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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009

The Education of Leo Kottke

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If you make up a story about Leo Kottke, it's probably true. The 63-year-old roots singer/songwriter has lived a sweeping epic, a life incomparably colorful.

As a boy, his family moved across 12 states. As a college dropout, he hitchhiked across the country. A firecracker damaged his hearing in one ear. Service in the Naval Reserve damaged his hearing in the other.

He'll be glad to tell you about all of this, too. On stage, the acoustic guitarist will burst into four-minute monologues about how difficult it is to kill chickens, or about the dangers of stealing amplifiers. His shows are two-parts music and one-part backcountry Spalding Gray.

Make up a story about how Kottke plays a guitar. He's probably done that, too. His early career was marked by a unique finger-picking style so spectacular that, by the 1980s, it had caused severe tendonitis. That ailment forced Kottke to change his approach to music, to display an equal mastery of classical guitar.

You could serialize Leo Kottke's life and sell it as a musical fable. The last chapter would have to take place right here in Milwaukee, where in May he was awarded an honorary doctorate by UW-Milwaukee.

"Because my parents were teachers, off and on, and because I thought I'd be a teacher, it hits a nerve for me," Kottke said of the honor via e-mail. "The last my grandfather saw of me I was drunk on my folks' basement floor. He was a college dean and I think he'd be relieved. I know I am."

Dr. Kottke had been on the cusp of a degree for more than three decades. He left the teachers' college at St. Cloud State with only one quarter to go before graduation. But taking 30 years to achieve what should have been a three-month task is, with Leo Kottke, the most direct route. His life has been about sprawl. Though he values reaching the finish line, he values the race even more.

"Age is overrated," he wrote. "It has nearly nothing to do with experience. Look at Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms: They had plenty of time, but what did they learn? [The psychologist] Abraham Maslow thought waking up didn't usually happen until around 60... but that it only happens to about 1% of us."

Kottke, who released his first album in 1969 but reached a new audience this decade with a pair of collaborative albums released with Phish bassist Mike Gordon, has learned to take the chaos as it comes.

"I'd be lying if I told you how you might prepare for what's ahead, or if I were to suggest to you what use could be made of what you've learned here," Kottke told last year's graduating class. "I'd be telling you the truth if I said I've rarely prepared for anything, and that I often find myself in positions that are hard to get out of, that consequently and repeatedly have forced me to punt and to hope for the best."

Leo Kottke gives an 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center.

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