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Kottke's Greatest Hit Is His Endurance Record : Music: The virtuoso guitarist with the bemused outlook on life has outlasted trends without ever strumming a commercial-sounding note.

October 05, 1994|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What to make of Leo Kottke?

Known for his virtuoso, idiosyncratic guitar artistry, his dry, black-humored lyrics, and a voice that he himself describes as like "geese (breaking wind) on a muggy day," he hardly is the type one would figure to enjoy a long, successful career. Yet for 25 years now, Kottke--who plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--has endured, with nary a break in his album release or concert schedule.

His style, which has remained relatively stable, has outlasted trends from acid rock to disco, from punk rock to hip hop. His sound has never been "commercial" by any stretch, but there is little to dislike about it, once one gives it a chance.

His guitar technique is stunning without being ostentatious; there's a reason behind every note, whether he is playing six-string, 12-string, slide, acoustic or electric guitar.

"My best trick," he said during a recent phone interview, "is coming up with pieces that are all hooks (musical phrases that immediately attach themselves to a listener). I love a hook. A lot of players either don't like them or feel above them, and a lot of players are above them, but I just love them. A hook is immediate, and it makes music easier for an audience to grasp."

Another aspect of his appeal is his self-effacing, ironic and vaguely blue sense of humor. His songs can come off like James Thurber crossed with Frank Zappa, and he is well known for engaging in witty patter from the stage with his fans.

"It seems to me that performance is what keeps an audience," he said. "For a lot of performers, there seems to be a real fine line between making an ass of yourself and entertaining. But there has to be entertainment, because this is show business. There's no getting around that."

Kottke, 49, grew up in a family that moved from state to state a dozen times, which may be why he developed such a bemused outlook on life. As a child, he played violin, flute and trombone before settling on guitar at age 11, much to his mother's consternation.

"She was all right with the other instruments. But to her, the guitar was an aberration. It was like somebody spending all his time with a kazoo or a comb and a piece of paper."

Listening to Kottke's complex, finger-picked style, one can hear strains of folk music, country music, blues and jazz, and one could suppose that Kottke must have grown up with a stack of records by Chet Atkins, the Rev. Gary Davis and Les Paul. But he says he learned to play without even knowing that these artists existed.

"The only guitar stuff I could find when I was a kid was like classical stuff by Laurindo Almeida, and I didn't like that. The sound I had in my head came from a record I had called 'Willie the Whale.' You hear this C chord: BRROOOM! Hi! That's the sound that I heard. And because of playing the trombone, I knew I wanted to play the guitar like a piano."

Huh?

"Yeah! I heard these horn lines and piano. I was really influenced by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis."

*

He began his recording career with "Twelve String Blues" on the aptly named Oblivion label in 1968. Since then he has released 25 albums, and he figures to have spent about 80% of his time on the road, where he's happiest. "The guitar still grabs me. If I'm away from playing for more than a couple of days, I really start to get weird."

Last year brought two career highlights. One was his tour as a member of the "Guitar Summit" (a title he says he found stuffy) with classical artist Pepe Romero, flamenco artist Paco Pena and jazz master Joe Pass, who died shortly after the tour ended.

"That tour was probably the nicest thing to happen to me in a while," Kottke recalled. "It ran about two months, and was the last thing Joe did in his life. It turned out to be a beautiful tour and a friendship that was too short. I thought I'd be able to pick Joe's brain over a two-month period, but you'd ask him a question, and he'd hum the answer.

"When we approached this tour, I think all four of us expected it to be a disaster, but it turned out to be the opposite. The audience was comfortable with four distinctly different players and attitudes, and so were we. It really was a wonderful time."

He also spent some of 1993 in the studio recording "Peculiaroso" with Rickie Lee Jones. The album was released in January to positive reviews; Kottke credits Jones with maintaining its loose, fun atmosphere.

"I was working with Rickie on her record 'Traffic From Paradise' and she was like rolling on the floor, laughing her head off half the time. We were all falling apart, and I thought, 'This is what I need.' So I asked her to produce my record and in a weak moment she said 'yeah.'

"It was terrific. Everybody brings an element of terror into the studio and she brought a new kind of terror I was totally unprepared for. She gets this glimmer in her eye that she's dead certain about something, and she goes with it."

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