Lenny Kaye — the founding member of the Patti Smith Group who is also a seasoned music journalist and producer — will read from his clever and evocative 2021 book, “Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll,” at Little City Books in Hoboken, May 18 at 7 p.m.
James Mastro, musician and owner of Guitar Bar music stores, will interview Kaye about the book and join him in a few songs. For information, littlecitybooks.com.
In the book, Kaye — who I would also call a dreamer, a philosopher and a joker after speaking with him in a lengthy interview via Zoom from his home in East Stroudsburg, Pa. — takes us on a trip upon his magic swirlin’ ship starting in Elvis Presley’s Memphis in 1954 and then to other places, including New Orleans in 1957, The Beatles’ Liverpool in 1962, San Francisco in 1967, Detroit in 1969, CBGB in New York in 1975, The Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s London in 1977, and Nirvana’s Seattle in 1991, highlighting key moments that defined the contours of rock history.
His nuanced language and engaging stories make this an intense read. He writes with the urgency of a beat poet and the rhythm and intensity of an electrifying guitarist. There is a spiritual quality to all that he writes — and all that he shares with me as he testifies about the healing and liberating power of music.
The pandemic enabled him to finish the book, which he started in late 2014. “I wasn’t on the road so I could actually concentrate on climbing the last plateau on the mountain,” he said. “I realized this book, which I thought would take a couple of years — maybe two months a chapter — was actually becoming much more ambitious.
“Each chapter took about six months to immerse myself in the music, find all the characters — not only the major ones, but the minor ones — and understand how this particular scene developed and what happened to it, once it figured itself out.”
I asked Kaye if there is a theme that holds these chapters together. “I think what Brian Eno calls … scenius,” he said. “Where it’s not just the musicians onstage, but it’s the audience, how people are dressing, what they’re reacting to, what the social situation is. All of these things go into the ecology of this transformative moment where all of a sudden, things move up the evolutionary scale in the music.”
Is there a connective thread in the scenes he chose? “Yearning,” he said. “A sense that you can be a part of something, that you can express yourself through music, that you can be who you’ve always hoped to be, by being in a band.”
Kaye said that no matter how much music evolves, songwriting over the years shares a common core. “The concerns of a song remain pretty constant,” he said, defining them as: “I’m looking for love, I’ve lost love, I feel terrible. Who am I? Who could I be? … Whether it’s as Chopin did in the Nocturnes or what Louis Armstrong did … that’s what they’re saying. Styles change, but the humanity behind the styles remains uppermost.”
Kaye’s book demonstrates that while rock ‘n’ roll has many dimensions, there is a connectedness among seemingly disparate artists. For him, picking sides — hippie vs. punk for example — is not necessary.
“Artists have many manifestations,” he said. “We contain multitudes because, sometimes, we like to be a little ornery onstage — turn it up and hit the distortion pedal — but a lot of times we just want to wear our hearts on our sleeves. I believe in freedom of movement and, for artists, as soon as you define who you are, you essentially stop growing. You start speaking to a very narrow vision of who you can be.
“It’s because I don’t believe in being confined by definitions. With Patti, we had as much of the ’60s sense of expansive imagination and improvisation as we did the short, sharp shock of rock.”
I asked him how he fared during the intolerant Trump days. “I just did my work,” he said. “I don’t think those days are over. In fact, it probably will be getting worse. I just try to keep a good moral center to remember who I am, to participate ethically in this society, to follow my own path while being mindful of the paths of others.
“You’d think the human race would learn. One of the things the ’60s had was a sense of bountiful hope. You could believe for at least six months that love would triumph and save the world, that all you need is love. And I believed that at a really central moment in time, when I was 20 years old and just becoming who I didn’t dare hope I would be. And the fact is that having that sense of belief was so empowering for me because it helped me understand the beauty of art and the blessedness of the creative instinct.
“That said, seeing now, in my golden years, that this world hasn’t learned anything … that we are coming to a cataclysmic war in Europe and possibly in the rest of the world and people are being killed … nothing really has changed.”
I suggested that his music contributed to bringing people together. He agreed.
“I feel I did my best,” he said. “Patti did her best to rouse the generations to take action; she’s very proactive with climate change, with social justice, with the realization of human potential.”
In “Lighting Striking,” Kaye writes about moments when music helped to unite people. “I always have hope,” he said, “and when I go out onstage and strike that first chord and see the people suddenly find their ecstatic sensibility, I just know that it’s possible. It’s beautiful, but I want it to continue after the show.”
I suggested that some music is encoded in our DNA and lasts long after a show.
“Amen,” he said.
