What does God look like?
“A guitar,” asserts Leo Kottke.
Such an answer, Kottke concedes by phone from his Minnesota home, might strike some as blasphemous. Yet if you’re a disciple of the acclaimed guitar innovator, a believer in his six- and 12-string channeling of the holy ghost of John Fahey, you accept his pronouncement on faith. It is a certain kind of truth. A Kottke-ism.
Kottke, 57, is that rare musician who seems endlessly beset by mental bursts and melody, whose lightning dexterity sacrifices neither tone nor compositional complexity.
“I am amazed at the machine that is Leo’s mind and fingers,” a Kottke-fied fan wrote online in 1998. “Leo is like Bach.”
Kottke, who regards himself first and foremost as an instrumentalist, is, at best, a reluctant singer/songwriter — though an absolute fool for language. He is a man of wicked wit and generous intelligence.
“I’m only beginning to find out how stupid I am,” he counters.
Kottke’s is a storied life, though he’d probably argue that the best narratives aren’t always the greatest joy when you’re right in the thick of them.
His youth was something of a blur — by the time he was 18, he’d called 12 different states home. Early on, he played violin (“It didn’t last long”) and trombone (“I liked any music where the trombone got to play the melody for a second; it frequently does not”). But he abandoned both for guitar at age 11, latching onto the music of country-blues great Mississippi John Hurt, and later, of acoustic-guitar wiz Fahey.
Following an accident that compromised Kottke’s hearing in his right ear (his left had already been damaged by a childhood firecracker mishap), he received a medical discharge from the Naval Reserve; then, after an aborted pass at college, he began the life of an itinerant musician. His travels, often by thumb, eventually landed him in the Twin Cities, where he became a fixture on the local folk circuit.
In 1969, Kottke’s first album, Twelve String Blues, came out on the tiny Oblivion label. Circle ‘Round the Sun, which followed the next year, caught the attention of Fahey, who later helped secure his devotee a major-label deal with Capitol Records.
Over the next decade, Kottke cranked out several seminal albums, including Mudlark (1971) and Six and 12-String Guitar (1972), the latter’s liner notes containing Kottke’s oft-quoted description of his own voice as “geese farts on a muggy day.”
He has softened through the years to his own singing, which isn’t much removed from his speech — rumblingly deep and a little craggy, with a hint of something that’s almost but not quite sinister.
Early in his career, Kottke seemed indefatigable, his grueling live schedule augmenting an almost yearly album output. But his abrupt finger-picking style eventually led him into a battle with hand pain that caused one of America’s most original guitar voices to completely redefine his playing technique — something that doesn’t sound so awful in theory, he notes, but that proved a major gauntlet in practice.
“Oh, my, it was tough,” admits Kottke. “I got rid of my finger picks and learned a few things about where the power really is in the note and how to draw it out. It’s worked since then, and I’ve been really lucky. I prefer this technique now to what I used to have — which wasn’t [really] a technique, it was more like a hammer.”
Kottke pops up routinely now in rock ‘n’ roll reference books — not for his own compositions and idiosyncratic technique, necessarily, but for the influence his 30-year-plus career has exerted on the general art of guitar, and on the DIY approach to performing.
His music has been characterized by intriguing cover choices (The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” for instance, or Fleetwood Mac’s “World Turning”) and collaborations, both with producers (David Z, T-Bone Burnett, Rickie Lee Jones) and with other musicians (Fahey, Jones, Lyle Lovett).
Most recently, Kottke did a duo album, Clone (Private Music, 2002), with Mike Gordon, bassist for Grateful Dead heirs Phish. The album is a delight — weird to the bone, the playing seemingly effortless.
“It was a ball for both of us,” Kottke reveals.
But the Phish connection hasn’t appeared to make any tangible difference in the album’s success, he notes.
“I’m sure if it were a hit, I would know,” Kottke observes.
The good fight
Which would be the more formidable weapon in battle, the six- or 12-string guitar?
“Spit,” Kottke offers instead.
A favorite Kottke story, which appears in one form on Live (Private Music, 1995), concerns his father’s teaching hand-to-hand combat during World War II. The manual his dad used strongly recommended spitting in an opponent’s face in the heat of the fight.
“Even though you’re out to kill each other, [your adversary] will be so shocked that you spit on him that he’ll stop what he’s doing for a second,” Kottke explains. “And in that second of hesitation and shock, y’know, you poke him with your stick.”
Kottke discovered the combat manual during his quest to learn self-defense skills from his father; his family’s frequent moves made Kottke the perpetual new kid, always picked on. But he’s noted in the past that asking his dad for fighting pointers proved a mistake.
“He took me out in the back yard and beat the s••t out of me!” Kottke explains now. “He said, ‘Here, I’ll you show you a couple of’ — whap!, punch!, thud!“