. This is something I wrote, jeez ... well, it was a long time ago. It was ... it's over 20 years old and it was the first tune ...
[Leo accidentally pulls out guitar cord again]
Actually, it'd be smarter if I moved this [microphone stand] over there before I went back over there to plug that [guitar cord] in, so that when I came over I could unplug it on the way to brining this [microphone stand] back over here. I only got into that because I'm trying to be cute when I put it over here when I play. It's one of the imperatives of show business. I'm trying to ... never mind. Okay.
This was the first tune that I wrote where I managed to solve a problem that afflicts every guitarist who plays with his fingers and likes to indulge in rhythm.
Excuse me. [tuning]
And that is the development of a thumb that sounds like it's utterly brainless or like it has a mind of its own and won't pay any attention to anything else that's going on. In other words, if a ... aw!
This won't last long. Sooner or later, it'll settle in.
[Child in audience screams]
In other words, you can wind up with a, you know, a lifetime of ... [Leo demonstrates alternating bass notes with thumb] ... if you're not careful.
So I was trying to find some way to keep my thumb and at the same time have enough of it or some kind of relationship between that and these fingers that I had a rhythm and also had control over this obstinate digit.
This is the first tune where I managed to come up with a solution. And when I did and this came out on a record, the only real hate mail that I got was from people who hated my solution. They thought that I had a thoroughly uneven thumb and that I should behave myself. I took that as a compliment and I've tried to confound them ever since.
[Leo plays "Ojo"]
[Leo plays "I Yell At Traffic"]
LEO [picking up his 6-string]:I have a longer cord on this guitar.[Leo plays "My Aunt Francis"]
[to sound man] Give me a little level on this.
This is called "My Aunt Francis." It's a ... I like to think that a ...
[Leo fumbles with his guitar strap]
They have this on the SATs -- it's called "spacial reasoning." It's why I'm a guitar player and not a brain surgeon.
I volunteered once at a VA in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And I would up, among other things, assisting in a post mortem down in a room about as big as a closet made out of cinder blocks and filled largely with one resident, who was ... who was really in great repose, and who threatened ... and, well, it was guaranteed that very soon he'd be in even greater disarray.
This was the first corpse I'd ever seen, so I was sort of transfixed and, you know, repelled at the same time. And the guy who was doing ... well at any rate. See, my dad worked at the VA at the time -- he wasn't a brain surgeon, but he had enough clout that he could get me into the morgue. So there I was.
The idea, I think, was sooner or later to have me to weigh organs. All of this was a big secret. Ostensibly, the doctors would come down and do this work entirely by themselves. But in fact, it was me and a squirrel hunter named Simon Jones with two bad kidneys who did a lot of the preliminary stuff.
Simon's favorite trick was, with new people in the morgue, was to burp the dead. He'd ask you to look into ... you know, [he'd say] "Look at that guy!" And, you know, you'd look at what was left of this guy. And then he'd surreptitiously just give him a little shove on the diaphragm -- and just kind of a [burp] would usually issue from the unit. This was one of my first inclinations toward some other work than brain surgery.
At the time I was a trombone player, which is a lot like being in the Navy, but I don't want to ... it's a metaphor I don't need to explain, or a simile, that's self-evident, to me at any rate. That didn't last. I was in the Navy on the Half-Beak, a submarine, for four months, then I was released, or expelled, depending on how you look at it.
And I wandered around for quite awhile, but I eventually found myself, having played all these years with a recording deal with an independent label, and I wound up in Pasadena of all places, where I became very broke. And I spent a lot of time at the free clinic, and also at a vegetable market where at closing time I could receive most of the leftover inventory if I was patient enough. And things became really less than salutary, or at least I thought so. I thought I was having a hard time. I know otherwise now, but it was one of the harder times I'd had at that time.
And this was when I remembered one night, wondering what was going to happen to me, that I had an Aunt Frances somewhere in town, and I could mooch off of her and maybe survive. She was married to my uncle Ernie, and Ernie had a somewhat less than ... well, it's hard to describe his attitude, his philosophy. You could just say that my Aunt Frances had a more generous ... well, even that wouldn't work.
