|Recordings: Leo Kottke: The Best (1976)|
by Dr. Demento
Where were you when you first heard the music of Leo Kottke? Who was with you? I won't ask you when it was...but I'll bet you remember the rest of the details quite clearly.
I guess I was one of the first people outside of Minnesota to hear Leo. For me it happened when John Fahey, himself one of the first guitarists to begin doing inventive, non-traditional things with traditional folk-blues guitar technique, invited me up to the Santa Monica, Calif. home office of Takoma Records to hear a tape he'd just gotten in the mail from Minnesota.
I sat down upon a short stack of unsold Takoma records -- the place was really more warehouse than office. At one end of the room, though, was a beat-up desk with an equally decrepit tape machine on it.
John Fahey is not an effusive man, but from the glances and asides he threw in my direction as he threaded the tape, I could easily discern that Fahey felt this Minnesota tape was something special.
With the first notes I felt a burst of regional pride -- I was brought up in Minnesota myself, you see. Here was a twelve-string guitar, surely one of the world's most intractable instruments, and it was being ridden like Cauthen rode Affirmed.
It was, of course, 1970, not 1978, so instead of thinking that, I thought of what Fahey had told me about the American finger-picking tradition -- the Mississippi John Hurts, the Merle Travises, Libba Cottens, Leadbellies -- and how it could be the fountainhead of a whole new realm of music. Fahey was looking for musicians who could take that sound an expand its vocabulary -- much as Bach expanded the vocabulary of German sacred music, or Armstrong that of New Orleans jazz.
Here was a Minnesota musician Fahey had never heard of before, doing just that, and with technique that made Fahey (himself the recognised master of the genre) hit the rewind button again and again for an instant replay ("How the fuck did he do that?").
When Leo Kottke's Takoma album was released a short while later, without a picture of the artist, people accused Fahey of cloning some sort of Frankenstein megaguitarist.
But then the real Leo Kottke showed up in L.A., and he didn't talk like Fahey, he certainly didn't look like Fahey, and when you get down to it he didn't really play like Fahey either. He's obviously listened to a lot of the same root music learned from the same masters, but what he did with the instrument was, and is, his own inspiration altogether.
Leo played all his tunes, often even better than on the record, and told the most amazingly droll stories about where he and his music came from. Eventually we all found out that he'd been born in Athens, Georgia on Sept. 11, 1945, that's he'd lived in Wyoming, Oklahoma and Virginia before enrolling in college in St. Cloud, Minn., and that for some time he'd commuted from there to Minneapolis to play at University of Minnesota student dives like the Ten O'Clock Scholar, whose tiny stage had ten years earlier helped launch the career of Bob Dylan, and had also felt many a foot stomp from renowned blues innovators Koerner, Ray & Glover. We even found out about the LP that a Twin Cities entrepreneur had pressed up from some tapes of Leo on stage at the Scholar, and we discovered that he had sent his new tapes to several major labels before finally locating sympathetic ears at Takoma.
I always did prefer, however, Leo's own story about how his recording career got started:
"Four years ago in Minnesota I froze my feet solid as a rock and spent some weeks in a St. Cloud hospital being squirted by a malformed ten year old with a syringe full of water and having my 'feet' stared at by assorted appendectomies who wanted some excitement in their lives. So as soon as I could meander I got my own syringe, doused the kid, and went down to the chapel (it was a Catholic hospital) with a tape recorder. Sitting beside two nuns in the balcony, I dangled my microphone over the edge and waited for something to happen. The nuns got worried so I was left alone with my fruity feet, my Magnavox, and an empty room. For all that bother, and a chapel full or empty isn't very thrilling, I would up with a tape of a cleaning lady performing on her Hoover. That's when I decided to record my own stuff."
The only thing Leo needed in order to conquer the world was a manager. It was my lot to introduce him to Denny Bruce. Denny was already managing several top blues artists such as the late Magic Sam and Earl Hooker. He'd also been a drummer with the Mothers of Invention. With that sort of experience, I figured Denny was ready for anything.
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