Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, has been writing about rock music in one form or another since the late ’60s, when his byline appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Melody Maker and Creem. He’s got his own musical reputation to match.
In 1972, Elektra Records president Jac Holzman asked Kaye to assemble a double compilation album of 25 of the best American garage-rock songs of the latter half of the ’60s. Kaye nimbly narrowed down his options to include overlooked acts like the Remains and the Magicians, along with early efforts from the likes of the 13th Floor Elevators and Todd Rundgren. The resulting Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 didn’t include the word “garage” anywhere in its liner notes, but has since become one of the most-cited collections of the genre before it even had a name.
By then, Kaye had already played his first ever gig with Smith, in February 1971 at a church in New York City’s East Village. Kaye assumed their collaboration wouldn’t carry on for very long, but they got off to a fast start and never looked back: The Patti Smith Group’s 1975 debut album, Horses, became their best known thanks to the Top 20 single “Because the Night.”
Kaye continues to perform with the group, while also serving as a night-shift host of Little Steven‘s Underground Garage. His newest book, Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, selects scenes from rock history that unequivocally morphed the trajectory of its music: Memphis in 1954, Liverpool in 1962, San Francisco in 1967, London in 1977 and Seattle in 1991, among others.
“I’ve always been drawn to a scene, its shared togetherness, it’s come-hither weave, its stars, its character actors and players,” Kaye writes in the introduction to his book. “To feel the adrenaline rush of excitement and possibility as convergence coalesces into where it’s at.”
Kaye joined UCR from his home in Pennsylvania to discuss Lightning Striking, his longstanding connection with Patti Smith and the future of rock music.
Why did you decide to do a book like this as opposed to a more traditional autobiography?
I definitely didn’t want to do a memoir. I’m not into my own existence that much and I also believe the stories I have to tell are somewhat more personal. But I didn’t approach this as telling my story; I approached it as telling an evolutionary history of rock ‘n’ roll. I am a cultural historian and I do look at, kind of, the lineage of a music through the prism of how it develops. … You know, I didn’t want to write the complete encyclopedia, and I certainly didn’t want to write about things that I wasn’t too sure of how they developed — that I was more, as I like to say, a tourist in those genres. But in looking over the kind of lifeline of rock ‘n’ roll, to me, it seemed like there were certain peak moments where the music changed shape and evolved. And so I picked 10 of them and told the story, but of course, I also realized that since I was a little kid when rock ‘n’ roll first appeared on the scene, and then I was a teenager when rock ‘n’ roll went through its glorious adolescence in the ’60s, and then I was kind of a participant, and a fan, that I could tell also how the music resonated within me – and it was a good way for me to be a minor character within this grander story.
Was it hard to narrow down the moments to just 10?
It wasn’t that hard. They seemed really obvious to me from my vantage point. You know, there were scenes that I possibly would have enjoyed adding to there. In the original proposal, I had a chapter on the independent rock of the ’80s – Athens, Georgia and Minneapolis. I would have liked to have celebrated that moment in time. At one point, the last chapter was going to be Manchester in the ’90s when a kind of a sense of dancing came into rock ‘n’ roll. … I would have loved to have done a chapter on Kingston, Jamaica – but that, to me, is a book in itself. I love reggae music, but I would have been a foreigner and I wanted to do the musics that more directly influenced me and my growth as a musician.
The New York chapter in particular is obviously fantastic, because you were a key character in it yourself. Was it fun to revisit those memories?
Well, yeah, it was totally astonishing to realize that I was becoming one of these scenes that I venerated. I mean, for me, especially entering my 20s, the San Francisco bands – the San Francisco Summer of Love groups that were all gathered on those iconic Fillmore posters – that was a role model. And I remember that night, standing outside CBGB one evening and maybe Talking Heads are on stage or the Ramones, or maybe Television, or maybe I’m waiting to go on with Patti, and realizing that this collection of bands, these renegade outsiders in a club that’s really one step from Skid Row, this has that same component of newness and innovation and sensibility that is about to crest over the world. I was surprised to realize, ‘Wait, I’m a part of it.’ I’ve seen it grow from when it was just your local. You know, your friends hanging out there, spending as much time on the sidewalk yakking as going inside and seeing a band in the throes of development. It was really kind of surprising to me that all of a sudden, I’m a part of this thing that I always wished I could be.
Some people might not know that you began your career as a music journalist — that’s how you first connected with Patti. But you mention in the book that you never anticipated your gigs with her to carry on. Why? Was that because you had honed in on music writing?
I think in the music universe, the more jobs you have, the better, sometimes. [Laughs.] … I remember after the Patti Smith Group broke up at the end of the ’70s, I was kind of cast adrift, and I was kind of a real professional writer. I would work for these magazines run by Danny Fields: Rock Video Magazine, I remember Country Rhythms, and I’d write like five articles under a variety of names. You know, because that was my job. I like having jobs – just like music can be a job, but it also can be an art. I kind of like having both ends of it. … Music and literature are very much combined in my sensibility. And I have to say, I got that from my mentors, most of whom who worked for Crawdaddy magazine – Paul Williams, Richard Meltzer, Sandy Perlman, Jon Landau. They opened up an awareness to me that when you write about music, you can write about it in the same heightened state of ecstasy as listening to it or playing it – that it was your job as a writer to kind of enter into the spirit of the music, and understand it as you would a musician. Early on, my strength as a writer was that I could imagine myself within the band, I could hear how the band interacted through their inner world.