Ernie grew up in North St. Paul, one of five brothers, and he was, in his senior year in high school, struck from behind by a taxi cab, and spent 12 hours in a ditch by the side of a highway. And he wasn't just twiddling his thumbs down there; he was deep in a coma.
He recovered from this. He was ... first of all they found him down there. And secondly, he recovered. And as a result, he put his other four brothers through college. These are the four brothers, including my father, who would always say, "You know, Ernie was never quite the same after that." Ernie blamed that on working for the Post Office, but they blamed it on his being struck by a taxi cab.
The fact is, there was nothing wrong with Ernie, at least by my estimation. Except that having survived 12 hours in a watery ditch and a collision with a taxi cab and his rib cage, he developed -- and putting four brothers through college -- he had developed, at his own expense, I mean, he never wound up, as a result, getting his BS or BA, he wound up with sort of a Gordon Liddy attitude.
And so when I showed up at Aunt Frances's door, Ernie was there also. And when I said, "I'm kind of broke, kind of sick, kind of hungry," he just wanted to throw me back out the door and tell me to shape up. He didn't say in so many words, "Look, I was hit by a cab, you can go out and be depressed."
But my Aunt Frances prevailed and she fed me every now and then for awhile, and was a great comfort to me, there in my imagined travail.
I'd like to think that I wrote this song for her, but I didn't. I had already written it when I remembered my Aunt Frances. So, at least I thought I remembered her. And this does kind of sound like her.
[Leo plays "William Powell"]
LEO:That's called "William Powell." It was originally called "Lana Turner," who was out night-clubbing in Los Angeles and [was] observed by a friend of mine named T-Bone Burnett. He's asked me if T-Bone is a proper name for an adult, and I certainly think so. A lot better than Henry, which is his given name.[Leo plays "Ice Fields"]
T-Bone was at the same night club, and there was purportedly a live band playing for the customers. I say "purportedly" because that's as close as they got to being alive. What they were doing ... what sound they could make just oozed off the front of the stage and died them, according to T-Bone, and obviously according to Lana Turner, because she approached the stage, furious that this was happening, and terrified this band into the best set they'd ever done. It's another case I'd like to think 1 wrote the song because of that, but I didn't. It was just laying around.
Which may be why I felt not enough loyalty to it. To continue calling it "Lana Turner."
Why it's called "William Powell" is a mystery to me and even less of a mystery to you, I'm sure. It's got some importance to me, and I'll deal with it on my own time, trying to figure out why I would ...
I learned today that there's some plant, a nostrum, some plant called "Nancy" ... I think, "Nancy Williams." That has a resonance all of its own, again only for me. I'm trying to remember the name of the plant. They were being grown by a dermatologist.
This is a ... this may be an appropriate tune for a hot, humid day. It's called "Ice Fields." I wrote this after learning that there's ... or observing, rather, that there's something about monotony that we all love. Otherwise, no one would, you know, tell old stories about when they were in the Army or their surgeries.
And what's also obvious to all of us is that that monotony is no fun at the time that it's happening. Somehow it misses us at the moment, and it only comes to us later how much we really loved it.
So I determined that I would, with the instrument at my command, try and make an art form of tedium.
[Leo plays the opening muted notes of "Ice Fields"]
So this is what the tune used to be.
[Leo continues playing the opening muted notes of "Ice Fields"]
That went on for a long time.
There's a whole body of tunes that I love, that I try to avoid even thinking about because they just don't measure up to my standards of wonderful. I mean, there's something about each and every one of them that really embarrasses me. I don't understand how I could really be so fond of a tune that is otherwise causing me to blush. And there are a lot of them for me.
Some of them are pretty easy to justify, because when you look at them, they really are remarkable. Most of that stuff is by Leroy Anderson, who is sort of a ... I don't know what to call him ... but a kind of a pop arranger in the '50s and very early '60s, who had hits like the "Blue Tango," which is sort of a Colgate version of a tango, or "Fiddle Faddle" or "Trumpeter's Holiday" -- tunes that are especially fun to play and were big hits at the time. You only hear them in elevators now.
