Last month, two days after I celebrated a milestone birthday, I had the rare privilege of revisiting my adolescence, in a bittersweet evening that filled me with joy and reawakened feelings I hadn’t experienced since the days in which they first transpired.
I had mentioned to a friend, in passing, how much I’ve loved Leo Kottke’s guitar playing over the years, and he promptly brought a copy of Fretboard Journal to our next meeting, insisting I read the lengthy cover interview with the onetime guitar prodigy. Just reading the article brought a rush of elusive teenage joy, and I found myself in a state of high exuberance that isn’t easily accessed. He still, 50 years later, retains his quirky, iconoclastic sense of humor and random onstage storytelling style, and displays his vast autodidact’s knowledge of the world, unpretentious and irreverant. I was transported by the interview back to a time of so much promise and openness in my life, and felt alive, vibrating, in a way I just don’t fall into often enough.
I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, who had been there, felt a desperate longing to share memories and experience, but there really isn’t anyone. My early passions were pretty much my own, I realize now, perhaps shared with my family of origin, but now morphed in ways that leave them distinctly mine. (I did mention it to my brother, younger by 5 years, who remembers me “dragging” him to hear him play the Guthrie in Minneapolis—Kottke’s longtime home and ours at the time—when he was ”about nine.”)
One of the things I admire most about Kottke as an artist (and human being) is that he just loves to play, and has kept playing and recording and working for his entire career, excluding a period after injury when he had to completely retool his early muscular, athletic 12-string style for a slightly less strenuous 6-string approach. “You can’t turn down work. Play the pizza parlor,” he says. We should all be so lucky to find something we love so much, are so good at, find a following for, and allow ourselves to pursue with passion and commitment. He tells a funny story while tuning onstage (which he does a lot of, and jokes about that too) of playing, to a colleague’s consternation, the opening of a public library in Albuquerque, on a small, slanted makeshift wooden stage that threatened to dump him into a gaggle of cross-legged kids just below him for the entire performance, one of whom kept insisting on playing the professional’s guitar. Play the pizza parlor, or the library opening.
Realizing that he is still performing, traveling, working, I went online and discovered that he would be playing the Brown County Playhouse two days after I turned 60. Babbling excitedly about it to a close friend, she immediately offered to buy me a ticket and attend with me, a rare opportunity to buy the perfect gift for the woman who never wants anything. It was doubly fortunate for me, since the 200-seat hall sold out quickly, and knowing me, I would likely have left it until too late (as did a number of friends who planned to join us, including the friend who subscribes to Fretboard Journal), a trademark way in which I save myself lots of money and cost myself a certain amount of fun.
And thus, the remarkable experience of revisiting my adolescence. The venue was filled with grey heads, clearly devoted fans who wait for Leo to swing back around these parts. As I listened, I was awash in memories of earlier performances—multiple gigs in various Minneapolis locales in my teens and twenties, several performances at Toad’s in New Haven during graduate school, and a life-changing night where I heard his second set at Northwestern after a harrowingly uptight and precariously drunken performance by a world famous classical lutenist, after which I decided to abandon my dreams of a career as a classical oboist. He still performs many of his old numbers, but they are transformed somewhat by his necessary change of style, and in my head I heard both new and old versions. I was often on the verge of tears, and realized that I was probably the listener in the joint who had followed him the longest, listened over the greatest number of years, three-quarters of my life and more. He’s grey and bearded now, but the memory of his signature thatch of thick dark hair, his long frame sitting atop a high bar stool in sweater and 70’s slacks, is imprinted in my visual image bank.
He played nonstop for 90 minutes, with lovely, loopy banter accompanied by frequent tuning between numbers. Devoted fans called out favorites, several of which he chuckled at before retorting that they required backup he didn’t have. After that interval, as he completely retuned one of his two guitars, he quietly shared that this had been the set, and the next number would be the encore. Amazingly, the packed audience of fans respected that, gave him terrific applause, let him slip behind the curtain with no greedy clamor for more.
My friend and her husband truly gave me an extraordinary gift, taking me (and themselves) to hear an artist they had never heard of, on the faith of my recommendation and fervent wish. I found this among the most incredibly generous and touching gifts I’ve ever received. It was a somewhat surreal, emotionally charged evening of memories and music, another unforgettable evening with an unforgettable artist.
Mary Peckham for The Poplar Grove Muse