by Jochen Markhorst
Leo Kottke is an exceptional world-class guitar player, whose records have led to open mouths and despondency among industrious guitar students since 1969. His singing talents are less skyscraping (in his own words: as “geese farts on a muggy day”), but that is amply compensated by his witty monologues on stage. His chats between the songs sometimes fan out to unfathomable distances and are always very humorous. Kottke has a flawless comical timing, a dry witty presentation and an irresistible, Cleese-like facial expression. At a 2008 concert in Sparks, a suburb of Reno, the master guitarist recounts his meeting with Bob Dylan:
“I met Bob Dylan when he was recording Blood on The Tracks. And I talked to him for about an hour and a half … but I didn’t know it was him. I would have said things … differently.
“There was a book , came out just a couple of years ago, about those sessions. That’s how I found out. I got a call from a newspaper in Minneapolis: ‘What did you and Bob talk about?’
“I said: ‘Bob who?’
“And they told me.
“I said: ‘I’ve never met him.’
“Well, there were these three witnesses, and these guys were… and I remembered, all of a sudden. This guy, who had walked up, you know, coming up the hall, there were three studios in this building, and he said: ‘Well, what do think of this project?’
“I told him what I thought.
“And I also raved about everything else, up until then and just about…
“I was backstage when he played in Denver recently. But I didn’t say anything to him.”
The book that Kottke is referring to is of course A Simple Twist Of Fate by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegaard. That forgotten, long conversation with Kottke is mentioned in passing:
When Chris and his wife, Vanessa, arrived at the studio, they found Bob in the control room, deep in conversation with celebrated folk guitarist Leo Kottke about a song of Leo’s called “So Cold in China,” which Bob admired.
The love for that specific Kottke-song Dylan has declared more often. In January 1977, Melody Maker publishes a long article about the ‘Lion Of The Guitar’ Leo Kottke, in which, among others, Kottke’s technician Paul “Shorty” Martinson is interviewed. Martinson is also the technician at the Minneapolis re-recordings for Blood On The Tracks and tells that he asked Dylan at the time if he had ever heard of Kottke. “Dylan said yeah and enthused about a Kottke track, “So Cold In China,” on his very first album on the Oblivion label, of which only 1,000 copies were pressed.”
The record, Kottke’s debut album 12 String Blues (1969), which was released in an extremely limited edition, has been recorded live in a Minneapolis coffee house, the Ten O’Clock Scholar, whereof Dylan will have warm memories. He also played there himself, when he was Robert Zimmerman and that is explicitly mentioned in the liner notes: Still, as in a now distant past for a younger Robert Zimmerman or John Koerner, the Scholar audience is appreciative and quiet.
Dylan’s enthusiasm for “So Cold In China” probably has more to do with nostalgia or with the creation of the song than with the power of the song itself. It is a beautiful song, no doubt, but it is not so earth-shattering that it would justify Dylan’s raving years later. The song has, to him anyway, other charms. Undoubtely, Dylan read Kottke’s own commentary on the song on the cover of that collector’s item with interest: “The title and therefore the idea for the song were stolen from someone who sang it in the Ontario Place in Washington, when Mississippi John Hurt was still working there.”
It is likely that the encyclopaedicly versed amateur music historian Dylan tells him there in the control room, at that meeting in 1974, from which song Kottke copied the line So cold in China, the birds do not sing: from “Long Lonesome Blues”, a Blind Lemon Jefferson song from 1926. And that explains Dylan’s fascination for a song like “So Cold In China”. Lovingly stolen song fragments, patriarchs of the blues like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt, and, on top of that, recorded in his own youth club – both the artist and the man Dylan are touched here.
After that witty anecdote, at that concert in 2008, Kottke implores that he has always listened to Dylan endlessly, and still does. “Well, now and then”, anyway. That confession, and the fact that his heart and the vast majority of his repertoire are rooted in folk music, makes the lack of Dylan covers all the more poignant. One time he takes a shot at one, on “Girl From The North Country”, and that interpretation is nice – no more. However, the real Kottke fireworks could be expected from that one song that is tailor-made for him: the ambivalent, heartbreaking and intimate bluesfolk “Buckets Of Rain”.
It is a beautiful finale to a beautiful record, together with “Desolation Row” and “Sad-Eyed Lady” perhaps the most successful swan song in Dylan’s discography. After all those songs of lost love and despair, the master chooses a melancholic final piece, decorated with confusing, dylanesque contradictions, with naive frankness and inscrutable metaphors. Liner notes writer Pete Hamill partially undervalues the lyrics when he says that it is humourous, “a simple song, not Dante’s Inferno”, but he does have a point in that the song indeed has the effect of a comic relief, a predominant but still-message. The essence of every verse is after all: and yet, in spite of everything, I love you.
In doing so, the poet skims along cutesy teenage poetry. The second verse, for example: a cynical critic will argue that in fact it says no more than roses are red, violets are blue, but our love will always be true. And somehow Dylan felt a little uneasy, too. On a bootleg recording of the famous session with Bette Midler (for Songs For The New Depression, 1976) he apologizes to Midler for the line I like the way you love me strong and slow with the words: “I must have written that when I was ten.”