But there are others, though, that are really tough for me, like "The Wayward Wind" by Gogi Grant. Which is a ... I've managed to play perform most of these pieces that I like, but that one I really can't ... even I can't force myself to do it. But every time I hear it, I'm transported. Not when Boxcar Willie does it, though -- it's gotta be Gogie [?] Grant.
And then there's this tune, which is so optimistic and good-hearted that you want to throttle the author of this tune.
There's absolutely no sense of irony. Not a moment of doubt in this thing, all of which makes it really over the top. A little bit of despair is in, you know ... well, never mind. That's a lie.
So, I guess I'm warning you about this tune. There are moments in it that some of you may feel compelled to cringe at. But all in all, it's something I find irresistible.
[Leo plays "Rings"]
This is a tune that I first heard in Muskogee, Oklahoma, when I was a trombone player. I played trombone for nine years, as I've already alluded to. And it was as a result of trying to play the flute.
I had auditioned for a flute when my family lived in Cheyenne. And there were guys at that time -- I don't know if they still exist -- they rode around with a truck full of old instruments. These old sort of nickel things with a lot of green crud growing on them that existed before the turn of the century and had been blown into and, as a result, drooled into by who knows how many veterans of the Civil War. And they were lined up on table in whatever empty room was available in all these little schools back then, and volunteers were accepted.
You would line up before the pile you were most interested in, whether it was the woodwind pile or the brass pile or the percussion pile. I was interested in woodwinds. My turn came, and it came awfully soon -- there aren't that many people who wanted to go put their lips on any of these things.
I said, "I'd like to play the flute, sir."
And he said, "If you can make a sound on it, you can take it home."
I didn't know at the time that you could take it home, and then they'd come take it away from you a few months later and tell you to buy your own. There's something really diabolical in that. But it didn't happen to me, because I asked for the flute, got the flute, blew into the flute, and created the sonic equivalent of foam.
And he said, "Well, your mouth is too big." And he gave me a trombone. And it gives you an insight into my character -- one that you haven't asked for, and, you know ... but there it is anyhow -- that I would spend nine years playing the trombone.
It was a joke. This guy hated me, he hated my mouth, and he hated what I did to his flute. And he gave me this trombone as a source of constant suffering for this helpless kid who ...
I really ... I, at one time, had a vision of myself, for life, a trombonist. Living in little hotels with skinny lapels on, the shades down, a skinny tie, sunglasses, so it was even darker. And my trombone swinging casually at my side, depending from my index finger. I think I was smoking a Camel--I'm not sure. I've forgotten all of the vision, but it was a powerful one. It came awfully close, except for the suit and the instrument.
And nothing happened to sort of shake me up. Nothing told me that I was hollering up the wrong drainpipe, until I found the guitar. And then it was all over. I gave up on that thing.
But I spent a lot of time, as a result, in bands, in marching bands, in Wyoming and then again in Oklahoma, and then again in Virginia. And in Oklahoma I was first chair trombone, and I sat, as a result, I sat in the front of that arc that they give you, and I looked across at a guy that we called "White Hair," an albino guy, and he was called "White Hair" because bands have no sensibility for metaphor whatsoever. I had a nickname, everybody had ... and the band leader's nickname was "Sheep," which was really very accurate.
And Roger [Johnson], which was his real name, played an e-flat clarinet. And along with the tuba and the euphonium, the e-flat clarinet is a punishment instrument. It's like being sent off to solitary confinement. If you're a real jerk in the band or if you can't play in the first place the instrument you're supposed to play, the bandleader has the option, at least he did in these three states, of condemning you to the tuba, the euphonium, or the e-flat clarinet.
And of all of them, the e-flat clarinet was by far the most punishing, because with the tuba, you could remain a clown and have a lot of fun and make these horrible sounds on it. And the same with the euphonium. The euphonium had a -- it's role in band music was to always play right dead in the middle of the melody, so that its melodies were always something like ... MO< [Leo plays a very simple melody with whole notes within a very narrow range.]
And if you got that, you'd be thrilled -- if you got that to play. They never got to do anything.
And the e-flat clarinet was expected to do everything. It was a double-reed instrument, which means it had a reed like a straw. As soon as it got wet and as soon as, you know, an inexperienced player like Roger blew into it, it would collapse, and you'd blow the back of your head off with the force you had to put out to play the thing.