Why do you think your connection with Patti worked so well and has continued to work for nearly 50 years?
Actually, more than 50 years, which is crazy. I think it works because I believe in her sense of vision. She knows that I’m her knight and I will ride into the field of battle without question and try to visualize the piece of work she’s doing within her sensibility, and provide a mirror for her to see whether that sensibility is working. You know, a lot of our collaboration comes about when we’re just strolling around a strange city, looking at things on the street and all of a sudden, an idea will start to form. … It’s very weirdly mystical. I mean, from the very first moment — I’m not the world’s greatest guitar player, I do what I do — but what it does for her is it allows her space to explore her visual universe, her lyrical universe. And, you know, I just feel so grateful.
You note that John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service is one of your favorite guitarists. Who are some others?
I have lots of favorite guitar players. You know, I love Rory Gallagher. I saw him many a time when he was alive, and he just went right to the bone of what a guitar should be talking about. I love the lyricism of David Gilmour. He’s just one of my favorite guitar players … aside from, you know, the Mount Rushmore of Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. I like Nels Cline’s sense of taste, Bill Frisell, and Thurston Moore’s sense of noise. I believe noise is really, really important to the possibilities of the electric guitar. But I have to say, John Cipollina won my heart, and when I saw his rig, this crazy rig with a Standel and a Fender twin roped together with two trumpet horns on the top, I thought, ‘Man, that guy is nuts.’
One thing that’s really interesting about this book is that you describe a number of times where it seems like someone was in the right place at the right time with the right people. Like when you introduced Patti to Fred Smith from MC5. (The pair would marry in 1980 and remain together until his death in 1994.) How much of rock history chalks up to simple twists of fate?
Well, like they say, there are no accidents – but when they happen, you have to be aware enough to to ride them. What would I have been like if instead of growing up in New York City, and being downtown at a certain moment in time and meeting Patti, what would my lifeline have been like if I grew up in Omaha, Neb.? You just don’t know. I think one of the interesting things about these scenes is that you got a bunch of people, and all of a sudden they start thinking similarly. … All of the scenes took a couple years to figure themselves out and pulled in a lot of people who were not skilled at what they were doing, that they were understanding who they were … and kind of going up wrong alleys and figuring this out and trying to understand this and making mistakes and having fights — that to me is how you form something that’s unique.
I’m glad you said that because the book also highlights how, although these scenes were different from one another in many ways, there’s also a lot of similarities between them.
They all start with a bunch of people trying to figure out how to come together in a weird way. … I think you can go through all of the moments in time and space that I talk about and find that they kind of come together, like cosmic dust starts coagulating and becoming a planet or a star. You know, there’s all these kind of amorphous things happening and it’s not very well defined, and it’s only vaguely understood. It’s only through the hindsight of looking at what happened that you can see the similarities.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
The most surprising thing to me — and I probably should have known it — is that New Orleans was as much responsible for the creation of this beast called rock ‘n’ roll as Memphis. In fact, I think a case can be made that within the walls of Cosimo Matassa’s studio, which you can go visit even now that it’s part of a laundromat and you can see dryers on the wall. Within this little room, the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll were certainly put into place in the same way that Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios provided a manger for the mutated birth of Elvis Presley. I really enjoyed investigating New Orleans. I knew some of the major players, but spending a week there just roaming around – going to where the Dew Drop Inn was, going to visit Dr. Ike Padnose of the Ponderosa Stomp at his incredible house filled with amazingly rare records, that was the one that kind of opened my eyes to the glory of New Orleans music. And that’s of course, my sense of growth because, again, I knew Fats Domino and I knew Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis, but to get deep into it, that was beautiful.
You mention that you don’t think rock is dead and that you also don’t harbor much nostalgia for the past, even if it was great. Do you believe we’re heading into another era of rock music now?
I believe rock ‘n’ roll is in its time of interpretation, rather than innovation, and it will still be treasured in the same way that any music — Dixieland jazz, or bebop, blues – you know, you’re not going to have a new spin on the blues, unless it’s not the blues, but there will be incredible blues interpreters. And I believe music lives on. … I’m just really curious to peer into the crystal ball and see what’s coming next – because that’s where the excitement is. For me, it’s some kid in a garage or basement or bedroom or something, monkeying around with something and coming up with a sound that’s never been heard before. And that sound might be the sound of the 2030s or the 2040s. And in my mind, bring it on.
What do you hope people take away from reading Lightning Striking?
I hope when people read the book, they get a sense of the long journey that rock ‘n’ roll has been on – its many permutations, its ability to evolve and outlive itself, and its ability to express this deep longing within people for a sense of release and becoming.
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