“It has been a great ride,” said Patti Smith Group co-founder, producer and journalist Lenny Kaye about his life in rock ‘n’ roll during a conversation about his riveting 2021 book, “Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll,” May 18 at Little City Books in Hoboken. Kaye added that rock “illuminated me … when I got the guitar and picked it up, it helped me reveal who I could be.”
James Mastro, a Hoboken guitar hero and owner of the Guitar Bar music stores, interviewed Kaye surrounded by stacks of books, something that Kaye said he adores. “I don’t want to discuss my book,” he joked, when the discussion began. “I want to see what’s in the sci-fi section.”
In 1977, Mastro was living in Lake Hopatcong when his high school band, Fast Car, had its first gig in New York at a basement club called Copperfield’s. “For our big Big Apple debut, there were three people in the audience,” said Mastro. “Mr. Cole, our bass player’s dad, who drove us there, Terry Ork who had Ork Records … and Lenny Kaye. So it didn’t bother us at all that it was a small crowd, because after every song Lenny hooted and hollered, cheering us on. And to us, that was the roar of a thousand people. I will never forget him for that. That is Lenny Kaye.
“Over the past five decades, he has been cheering musicians and artists on nonstop, either from the sidelines in his books, articles, record compilations, or from stages around the world. That has become his pulpit as Patti Smith’s go-to guitar and perfect foil.”
Kaye, as Mastro said, has inspired countless musicians over the years. And he did the same with the music lovers in the Little City Books audience who sat silently for a long, detailed discussion of the scenes outlined in his book. Kaye’s itinerary for the evening included Memphis in 1954, San Francisco in 1967, New York in 1975 and London in 1977 — key moments that defined the contours of rock history.
Mastro noted Kaye’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and said he enjoyed Kaye’s “insider’s look of those scenes he was a part of, including CBGB’s and London.”
Mastro asked Kaye to discuss what connected the book’s 10 scenes. Kaye said it is what Brian Eno calls “scenius,” where the vibe in a venue or space is created not only by the musicians onstage, but the audience, dress, social surroundings — all coming together at a moment when music changes. “In each (chapter), I tried to find the kernel of heart and how the scenes came together,” he said.
“Did you realize when CBGB started … that it was something special?” Mastro asked.
Right before the media started paying attention, Kaye said, he realized “this has become a locus of energy,” adding that “in NYC there was no place for original rock ‘n’ roll. So, you would show up at this Bowery bar and it became your local (hangout).”
Kaye discussed the unfortunate downside to artists being labeled, which, he said, is when innovation ends and repetition begins. He talked about the excitement he still feels playing with Smith, due to her authenticity and creativity.
Mastro asked Kaye about meeting Smith for the first time when she contacted him regarding a 1969 piece he wrote for Jazz & Pop magazine about the a cappella doo-wop scene in the Tri-State area. She asked him to accompany her on guitar at a poetry reading in 1971. They have been close friends ever since.
Kaye mentioned that he co-authored country rocker Waylon Jennings’ autobiography and served as a rock archivist by producing the 1972 garage-rock compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. He encouraged people to pick up the soon-to-be released boxed set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the anthology.
Songs performed at the event included Kaye’s solo version of his own “Pleasure of Books” and a cover of the Willie Dixon-written Bo Diddley hit “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” by Kaye and Mastro together (see videos below).
Kaye ended the evening, after fielding some questions from the audience, by expressing gratitude.
“I just love the music,” he said. “I love celebrating it. I think it’s a blessing that I get up every morning and I have music on my mind … I might be working on my radio show for the Underground Garage SiriusXM Radio … I try to sort my records and pretend I play the pedal steel … I feel grateful and lucky that Patti and I found each other and that’s still one of the miracles of my life.”
After the conversation ended, I noticed that no one stood up for a while. It felt as if everyone would have been comfortable to sit with Kaye until all hours.
More on Kaye: Writing with rhythm and intensity, Lenny Kaye explores 10 great rock scenes in new book
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