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by Bruce Muckala
A s V a n g u a r d R e c o r d ' s h e a d o f A & R on the West Coast in 1969, Denny Bruce had been assigned to find out what kind of record John Fahey was planning to make next. Fahey had already done two previous records for Vanguard. After their production idea was turned down, Bruce became Fahey's manager as well as producer, and both left Vanguard. It was through this association that Bruce was linked with Leo Kottke. 6 and 12-String Guitar had just been released on Takoma, Leo moved to LA, and Denny became Leo's manager. Bruce had secured a multi-album deal with Capitol records through a production company formed by Fahey and himself aptly called Takoma Productions. Fahey was signed to Warner Bros, via Takoma Productions.Through this effort and others of Takoma Productions, fans of John and Leo would recognize and rely on the standards insisted upon by all involved. Capitol was a strong company with artists that ran the gamut from The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and Steve Miller to Ann Murray, Glen Campbell and Helen Reddy.
The first album for Capitol was Mudlark. Recording started in Los Angeles and later moved to Nashville. "The label threw out half of what was given them and sent me down to Nashville to replace that." said Kottke. It had been agreed beforehand that Bruce and John Fahey would co-produce. Denny, who had played drums in such bands as Frank Zappa's Mothers (later The Mothers of Invention) would focus on the ensemble work while John would assist with the solo guitar recordings. Four of the cuts were recorded in Wayne Moss's garage in Nashville with Moss on bass, Kenneth Buttrey on drums and John Harris on piano.
"The very first session we did, John would hit the stop/talkback switch and say to Leo 'Your low e-string is buzzing on the 14th fret, fix it.' Then he would laugh and say how great it is to put somebody else through hell when they are trying to record," Bruce recalls. "At the same time Leo and [his wife] Mary were expecting their first child, so every time he saw the light blink on the studio phone he would get a little anxious. When we finally took a break, with nothing to show for it on tape, Leo pulled me aside and said we had to do something so he could just relax and play. We had players coming in the next day who we had rehearsed with and didn't feel we needed John to stop the tape every ten seconds. I pulled Fahey aside and said, 'I'm willing to give you your bread and production credit for this album if you stay out of this until we get things rolling.' He said, 'I had my fun today and I'd rather not have to be here. I've spent years in the studio already. Are you bullshitting me about the money and credit?' I said the 50/50 deal in Takoma Productions stands - a deal that still goes on today, financially, but now I deal with the Fahey estate."
A number of the songs were written and developed in the studio, a practice that was to continue throughout Kottke's recording career. "Standing in My Shoes" was started with the aim of including another slide tune on the record and Kottke and Bruce eventually worked out the lyric as the song developed. It was written in a Nashville motel room the morning before a session. "Leo had a great guitar hook but the lyrics didn't quite fit," Bruce remembers. "I asked him to try another lyric and Leo said 'Let's see if we can crank something out together.' I said I'd try my best imitation of Neil Young and twenty minutes later we were done."
Mudlark also includes a cover of Jim McGuinn's "Eight Miles High". "It helped to have a familiar song with 12-string guitar so people could appreciate what Leo was bringing to the ballgame," said Bruce. Kottke's arrangement still remains on his concert playlist.
Sound 80 was Herb Pilhofer's recording studio in Minneapolis. In the early 70's they were mostly busy with recording jingles for local television and radio and white gospel groups from South Dakota such as The Lundstroms. Demos by the then-unknown Prince were also made at the studio. When Kottke decided to do his recording exclusively in Minneapolis, there was a buzz in the studio about the LA producer, Denny Bruce, who would be coming to the Twin Cities.
"When I saw every new tech magazine they had lying everywhere, I thought they were hoping I had a least one Steely Dan record under my belt." Bruce quickly struck up a close working relationship with engineer Paul Martinson.
"Paul and I bonded immediately when he told me that he engineered "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen, one of the world's greatest garage-rock records," recalled Bruce.
During this era, more and more technicians, in both the recording and film industries, were using cute "middle names" to describe something about their gig. Martinson, "the engineer who pretty much functioned as my psychiatrist for all the Capitol records" Kottke once stated, warranted a number of aliases on the Capitol album credits, including Paul "Shorty" Martinson, Paul "Don't Call Me Slater Martin" Martinson, and "Sprockets" Martinson. Bruce had spirited debates amongst the Sound 80 staff that that year's University of Minnesota Gopher's basketball team could beat UCLA. The Gophers had Kevin McHale and Dave Winfield and looked good, but the Bruins were to have an undefeated year. Paul was knowledgeable about basketball and passed Bruce's personal test when he asked him what team Slater Martin played for. A hallmark of these Minneapolis sessions was the relationship in the booth. Leo would look into the booth, convinced they were heavily criticizing something he was doing - which make him irritable - when the discussion often was that Bruce had met his match as Martinson remembered the Bob Petit-led St. Louis Hawks team that featured Slater Martin.
Tom Mudge, who later became closely associated with Garrison Keillor's radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" was usually the second engineer on the Sound 80 recordings. Dave Zimmerman, Bob Dylan's younger brother, also worked at Sound 80 at that time.
