Time to Tell True Stories : Music: Guitarist Leo Kottke, who plays with Chet Atkins at the Coach House, lets his experiences do the talking--from the barking pooch that dogged him to the guitar that saved his life.
If you really want to get Leo Kottke’s goat sometime, you can do it with a dog.
Here’s how: Find where Kottke’s staying, check into an adjacent room with a feisty pooch for an accomplice, set him to yapping at a good time--4 a.m. might work--and start shouting ‘Pepe, hush!’ ”
Most working musicians probably wouldn’t appreciate this gesture, but in Kottke’s case it might just send him around the bend, or at least make him write a sequel. There are precedents here, see.
On his current “Great Big Boy” album, the 12-string guitar innovator has a song called “Pepe Hush,” and in a recent phone interview he explained, “It’s one of the few things I’ve written that actually came from something I’d experienced. You won’t believe this--nobody would--but it’s true: I was in a real dump of a motel in Tennessee, and a dog started barking at the crack of dawn, and some woman was yelling ‘Pepe, hush!’ The thing is that’s happened twice more since then. Once in Indiana and then some other place a dog has started barking and a woman’s voice says ‘Pepe, be quiet,’ or ‘Pepe, hush up!’ something like that. That’s too much. I can’t take that in, really.”
Considering that he’s been subjected to another senseless threesome over the years--pairs of ersatz chicken feet that have been thrown at him while performing in different climes--it could be that there’s a subtle conspiracy of evil fans trying to drive him out of his mind.
Not that Kottke, 46, needs much help. He’s always paddled his own boat across the prairies of American music, prompting the likes of Chet Atkins--with whom Kottke shares the bill at the Coach House on Saturday--to remark, “He’s got a lot of strange thoughts going on in that head of his.” Kottke’s brain just seems to be furrowed a little differently.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that comment too, from professionals,” Kottke said, laughing. “But I think what clicks, if anything, with other people about my music is the point of view that I have, that I manage to sound like me. A lot of what I do may be kind of familiar, but I think I find a different way with it in my writing. I know that’s what I like in other players: that identity that some of them seem to have, whereas some people are geniuses on an instrument, but they don’t have an identity.”
Kottke’s identity first asserted itself on record in 1969, and since then his sonorous, rhythmically skewed 12-string playing and bemused baritone vocals have staked out a territory as inventively, timelessly American as the radio shows of his friend Garrison Keillor. He has garnered a accolades from the likes of Atkins and jazz great Joe Pass, even though his style is far afield from theirs.
In a free-ranging conversation Kottke lighted on the roots of that style, the creative process, his first all-vocal album, “hippie chicks” and his grave concerns about the future of this nation.
Along with his concert appearances, Kottke is on the West Coast to try writing songs with a musician he has always admired: Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne. Another recent collaboration was a suite for guitar and orchestra written with Stephen Paulus, composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony and composer of the operas “The Village Singer,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Woodlanders.”
Though the expense of recording with an orchestra will likely prohibit its release on disc, they have performed the suite twice and plan to do it in Kansas City in November and tour Australia with it next year.
He’s been stretching in a number of other new directions too, the most pronounced being that the “Great Big Boy” album is his first to feature vocals throughout. He started out as an instrumentalist who disparaged his own singing as being “like geese farts on a muggy day,” a phrase so identified with Kottke that it’s virtually required by law to be included in anything written about him.
Though still unmistakably Kottke, the guitar work is often submerged in a percolating mix of other instrumentation on the album, which was produced by Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin. It was Kottke’s intent that the songs come first, and he says it was a freeing experience to not be so tied to the guitar.
“The minute I knew I was going to make a vocal album, the material just took off. It was really like being let off a leash, really refreshing. . . . A lot of times I wind up with (songs) that are three-fourths done, where what Solzhenitsyn calls ‘the final inch’ isn’t completed. Sometimes you just loose the thread.
“The lyrics took over more than anything else, and it’s the first time I had that experience, where the word was really leading the music writing. I’ve been trying to write since I was in the third grade. At least some lyrics now are starting to click for me.”
There are some songs from the album he doesn’t attempt to play live, where he performs solo, because they don’t work without a full instrumentation. He also has dropped playing the album’s “The Other Day (Near Santa Cruz)” where a narrator indulges a beery romanticization of “hippie chicks.”
“I’ve stopped doing ‘Santa Cruz,’ because audiences really love it or really hate it, and boy do they hate it when they hate it. There’s kind of a snarl that you can feel about halfway through the tune. The people that hate it, I think, must tend to feel that I really identify with this guy.”
While some lyrics are built around Kottke’s wry wit--some of which even slips into the cluttered desolation of “Nothing Works,” a modern evocation of Thomas Hardy’s “blasted heath"--he also takes some darker turns than he has previously.
“Driver” is nearly as disturbing as watching blood run out from a cut in your hand. Over an atmospheric backing that hints of desert mystery and hovering doom, Kottke’s lyric tells of a border trucker who strands his human cargo in the desert to die, only to be haunted by his act as their bones are “drifting like the snow that falls each night and settles, all around his soul.”
“That’s a brand-new place for me, that tune,” Kottke said. “I wrote that at 70 miles an hour, driving in the song’s kind of country along Interstate 10 coming out of Texas, and I started writing on a pad on my knee. I tried to stop writing it because at first I thought it was going to be terrible, another one of those songs about dead refugees and so forth. But it was coming so easily that I kept it up and by the time it was done--it happened pretty much over the space of a few miles--when it got to the last verse and started taking a turn, I was really thrilled. It gave me goose bumps to find out what it really was about.”
