Hand picked

Leo Kottke chooses his moments

| May 15, 2003

You’ve probably never met Leo Kottke, and neither have I. He grants interviews from time to time, but unlike a lot of other PR people Kottke’s don’t exactly beat down the door handing out invitations to take a trip inside his mind. He likes his privacy. The Minneapolis phone book (Kottke lives in a suburb) reportedly has a number of “L. Kottke” listings, none of them his. Some have suggested it’s Kottke’s joke on those uncouth fans who would call him up with tablature questions and autograph requests. Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. He’s known for having an unusual sense of humor, but I didn’t think it was that easy to inveigle the phone company in a private joke. At least until there was that guy up in Thompson Falls who got his name in the phone book as Heywood Jablomie. Who knows, hell.

Real Kottke fans probably know all this anyhow, in addition to all the other odd biographical tidbits that shape this hard-hitting, innovative fingerstyle guitarist in their minds. Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, in 1945. September 11, to be precise—something he’s probably had to find a place for in his offbeat sense of humor in the past two years, along with roughly 1/365th of six billion other people, whatever that figures out to. He started playing guitar in the late 1950s and grew to love country-bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt in his early teens, although by that point he’d already fiddled around a little (heh heh) with both the violin and the trombone. He had the latter instrument in hand, as a matter of fact, on a band trip to the White House some time in the early ’60s to perform before then-President John F. Kennedy—an experience he recounts with typical Kottkenian obfuscation in an essay called “Meeting the President.” An excerpt follows here, retrieved from his official Web site (www.leokottke.com):

“Like a lot of other kids I was wearing a sort of Hussars hat with a plume in it, I was holding a trombone... I was standing in sunlight, sweating into a borrowed green wool uniform, camphorized on one of the White House lawns, stupefacting at the West Wing and bored out of my feathered skull. Then JFK breezed by, tanned by Addison’s disease. He wore a perfect suit, a Roswell sort of suit. His hand in one of its jacket pockets, so I’ve read, hid a cigar, and he moved in perfect unison with the suit; without mimicking plastic or second skin or paint, the suit hung like a breeze on each of his Presidential centimeters. But I was wearing a hat with a feather in it. I was holding a trombone.”

Kottke’s impressions of meeting another President, incidentally, over three decades later, would not be quite as rapt:

“[A]n engineer turned the microphone on, Clinton spoke officially, and if the few words we’d heard until then were the voice of a president, of a sober gravity, we now listened to treacle, to kitsch, to a rubdown. Somebody’d thrown a switch and turned off the President of the United States... Every President since Kennedy, and every presidential candidate, has talked like this, with that mortician’s smile.”

Yes, and some other things happened along the way. Kottke lost some hearing in one ear after a mishap with a firecracker shortly after discovering Mississippi John Hurt, and shooting exercises during a hitch with the Naval Reserve further aggravated the condition until he was finally discharged. He dropped out of college and hitchhiked (Kottke himself would probably write “hitchhoke” just to be like that) around the country before coming to rest in the Twin Cities in the late ’60s, working his way into the Minneapolis coffee-house circuit and releasing his major-label debut, Mudlark, in 1971.

Kottke’s recorded output has slowed in recent years. His forceful technique and vigorous regimen of touring and making albums contributed to a lingering pain in his hands that required him to slow down and modify his style to make it a little more sustainable. Not that slowing down has made his one-of-a-kind technique any more transparent to the devotees who pore over videos of his performances looking for answers. “Many of us feel like prehistoric Cavemen,” writes one devotee, “who, con-fronted with a modern-day computer, attempt to figure out its workings using sharpened sticks and stones. We usually end up grunting and scratching our heads.”

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