Greenhouse was the first album done in Minneapolis and was recorded in three days. After the ensemble work of Mudlark, Greenhouse was mainly a solo effort with a minimum of overdubbing. The only additional artist used was Steve Gammel, credited for second guitar on one tune. Bill Matthews created the album cover and it remains, after all these years, one of the most beautiful. "So beautiful, in fact, that Windham Hill and ECM practically used it - as well as Fahey's Turtle covers - as templates for their catalogues." The painted cover and back cover photo of the disembodied head of Kottke, peaking out of a sea of plants in a local greenhouse, was both charming and innocent.
But the music was anything but innocent. The frenetic intro of "Bean Time" opened Greenhouse, stunning guitarists around the world once again. "Tiny Island" and "Cradle to the Grave" are both examples of the melancholic tunes that Kottke would continue to mine on further releases. In a similar vein, "Louise" by Paul Seibel, has remained a signature Kottke tune.
" 'Louise' was sung for me in a Detroit club called The Poison Apple in the dressing room." recalled Kottke in the liner notes to Anthology. "The Poison Apple was about to close, because that was the year that Detroit was on fire. Mick E. Clark was gonna be following me into this club, and I had been in there a week. Mick came in and sang that song for me."
Bruce had introduced Leo to Ron Nagle, a singer-songwriter from San Francisco whom he managed and who recorded for Warner Brothers. After seeing Leo perform for the first time, Ron suggested Leo check out Tom T. Hall's "Pamela Brown" and they collaborated on "From the Cradle to the Grave". They would later co-write the eccentric, quirky "Tilt Billings and the Student Prince" for Ice Water.
Leo's well-received live album, My Feet Are Smiling, was recorded on December 19th and 20th, 1972, at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and released in 1973.
"Most of what is on the album is from the second night. The tune called "Blue Dot" was written about three days before the concert," recalled Kottke.
Kottke would comment later on the speed he played at for most of the songs. "On that record, and for a long time, I would take all of my energy and inclination and just give it full rein. I wouldn't moderate anything. I wouldn't measure anything, and it is a very "young" way to play. I was very susceptible to that kind of thing."
"Capitol was reluctant about a live album so soon, as the 'official rule book of making records' says an artist is allowed one live album per career, " said Bruce. "Counting the Oblivion and Symposium albums, plus the first two on Capitol, this would be album five. History taught me that many acts broke through with their fifth album being a live set. Peter Frampton, J. Geils, Humble Pie and many others' careers took an upward swing after releasing a live set. You now had Leo's music from a show, but you had to go see him in person to capture a real show, with his personality and humor, the intangibles that you can't capture on tape."
My Feet Are Smiling is still considered one of the great live guitar albums and was one of the biggest sellers of the Capitol years.
Ice Water appeared in 1973 and contained "Pamela Brown", Leo's first brush with a chart single that peaked in the Top 10 in the Denver market area. "Pamela Brown" was a turning point for Kottke, convincing him that his longstanding desire to hold listeners with his voice as well as his guitar was not unfounded. After all, he built his first audience in Minnesota with his singing before focusing on instrumentals. Kottke was always known in the music business as a serious student of voice, often seeking tips from singers he worked with, from Lyle Lovett and Emmy Lou Harris to Rickie Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt.
"I think it is the best tune Tom [T. Hall] has written," Kottke says in the Anthology liner notes. "That is one of the tightest lyrics I have ever heard. There is hardly a wasted word."
With Ice Water, Kottke began working with local session musicians Bill (Billy) Peterson on bass, Bill Barber on piano, and Bill Berg on drums and percussion (known affectionately among Kottke fans as The Three Bills.) Cal Hand, a local dobro and pedal steel artist also sat in on many sessions. (Kottke would later produce Hand's release The Wylie Butler in 1977. Kottke and Hand enjoyed a collaboration which produced a number of songs.) Album cover art, which is basically a dead art form now with the advent of the CD, was an integral part of a record's release in the 70s. John Van Hamersveld, who had done the album design for Mudlark, was brought back for Ice Water and also did My Feet Are Smiling, Dreams and All That Stuff, and Burnt Lips. Van Hamersveld was the designer of 1972's Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones and worked with many rock bands of the era.
Shortly after Ice Water was released, Takoma put together a compilation album of music by Kottke, Fahey and Peter Lang - another accomplished guitarist from Minnesota. Leo owed Takoma a second album, but that was forgotten when Fahey became a partner in Takoma Productions. Takoma Records used four out-takes from 6 & 12-String Guitar for the Kottke, Fahey, Lang album. (Two of which, "Cripple Creek" and "Ice Miner" had been included in re-recorded form on Mudlark.) The irony of this release was that the purpose of the record was to market Lang and Fahey to the people who were buying Kottke's records. Kottke was listed first so record stores would stock the record in the Kottke bins, a good move as the record sold well.