So day in and day out, as we went through these god-awful things that they make you play in band, like "The Dam Busters" ... has anybody here ever had to play the "Dam Busters"? Yeah. It was a memorial march written for the un ... demolition of a dam during World War II. Well, you can imagine -- it was awful.
But I watched Roger blow the back of his head off, day in and day out as a result ... I'll get to the end of this. See, I have a tent, so I'm not quite as hot as you are.
As result, we developed a sort of unspoken relationship. I never said a word to him; he never said a word to me. But day in and day out, we knew that there was great pain.
And one Friday he asked me out to the farm. And I didn't know Roger lived on a farm. And I said no. I didn't want to be anywhere near a farm. I didn't then and, well, I don't now, because there's nothing to do there expect work. And White Hair, Roger had said that we'd have a lot of fun. And I knew that he meant we'd feed animals, we'll dig things up over here and put it over there, and we'll do this from sun-up till sundown, then we'll eat whatever we've killed and go to bed.
I said, "No, I don't want to ... no thanks."
And so he said, "Well, I have a Cushman Eagle," and that did it. I went, because a Cushman Eagle is a sort of a ... well, it was a sort of motorcycle that appealed to everybody in prepubescence at the time. And off I went.
It was a lie. He had a sort of a Cushman, but it was a prototype from 1919. And it didn't work.
And there I was for a weekend on a farm. And sure enough, we shoveled stuff, we dragged hay bales behind the truck so cows would come up and eat it, stuff like that. And on the way back to the house, Roger let me know that there was something we could do. He said, "How'd you like to kill a chicken?"
And I said, "sure."
Has anybody here ... well, sure, somebody here has killed a chicken.
I expected that we would take a chicken, stretch its head out on a piece of wood, get a kindling ax, and sever the head from the body, and then we'd watch what was left of the chicken run around the yard until it fell over. And you know, well, what fun!
So Roger said, "I'll show you how to do it."
Now, there were chickens, who must've seen this happen every day of their lives. There are chickens by the jillions surrounding us, begging to be first to die. You know, "me, me!"
Roger reached down and picked one up by the head and twirled it over his head. And then he gave it a little "phut" and it died. That wasn't even as much fun as I had expected.
But I reached down and selected one of my volunteers down there, and twirled it around my head like this, sort of casually, arms akimbo, and I did that, boink, and nothing happened.
It flopped and protested, and I did that again and nothing happened. And again and again. Whatever was involved in that little shake of the wrist, I didn't have.
Now, Roger was having lots of fun, and I was having no fun. And he said, "Why don't you take ... let go of its head and take hold of its feet and beat it up against the side of the chicken coop?"
Now, if you've ever swung a cat at the fender of a car, it just turns its head on the way by. So does a chicken. Even a chicken is not dumb enough to leave its head out there so you can whack its brains out. And what does come in contact with the coop is covered with feathers, so it's impervious to walls. A chicken won't ...
So, it went on like that for awhile. I took some consolation in just being able to hit it at least. But it would not ... it wouldn't die. I don't think it even suffered at that point.
So, finally after Roger had had enough, he said, "Well, why don't you hold it down, and I'll back the tractor over its head." So, then we did. The tractor came from way back over there. And it protested -- the chicken protested -- and continued to protest, so we left it there for about half an hour. And it eventually died, I suspect of boredom, down there in the dark, rather than anything we did to it.
And that same summer is when I heard this tune.
[Leo laughs and brings his fists together to show how the chicken story and the song are connected.]
It's written by Carla Bley. I had just played the annual Aunt Jemima Pancake Breakfast, as it was called at the time, with Jack Hanna and his dad, and I was depressed. And we listened to this. It was written by Carla Bley and recorded by Jimmy Giuffre.
[Leo plays "Jesus Maria"]
[Leo plays "Jack Gets Up"]
[Leo starts playing "Airproofing II"]
I'd like to thank you for coming out and betting against the rain -- we won -- and sitting in the heat. Thanks a lot.
[Leo plays "Airproofing II"]
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