Melody Maker, January 29, 1977

Leo Kottke, Lion of the Guitar

by Colin Irwin

Article photo (uncredited)
Article photo (uncredited)
Leo Kottke, in Britain for a tour which includes dates with Jethro Tull, talks to Colin Irwin.

      At High School, recalls Leo Kottke giggling at the memory, they used to drink this foul cooking wine you could buy for two bucks a quart.  Then they'd all go off to throw up in the canal.  It was terrific fun.

      An oversized penguin gives him an anxious glace, and he adds hastily:  "But I've changed since High School...say, didn't you used to work at the Churchill?"  The waiter, astonished, says yes, he did, and Kottke returns to his wine, happy, his memory is as keen as ever.  It was a good 18 months since he was in England, staying at London's Churchill Hotel -- "Last time I was here I brought my family over -- the kids loved the Arabs at the Churchill."

      And so it goes on...Leo Kottke, in London prior to his British tour (which includes three dates as support to Jethro Tull), is almost as dazzling a conversationalist as he is a 12- string guitar virtuoso.  He's apprehensive about the Jethro gigs because he's got a chubby face and a deep trawling voice and his sets tend to be quiet affairs relying heavily on the solo acoustic guitar.  Perhaps he should learn to stand up when he plays, or stand on a speaker, he muses.  They're never gonna see him at Glasgow Apollo (the opening date) if the stage is as high as everyone says.

      He headlines at Victoria Palace, London on February 6 (with Leon Redbone in support) and may be doing the Parkinson telly show, though he doubts if they'll let him chat.   The last chat show he did they turned their noses up, because he kept talking about an elderly blues guitarist called John Jackson who refused to wash his left hand for 20 years because it gave him further control on his playing.  "I tried it once...but I only kept it up for four days."

      His new album Leo Kottke -- his first for Chrysalis -- is totally instrumental and features orchestrations by Jack Nitsche.  It's a surprising direction but Kottke doesn't see it as indicating the end of his singing career.  He feels his singing has improved considerably since his famous quote, likening his voice to "geese farts on a muggy day" and has been studying the singing of people like Linda Ronstadt (with whom he toured last year) to improve it further.

      "I think there's a place for me as a singer.  I can feel comfortable singing.  When I began performing, all I did was sing and that was when I was a bad singer.  There are things like "Eight Miles High" and "Hear The Wind Howl" I can't stand on the record, but I love the way I do them now."

      It just seemed a good idea to divorce instrumentals and vocals on record, and the next record will be all vocal.  He's also intending to broaden his style of music with the addition of a bass and piano on live work; Nicky Hopkins may be brought in on piano and possibly Buell Neidlinger on bass, though Kottke add "but he's such a good player, it's a little intimidating.  Some of his first recordings were with Cecil Taylor...if he can play with Cecil Taylor..." he trails off in awe.  "He used to play along with the ocean, just go on the beach, listen to the surf and play along in his own world."

      Leo's first European tour had been as support to Procol Harum, and they'd get him up to jam with them on a couple of things.  It made him realise he's missing out on a whole are of music, and the idea of playing in a band is appealing to him now.  His new experience of playing in an electric rock band as a fully fledged member ended after one gig in a bar in Minnesota when he was fired.

      "It wasn't that I played so bad, it was just that I was such an obvious misfit.  They just stared at me like I was two foot tall with four-foot teeth.  I played a Rickenbacker, and the neck on those things is so big I couldn't get past the pick-ups."

      The drummer in that band, he continues, would every so often smash the windows in his car and dump the drums in another part of town, claiming insurance.  He made quite a good living at it, he says.  And the moral:  "He's involved in a drug rehabilitation programme in Texas now."

      He warms to the fantasy of bands he'd like to have played in.  And he makes some surprising choices -- Lynyrd Skynyrd, Procul Harum, John McLaughlin, Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens -- "I wouldn't have liked to have been in the same plane though."  He pauses -- a rare moment when this charismatic character is speaking -- and makes the decision that his very favourite guitar solo of all of them was by Buddy Holly on "Crying, Waiting, Hoping."

      "I really love playing rhythm guitar but I never get to do it.  That's where I could fit in with Lynyrd Skynyrd -- on "Sweet Home Alabama,"  is that the title?"

      Listening to such varied forms of music sometimes makes him feel limited in his own playing, even though he's rightly acknowledged as one of the world's finest and most exciting 12-string players.  There was an occasion, a year or so ago, when he started brooding a bit too heavily on his limitations and his inspiration dried up.  Couldn't write a note.

      "I am limited but I don't pay too much attention to it except in the point that it touches reality.  If I dwell on it I can forget how to play.  I had a year or so when I could not write a note.  All I could see were the negative aspects of what I was doing as an instrumental writer.  The greatest achievements on the guitar that I've heard were on 'Embryonic Journey,'" by Jorma Kaukonen on the Surrealistic Pillow album by Jefferson Airplane.

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