The guitar-oriented offering from 1974, Dreams and All That Stuff , was the only Capitol release that did not contain any vocals. The rhythm section stayed the same with a few guests, including Michael Johnson who played a duet on the record's stand-out cut, "Mona Ray". ("...one of the best tunes I have been able to come up with.") Johnson later had a major hit single, "Bluer Than Blue" and also shared a writer's credit for "Eggtooth." Also guesting were Jack Smith and Cal Hand. Pilhofer contributed piano on "Why Ask Why?" The music was both quirky and serene. The record included interpretations of the fiddle tune "Bill Cheatham" and a medley of "San Antonio Rose" and "America, the Beautiful" and a paean to a lake in Minnesota, "Hole in the Day." Leo even lifted a phrase from a speech by Nikita Krushev when he dubbed one tune "When Shrimps Learn to Whistle." But he felt rushed by Capitol to release Dreams and wasn't pleased with some of the final mixes of some of the tunes.
The cover of Dreams was spontaneous. Leo and Bruce had been to Nudie's, where all the "cosmic cowboys" got their wild get-ups a la The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Kottke bought the red shirt with flowers that's on the cover. Leo was posed on a couch in John Van Hamersveld's studio. Bruce put on the mask, plunked down on the couch. Leo laughed and there's your shot, airbrushed over a slide of Monument Valley, Utah that Van Hamersveld had taken.
"Chewing Pine was not one of my favorite records." The last principal recording for Capitol, Kottke was unhappy with the title, the cover and the feeling of having to rush again. But the record, released in 1975, did include some gems such as "Regards From Chuck Pink" which has survived in various forms - derived from "Eggtooth" - over many years, and "The Scarlatti Rip-off" - an arpeggiated tour-de-force. Also included is Kottke's cover of the Procol Harum tune "Power Failure" and a heavily countrified Marty Robbins tune "Don't You Think."
And the tear drop in his eye on the cover? "That refers to pine as a verb. I'm my own worst enemy."
"Performing is good for you, recording is poison," Kottke declared in a 1999 interview. "I hate recording, in fact, I don't know anyone who likes it. It's the most desiccating experience. I might as well jump into a 40-foot tub of alum." Leo recorded six albums in those five years with Capitol, including one live release that included one new composition. This is the same mix of releases done with his next company, Chrysalis, in eight years. All the Capitol releases were produced by Denny Bruce.
"Since I write most of the stuff and I don't play with the same players all the time and never do onstage, it was tough to make records with that kind of deadline," Kottke stated in an interview with Anil Prasad in 1994. "But I got into the habit. The industry likes it if you churn a lot of them out. I'm definitely trying to slow that down."
Capitol mined the Kottke archives sufficiently enough to release three compilations, beginning with Leo Kottke: 1971 - 1976 . This compilation includes some re-mixed tunes as well as an altered version of "Morning is the Long Way Home".
Denny Bruce recalls, "After failing to negotiate a new deal that would have less commitments on albums due per year, we announced we were leaving. Shortly after, they called and said they planned to release a "best-of" record, and asked if we wanted to participate. We selected the songs, Leo did some editing, and I supplied a candid snapshot I took in a BBC station in Liverpool, where Leo is bent over in a weird shape testing a microphone. I think he said, 'Can anybody hear me through this thing?' Not being able to call the project Leo Kottke's Greatest Hits, we settled for the apropos Did You Hear Me? The cover is a professional "hand model" holding the photo at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, with the Capitol Tower (home office), one half block away, slightly obscurred, which to all you film buffs means we are leaving Capitol behind with this recording. Alas, as the record is in it's final printing and ready to ship, they allow me to see the cover, with Leo Kottke 1971-1976 as the headline. No wonder we beat a hasty retreat"
Leo Kottke: The Best, a two record set that included various Kottke styles aligned with each other and sporting enlightened liner notes by Dr. Demento came next. The Best of Leo Kottke was released as late as 1987, ten years after Kottke left the Capitol camp - an interesting reminder of the ability of Kottke's music retaining it's appeal.
Like every record company, Capitol wanted, and pushed for, hit singles. From the six albums, only two singles were released, "Pamela Brown" backed with "A Child Should Be A Fish" (1974) and "Power Failure" whose B-side was "Can't Quite Put It Into Words." (1975)
In 1981 Leo served as best man at Denny's wedding. During the next months, a one-year plan was discussed to honor all the contractual obligations, freeing them from each other after being through so many campaigns since 1969. Leo handled his own career for about three years before deciding it was time to find another manager. Denny Bruce changed his name to Chuck Pink, and now works as a clown doing children's parties in trailer parks on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Copyright © 2001 by Bruce W. Muckala. All Rights Reserved.
"Machine Gun Kottke: Into the Myth Gap", Tom Murtha, Rolling Stone, August 1974
"The Leo Kottke Anthology" liner notes, Mark Humphrey
Interview by Arthur Shapiro, 1976
Blowing the Saddletank, Anil Prasad, Innerviews, March 5, 1994
An Interview With Leo Kottke, Karen Metzger, Times-Journal, April 1999
Thanks to Jon Monday (general manager of Takoma when Leo was there) for his help on the Takoma years.
Out of Oblivion - the early years
6 & 12 String Guitar - the "Armadillo" album
Original Capitol releases: