PAUL HOSTOVSKY : The Place of Literature
NORMAN J. OLSON : Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011
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The Place of Literature Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011 Totem  
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The Place of Literature
Mr. Gordon was perhaps a little tipsy at the awards ceremony, perhaps a little scornful of the football coach's ode to yardage, the basketball coach's paeons to the MVPs, the music teacher's touting her flautist, the science teacher his scion of Einstein. So when Mr. Gordon got up to give the literary magazine award to me, he lurched a little drunkenly, swayed a little imperceptibly, steeply rocking in his moment on stage. Not to be outdone, he said in his opinion I was probably the greatest poet writing in English anywhere today— and a gasp went up from the high school auditorium, then murmurs of admiration and disbelief and mutiny spread through the audience as I rose to accept Mr. Gordon's slightly exaggerated handshake. Then he kissed me on the mouth, and raised my hand above my head in the manner of referees and prizefighters, grinning glaringly over at the football coach, and nodding trochaically.
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The Place of Literature Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011 Totem  
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Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011

on the Monday after thanksgiving, I went to see guitarist Leo Kottke in concert at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis… I had seen Kottke actually in the flesh two times before in my life… the first was back in probably 1969 or 1970… when I was newly married and my wife and I were young and beautiful… well, at least she was beautiful… that was back at the old coffee house Extempore' (near the West Bank of the University of Minnesota) which was a folk music venue back in those waning days of the folk music revival and an early hippie hangout… I was not a hippie… I was kind of an uptight college art student more or less neurotic, with thick glasses and no artistic ability, at war with the University of Minnesota Art Department (a war which they in their thick walled towers did not, I think, notice…) feeling that the world of the arts was some beautiful gossamer tapestry that I could not view in those days but "through a glass darkly…" belonging to someone else… someone more talented, better born… smarter… more successful at school…

I have always loved guitar music and play not very accomplished self taught finger style guitar… but, I remember the night that I saw Leo Kottke… in the bluish smoky light… he played a driving twelve string guitar with intricate fingerings and fast precise slide on songs like Vaseline Machine Gun… I was mesmerized… he retuned that damn twelve string seemingly between each song… wow! it took me hours with a tuning fork to get my old six string close to in tune… amazing technique… amazing sound…

there was another very good twelve string player in the Twin Cities at that time, a folk singer named Dave Ray… Ray played straight forward blues and Leadbelly tunes with great skill and sincerity eventually becoming, I heard, an insurance salesman and playing occasional gigs around town until he succumbed a few years ago to lung cancer… we all smoked in those days… some of us quit, some still smoke and some died of it…

when I saw Ray perform, about that same time, I remember he made a disparaging reference to the "nimble fingers" of Leo Kottke, who was a newcomer to the Twin Cities while Ray was born and raised here… in the suburb of Roseville, I believe… well, even back in the beginning, Kottke was much more than nimble fingers… he was and remains a musician of rare sensibility and power not to mention virtuosity of performance…

the second time I saw Leo Kottke was about a year after the first and was at an ersatz coffee house located in the basement of the student union at the University of Minnesota… by the way… in that same student union one day, I was skipping my classes and walking around in a blue funk trying to stay out of the cold and avoid the assholes at the studio art building… when I heard a man singing in the lounge with the most gorgeous voice I had ever heard… I walked over to the group and watched an unknown John Denver singing Leaving on a Jet Plane which was soon to be a hit for folk group Peter, Paul and Mary … he was accompanying himself on twelve string guitar… and doing a pretty good job of that too…

but back to Leo Kottke… the occasion was a concert by the amazing legendary guitarist John Fahey… my younger brother had given me an album by Fahey called The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death which had opened my eyes to the guitar and its possibilities… and which was and remains the finest and most interesting recording of solo guitar I know of… anyway… Fahey was scheduled to play in this goofy little coffee shop which was really little more than a room in the basement of the student union… when it was time for Fahey to start, the stage was set with a small table, a chair for the performer and a quart of whiskey with a glass… Fahey played amazingly… both six string guitar and lap guitar with slide… at one point he broke a string and that is when Leo Kottke made his appearance changing the string and retuning the guitar for Fahey… for which Fahey made a snide comment about how "young and healthy" Kottke looked… then Fahey took another slug of whiskey… although not old, Fahey himself seemed anything but young and healthy and seemed barely able to conceal his scorn for the audience altogether… I remember him saying that it was hard for him to tune his guitar because he "heard more of the half tones" than ordinary people could hear… who knows… and then he berated the audience for not noticing that he had skipped part of one of his longer pieces…

later life did not deal kindly with John Fahey… I read an interview with him conducted by phone from the kitchen of the homeless shelter where he was working for his night's lodging and dinner… he had apparently pawned his guitars to buy booze… I understand that he made a bit of a comeback toward the end of his life and was performing again before dying, I read, during open heart surgery… a few years ago… shortly after hearing of Fahey's death, I was in contact with a writer who had written a very successful biography of a popular musician and suggested that he write a biography of Fahey whose music he appreciated… he said that he simply could not write about a life that was so unremittingly dark… and by all accounts, John Fahey was a difficult person…

but, anyone who has any interest at all in the guitar should hear John Fahey's music which has more than a little of existential absurdity mixed in with the traditional melody and blues sensibilities and a certain sadness over all… he was a great GREAT musician… and I did see Leo Kottke replace a broken string on Fahey's guitar…

so, again to get back to Leo Kottke… although he owes a great deal to the blues and more recently to jazz and even band music, there remains a great deal of John Fahey's angst and absurdity in Leo Kottke's guitar stylings… and so, on Monday afternoon, about five p.m., I was reading the paper and eating my dinner… a summer sausage sandwich on toasted Italian bread, a bowl of beans, potato chips and milk… and I remembered that I had seen an advertisement for Leo Kottke's performance that night at the Guthrie theater in Minneapolis… my wife was working and I was too tired out to paint anymore that evening, so I called the theater and was told that there were about 50 tickets left so I should be able to buy one at the door… it was now 5:45 p. m. and the show started at 7:30… it occurred to me as kind of sad and pathetic that a really great and amazing artist like Kottke who has had a long career in this area cannot even fill up a venue like the Guthrie… but, well, that is not, I guess, my problem… and besides, being basically a non social Luddite, I go out to hear live music about once a year… so, I guess I have no grounds to complain on that score… as I am part of the problem…

anyway, I decided to go to the concert… I left at 6 p.m. as the only way I had to get there was to drive my old Geo Metro… which is no longer freeway safe… so I took the non freeway streets and with all the construction on University Avenue, it took me about an hour to get to the Guthrie… (named, by the way after theater guru Tyrone Guthrie and not Woody…) all the parking meters in Minneapolis are now enforced until 10 p.m. so, after about 15 minutes of driving in circles looking for free parking I realized I would have to pay at a ramp… so, I drove back past the Guthrie… my rusty little Geo which has a broken manifold and sounds like a 747… feeling a bit out of place among the Lexises (Lexi??) and Navigators…

I did not have any cash and so could not go into the cash only lot across from the theater… which was $8 and I did not notice that there was another lot there that was $6 and did take credit cards… so, I wound up parking about a mile away in a very deserted part of downtown in a fully automated parking ramp… I put my credit card in the machine in accordance with the sign and the gate went up… there were signs everywhere reminding me to take my "ticket" with me but the machine did not dispense any ticket of any kind to me… but since the gate was up, and it was now about 7:10, I pulled in and parked… hopped out and jogged the mile to the theater…

I found the box office, pretty well convinced that I would never find the old Geo again or if I did, it would cost the entire credit line on my Visa card to get it out of the ramp… but thinking "well, the car is pretty much on it's last legs anyway…" and imagining the parking ramp keeping that poor old car… would they want it? they already had my credit card swipe… god only knows how much they would put on that… yikes…

but at the box office when I again busted out my credit card, they told me that the credit card issuer was sponsoring the concert and by using that credit card, I got $10 off my ticket… well, so that was cool and I asked if they had any aisle seats available… she said they had two… one was $28 after the discount and the other was $33… I said I would take the $28 one… the box office woman showed me where it was which was in the very front row around the side of the projecting stage… so thinking I would see nothing but the back of the performer's head, I headed for my seat…

the opening act was a couple of old guys playing jazz on a saxophone and a giant string bass… I made some sketches of them and the bass player brought the house down several times with very clever and intricate solos… then there was a fifteen minute intermission and Leo Kottke took the stage… he started out on his twelve string, then switched to the six string and then back to the twelve to finish the show… he played as far as I could see without picks… although I am not sure of that as I could not see his right hand very well… but was back far enough on the stage, so I had a great view side on and really the music was just extraordinary… he still can play very fast and strong with amazing slide passages but there is a more jazzy or melodic element to much of his composition and there still is that touch of humor or absurdity about the notes that ripple from the guitar that is unique… in short, it was a great concert… my only caveat is that I wish he did not play plugged in guitars as I prefer the sound of an acoustic guitar miked rather than plugged in… but that is probably stupid…< br>
before I left, I again visited the men's room in preparation for my hour drive back to Maplewood… this theater which is new and very up scale yuppyish… is so poorly designed that it is not at all obvious where anything is and one is constantly asking the ushers where the rest room is or how to get out… or in for that matter… but the auditorium is adequate and as I said, my seat was maybe twenty feet from the performer… and the men's room has square metal urinals… which brought the phrase "pissing into a metal box" to mind… and that was sailing through my head during the whole performance… talk about existential absurdity!

but the concert was so good that I was really glad I went… I did manage to find my car afterward and when I left the parking ramp and swiped my credit card again, I found that I had paid $12 to park… well, that was double what I should have paid, but getting to hear the unmuffled Geo in the acoustics of the empty parking garage… sounded like Talladega must sound!!! was maybe worth the extra six bucks… and the drive home was slow but uneventful… and gave me time to think about Leo Kottke and his amazing guitar playing as well as my history with that type of music and finally to remember those days… in some ways so far away… in some ways so close… when I was 21… strong and damaged as only the young can be… struggling, as I still struggle, to make and understand art, life and music… enamored, as I still am enamored with the sound of steel strings vibrating on a wooden box… what a world

Poetry endangers the established order  of the soul - Plato

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The Place of Literature Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011 Totem  
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God is a poet wielding a well-honed sword. A sword of words, galvanized by passion. He uses it to carve love poems into the heart of his muse. Once bled, she becomes light in his hands. Light to be bent to his very whim. And she smiles in the bending.
PAUL HOSTOVSKY : The Place of Literature
NORMAN J. OLSON : Leo Kottke at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis November 28, 2011

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