Most of Kottke’s compositions convey a strong sense of mood and place. “They sure aren’t that way when they start, but as they develop, whether its lyrics or an instrumental, it comes over you,” he said. “Once it does, that mood is maybe the arbiter of the whole thing, that tells you not to go this way but to go that way with a melody.
“I’ve learned that you have to take your chance when it comes along. You might get a little inkling that tells you something is available to you right then, and you might be able to attach it to a line or a musical phrase. But if you just ignore it, say ‘I’m too tired’ or ‘I’ll be late for the plane’ or whatever, then you run the risk of killing it. You not only choke off that idea that wants to come out but you choke off the source of the idea, and the next idea comes much later and harder than it would otherwise.”
Kottke’s muse hasn’t caused him to miss a plane yet, he said, “But as a result of having my mind on something like that, there have been times when I’ve heard myself introduced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, bla bla . . . ' and then I walk out onstage without my guitar.”
A guitar has been Kottke’s near-constant companion since childhood. “My folks had brought a toy guitar home because they’d heard me singing with the radio and took pity on me. It had a cowboy stenciled on it and fell apart in two weeks.”
But before the guitar gave up the ghost, it changed his life.
“I found the guitar is really the instrument I was meant to play. I played trombone and other instruments, but when I found the guitar it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a really religious experience. Maybe it was a religious experience, when I first played an E chord. I couldn’t exaggerate that experience if I tried, but I can embarrass myself by talking about it, because it was really a moment I’m still trying to digest. I got everything that was there in the guitar at once. It just hit me in that chord. I could see it all, feel it.
“I’d been sick in bed for about two months. I was 11. At the time I was approaching rheumatic fever. I’d had mono for about two months, also about every other disease you could imagine: mumps, chickenpox, measles, flu, strep throat. I was running out of diseases. It was a real pivotal time for me. My sister had just died, and I think that’s why I was so sick. It’s common for siblings to really hit the skids when one of them dies.
“I wasn’t interested in anything at all, didn’t care about anything, was just your classic wasting-away wimp, and the guitar--I’m stammering because it’s awful easy to get pathetic with all of this--it saved my skin I think. It came and got me, and I’m still trying to get through that experience, and I’m still working from it. I was out of bed in a week, and I never stopped after that.”
Countering the exhilaration he’s found in music all his life is his deepening gloom over the United States and its future.
“I was about to say ‘Don’t get me started on that,’ but I’ll bear responsibility. I think it’s time we all got started. It ain’t much, but for the first time, I’m writing letters, to all the members of the judiciary committee, several to the President, to my state representatives. Beyond that, I’m just kind of screeching off into space. Things are different from the last time I was shook up, which was when I got out of the Navy in about ’64. . . . What’s going on now is far more disturbing because there’s so much silence and so much fear. I get the feeling everybody is really shook and intimidated.”
Among his concerns is a dour prediction that by the year 2000, two-thirds of the American populace will be illiterate. “How can anything happen in the way of communication, of approaching any kind of comity, if two-thirds of the people can’t read ?
“Then when I look at the (political) campaigns that winners have been running lately. I don’t see a campaign. In the Army they have a branch called Psych-Op--psychological operations, the use of propaganda and other things on a population to control its behavior. To me the campaigns I see now are Psych-Ops, elaborate control mechanisms made to control the voter. It’s disgusting to me the way we are treated as a population when it comes to our vote, how we’re manipulated. . . .
“As little sense as I can make of things like the S&L; or BCCI crises and the (government official) overseeing all that and just letting it go, I can’t understand that. I don’t get that,” Kottke said. “It really does give you a profound sense that everything is just going to have to fall down before anything can be built. I really have lost any belief in the motives of people who hold the reins, that’s if there are any reins. . . .
“Some people are definitely just ripping (off) everything they can, and they seem to be at the top rather than the bottom. That’s gotten to be so mammoth that there are days I just sit by myself and work myself up into a fit. That’s not good. I find it hard to drop that damn ball and just be a friend to my friends, to not let it poison me.”
It does help, he said, to be working in a medium which ideally can remind people about the better parts of being human.
“I’m positive music does that. I have no doubt about that. That’s why it’s such a privilege to be able to play, because it is truly valuable. It’s real nourishment, music is. It’s something that sustains you rather than divides you.”
It also sustains Kottke when people let him know that his music touches them.
“I love it, because you sit around and write this stuff and play it for your own good. You can’t resist doing that because it does something for you. And to find out that it reaches other people intact, reaches them the same way is great. It’s enough just to know that can happen with one person.
“I get letters from little kids--6, 5 years old--and that really means something to me, because we all know what it’s like to listen when we’re 6, and how total our belief or disbelief is at that age. We know right away at that age, so that really knocks me out.
“There was this one little boy standing around after a show I did in San Diego. He didn’t say anything, but he started looking familiar and I turned to him and said, ‘Weren’t you here last year?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you’d remember.’ He was about 10 years old, and it just knocked the breath out of me, because, like when I saw Gene Autry, I can remember that thing of how much things can mean to you when you’re that young. And here’s a kid who had been to see me at least twice. That’s what makes me feel I’m doing something worthwhile.”
Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins play Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $25. (714) 496-8930.