It’s seven in the morning, Central Standard Time, and Leo Kottke’s sleepy baritone rumbles down the long distance line from a Minneapolis hotel room.
“It is a little early,” he admitted, “but I’m fine.”
Typically, 7 a.m. is not a great hour for musicians, but Kottke, who seems such a forbidding soul, is in the mood for talk.
An interview with the great guitar player tends to follow a pattern. He circles warily, checking out the questioner until common ground is struck. Then what was to have been a 15-minute interview becomes a conversation.
During the warm-up last week, Kottke talked about playing guitar every day: “It’s like chewing your fingernails - it could be called a nervous habit, although unlike chewing your fingernails, it’s good for you.”
He looked back at the time when the tendonitis threatened to end his career until he learned to play without picks. The worst part, he said, was being unable to admit there was anything wrong.
“I was more miserable then than I have ever been. It was the pretense that drove me nuts. People would get the feeling that what they were hearing was awful, but I thought what I was doing was fine.”
But then the conversation began to shift gears as Kottke grew reflective, trying to place his career in perspective.
“I don’t know where I fit,” he said, without a trace of ego, “but I am absolutely part of the soundstream now, the musical continuum, and that’s a surprise and an honor.”
That much he can acknowledge, but Kottke is complicated and he believes there is more he should do.
“I should work at it…I’m a lazy son-of-a-bitch and I haven’t really paid back like I should. You pay back by doing your homework, that’s what the real people do.”
Growing increasingly sober, he told a story that helps define his particular genius.
He was a teenage trombone player when he heard a Jimmie Giuffre record featuring trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and guitarist Jim Hall.
“To the best of my recollection, I heard it twice in its entirety, but the music haunted me …
“About five years ago, I decided to find that record, and I found it in a rare-record store in Los Angeles.
“I put this thing on and what was undeniable after all those years was that I had known all the Jim Hall licks. I could see me in Jim Hall.”
Listening to the trombone part, Kottke had unkowingly absorbed the entire record. When he picked up the guitar, he already had a vocabulary, provided by Jim Hall.
People are “born with receptors,” Kottke believes, like Hemingway’s “crap detector.”
“I think everybody’s crap detector is fairly similar from one person to the next; everybody’s music detector is not.
“On that day, Jim Hall was using a key that fit my receptor.”
But then, his receptor was always acute: “When I was a child, the first thing I would react to was Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’ I was about 2. I would beg for it to be played and then I would run around the house screaming.
“I haven’t been that hip since.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LEO KOTTKE Location and time: The Met, tonight, 7 Tickets: $15 at G&B; (a reception one hour prior to the concert requires an additional ticket, call 924-7221)