If — at its most reductive — jazz gifted Jack Kerouac his style, then Leo Kottke poses an interesting question to rhetoric all his own. We don’t even have to look to his between-song patter — “And he asked me, ‘Would you like to kill a chicken?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So — you know how they are — they’re all mobbing around your feet: ‘Kill me, kill me, kill me”; “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”; “my first job was in a morgue. I was a volunteer” — as there is enough material in the music alone. I’m not talking about the marching band-styled bass line you sometimes hear beneath Faheyesque chimes, nor am I talking about the hammering he sometimes likes to do when — like a car with its blinker on — he signals the fact that he’s about to shift from a major key to a minor key, as is often the case with a song like “Ojo.” So — to paraphrase James Stockdale — why Kottke? Why is he here?
Is Kottke’s primary lesson for rhetoric Bahktin’s dialogic — that is, the idea the creative acts can be conversational, too? I lean towards ‘no’ with this. A state of general polyphony isn’t a grand exception to music, so why should it be a grand exception to rhetoric?
And why “Taps” at the beginning of “Vaseline Machine Gun?” As a wink and a nod towards his time spent on a submarine? Why alternate between ‘regular’ fingerpicking and ‘Carter-styled’ fingerpicking on “Last Engine Steam Train?” (A song which — I should add — Kottke first thought he stole from John Fahey, who — in turn — told him that he was actually playing an old Sam Mcgee tune, who — when this was told to Chet Atkins — told him that Sam McGee had never played such a thing in his life.)
Which is why I return to the phrase ‘honest polyphony’ I carry around in my head, even if I’m abusing the literal definition of polyphony — you know — just a bit. There is something honest in wringing an acoustic guitar’s neck. Part of me wants to cast Léonin or Pérotin as Kris Kelvin/Donatas Banionis driving his son into the anonymous city in Solaris — that this seems to be a suitable analogy for “honest polyphony” rings true to me. (Though I don’t want to get all Greil Marcus on you and claim that — for instance — Caesar’s assassination directly led to the creation of drop d tuning and snack food.)
I also think that the answer to these plethora of “why’s” can come from Kottke himself, who —
found that, without resorting to rubato or an implied rhythm, it’s possible to give the thumb a larger and less didactic role. (“Ojo” is a good example of liberated thumb and of the melodic twists available to it.) Rhythm expands, the tune deepens, and the predictable, patterned sensation that comes from much of a syncopated, right hand guitar disappears.
The syncopated rhythm disappears. Perhaps it’s not so much about honest polyphony as it is about vanishing syncopation. Or maybe it’s the dynamic between the two. Syncopation — after all — is no slouch. The idea of syncopation disappearing into something else suggests a larger structure, a great continuous ringing in a hallway filled with bells and chimes. And you don’t get that from diving into free verse right away, if we’re to return to the fact that this is about gleaning some sort of lesson for the writing profession from his playing. You don’t dive into the deep end of Mallarmé dancing his way across the page right away. You don’t hop out of bed and ask Alice Toklas about a rose being a rose being a rose. The idea — the thing — seems to be in the fact of disappearance, and that’s important for those of us who salivate like Pavlov’s dog at the possibility of finding a gap in a text’s armor. It gives us a way out — a rabbit hole to fall through. Most of us have a pretty good intuitive sense of semantic analysis, I reckon, and the idea of finding that threaded needle of relief in something howlingly obvious is appealing. Would that mean linking two languages with fairly different grammatical patterns together with more frequency? What amount of comparative philology equals a disappearing syncopation a la Kottke? You don’t really get it with Eugene Jolas, do you? It’s certainly part of what’s compelling about Finnegans Wake, though it’s certainly not the exegetical key to that city.
Above: Airproofing, featuring both the thumb and the ‘turn signal.’
What makes a ‘boring,’ syncopated text disappear into something else? Would it work if I shoehorned Turkish into English, where grammar is — in part — determined by the suffix of the word? It would sound odd at first, but maybe people would get the hang of it hızlı hızlı. (Repeating a word can render an adjective into an adverb. In this case, ’quick’ becomes ‘quickly.’) Would that be a sufficient ‘thumb,’ or would I need to look elsewhere?
For this question — and the stream of answers it implies — we have Leo Kottke to thank.