It is an unusual and uncommonly harsh comment from the master – and presumably rather prompted by a misplaced outpouring of machismo than by genuine self-criticism. “Buckets Of Rain” brings a balance to Blood On The Tracks, gives the nuance precisely by these plain, almost sweet love declarations that so strikingly contrast with the distress. The third verse is the finest example of that disunity; everything about you is beautiful and lovable, and this loss hurts, everything about you is bringing me misery.
The poet decorates his outpourings with a melange of idiosyncratic idiom and playful blues quotes. Meek Dylan borrows from the New Testament, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”, Matthew 5:5), thus retaining a reference to that Sermon. In the beautiful but deleted “Up To Me” the reference is direct (“We heard the Sermon on the Mount and I knew it was too complex”), here Dylan builds a painful antithesis with meek on the one hand and hard like an oak on the other.
Playful, colourful and impenetrable is the nursery rhyme Little red wagon / Little red bike. The little red cart has been rolling through music history for decades. In 1936 Georgia White records “Little Red Wagon”, country singer Buddy Jones sings “Red Wagon” in ’41, Elvis’ great example Arthur Crudup lends the chorus for his own “That’s Your Red Wagon” (1945) of which one of Dylan’s heroes, Bob Wills, in 1946 in turn makes the western swing “It’s Your Red Wagon”. The scholars do not agree on a deeper meaning of that red car. One party suspects a sexual connotation, another explains that the expression means something like that is your business. Both interpretations are nonsensical here. Dylan the musician seeks and finds in this verse a nice sounding repetition, as every verse in this song relies on repetition (buckets – friends – like – life and do).
For the melody and the rhythm of the lyrics Dylan dives, by and large, a little less deeply into history: the mold for “Buckets Of Rain” has been formed in 1965 and is the popular “Bottle Of Wine” by Tom Paxton, an old comrade from Greenwich Village:
Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine
When you gonna let me get sober
Leave me along, let me go home
I wann’a go back and start over
Paxton is often named in the same breath with Dylan and is just as often recognized as forerunner or even booster of Dylan’s career. Not by the least, too. Dave Van Ronk, the ‘mayor of MacDougal Street’, says about him:
“Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton … he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people … he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day. Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby’s success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional.”
Dylan himself does not deny the influence either. In Chronicles he remembers Tom Paxton as an example of the rare artists who wrote their own songs, honours one of his most beautiful songs (“The Last Thing On My Mind”) and analyzes: “Because they used old melodies for new words, they are well accepted.” This trick in particular inspires the upcoming talent and he will continue to apply it throughout his career.
Paxton’s work also emerges with some regularity. On the Bootleg Series 10: Another Self Portrait we hear that Dylan records Paxtons “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” in 1970, in the mysterious poem An Observation, Revisited from ’76 the bard writes under the pseudonym R. Zimmerman In my mind I keep hummin’ Tom Paxton’s / “Peace Will Come” and to that song the master again refers a year later in “Changing Of The Guards” (Peace will come / With tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire).
And especially in “Buckets Of Rain”, for which Paxton’s own version of “Bottle Of Wine” is the model. Not the hit version of that song, though; the song is known in the driving rock version of The Fireballs (top 10 hit in 1967), but that one discarded the attractive guitar plucking which makes Paxton’s original and later Dylans “Buckets Of Rain” so irresistible.
Countless covers exist of Dylan’s gem. YouTube can hardly handle the stream of enthusiastic living room amateurs. Half of all known and lesser known singer-songwriters have it on the repertoire and the number of recordings by experienced artists is endless. In this sea, one thing stands out: a cover of “Buckets Of Rain” is always fun. Apparently the song has just such a granite, indestructible power as for example “Not Dark Yet” or “Mama You Been On My Mind” – it is almost impossible to ruin the song.
Former mentor Dave Van Ronk interprets lovingly and intensely, neighbour Maria Muldaur is sultry, jazzy and slightly vulgar (on her otherwise not very successful Dylan tribute Heart Of Mine, 2006) and the Buckets of Mary Lee’s Corvette unsurpassed venture, the integral version of Blood On The Tracks, is one of the many highlights on that album (2002). Grandmaster Jimmy LaFave is by now hors concours (Road Novel, 1998, with a beautiful, subdued harmonica part and ditto organ) and that also applies to David Gray, the British prodigy who turns every Dylan cover into an aesthetic masterpiece (A Thousand Miles Behind, 2007).
Disputed may be the charm of the country twang that Neko Case gives some live versions, but her studio version (on the compilation Sweetheart: Love Songs, 2005) is above criticism. The ladies are doing well either way – in a (questionable) top three, Wendy Bucklew (After You, 2002) does belong, too. The male competition up there comes from Iowa: the folk veteran Greg Brown is withered, witty and melancholy – almost at the level of Dylan’s original (the same applies to his “Pledging My Time” on A Nod To Bob Vol. I, 2001).
But eagerly awaited still is of course Leo Kottke, for that extra dimension: virtuosity.
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