Though he still maintains a home in Manhattan’s East Village, Kaye largely left living in New York 35 years ago for a town in Northeast Pennsylvania, near the Delaware Water Gap. He moved when his daughter was 3, because “in those days the East Village was a war zone with crack on the street and broken glass in Thompson Square Park,” he said. (His daughter now lives in Mississippi with twins of her own.)
“We wanted a place where she could run around on a Sunday,” he said. “I was shocked being here. I’m happy here now. It’s about an hour and half from the city so I can get back and forth if I need to do stuff, but also far enough so I don’t have to think about the city if I don’t need to.”
He describes his current music scene as his “basement mess,” where he plans to record his songs.
So can we expect a Lenny Kaye solo album?
“Yes, for a waiting world,” he said, laughing. “Now that the book is done, I’m going to start recording them … Empty yourself from expectation. That’s a Zen thing and I like to think of myself as Zen Len. My whole life has been like that like with Patti. I didn’t have a sense of destination or expectation.”
He writes in his introduction to “Lightning Striking” that “one of my earliest memories is hearing Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ over the radio (from Memphis) in our Brooklyn apartment, rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter and joy in its infectious, unbridled release and madness.”
There is an intimacy and warmth in his portraits, with words that ricochet from one scene to another, holding in common the belief that music contains hope and enables a revolution of the heart and soul.
Kaye writes about being an “American Bandstand”-watching youngster, “catching up with the times, standing outside my apartment building in Brooklyn” with his hair “parted on the left side, combed to the right, held in slope by Wildroot Cream Oil.”
In the Liverpool chapter, an adolescent Kaye feels an urge to form a band, triggered by the Fab Four’s ascendence. “In the summer of 1964,” he writes, “after patiently absorbing barre chords from a friend who could play some of the diminished progressions that Paul (McCartney) brought to ‘Till There Was You,’ I bought a cherry red Gibson Les Paul Special and a Magnatone 280 amp … from a kid down the street who had given up the calling.” Kaye’s first band, The Vandals, debuted at a frat party at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
It’s the Summer of Love in Kaye’s chapter about San Francisco. He writes, “There’s been a change in our altered state-to-state drifting across country, smoking pot to the Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ and moving through a gateway song, Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,’ into speed. We’re reliving Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ ”
He writes about the beat poets, the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and Ken Kesey’s acid tests. The scene includes Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others who school him on what he hopes to become as a musician.
He writes about a Golden Gate Park concert: “As the acid of the night before slowly dissipates in the afternoon afterglow, I sway dizzily as the Dead spin ‘Viola Lee Blues’ into a vertigo of dervish whirl, as Big Brother wail to their hometown and what it’s become. And where they’re taking me. These are the bands that I want to be like.”
Kaye invites us into his own scene in his New York chapter at CBGB, the small Bowery bar where he and Patti Smith — along with Television, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and others — created the East Village music scene, in the ’70s.
He describes the East Village at that time as “a subterranean jungle within the city surrounding, weeds entangling urban undergrowth.” Artists took over this part of Downtown, including raw loft spaces and “apartments with bathtubs in the kitchen and an armada of cockroaches,” he writes.
Working as a rock journalist and living on the Upper West Side, he dances to The Velvet Underground, watches The New York Dolls and spies Patti Smith stepping into Max’s Kansas City with her boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe.
He first met Smith 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. Three years later, he produced Smith’s first single (a cover of “Hey Joe”).
I suggested that he and Smith have grown up together. He agreed and said that “Patti and I were born three days apart in the same year — mine is Dec. 27 and hers is Dec. 30 and both in 1946, so we share the same sky.”
Was it like at first sight? “We definitely had a connection,” he said, laughing. The a cappella article, he said, “touched her because she listened to some of the same music when she was growing up in South Jersey and Philadelphia.”
Still, he said, the poetry reading collaboration was not intended to launch a band.
They “didn’t do it again for another two and a half years,” he said. “It was kind of an art happening, as they say.”
Smith’s debut album, Horses, was released in 1975. “It was a long arc,” he said.
“In a sense, our group came together in the same way that these scenes that I talk about in the book came together,” he said. “We didn’t have any directions. We didn’t say, ‘Well, we have to have a rock ‘n’ roll band.’ We just let it organically develop.
“And by the time we added the last piece to our puzzle — drummer Jay Dee Daugherty — we had a rock ‘n’ roll band, but it didn’t sound like any other rock ‘n’ roll band. And that, to me, was the key. We didn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We allowed who we were to become, and that takes patience, and a certain dedication to not settling, and an understanding of what your ultimate goal is, which is to create something that you’ve not heard before.”
Does he feel like things have changed between him and Smith since they were young? “We still have the same working relationship,” he said. “We’re best friends. When we are on tour, we get up in the morning, we’ll have breakfast and take a stroll around whatever town we’re in and find something amusing — a wacky café or a street sign that tickles us — or she’ll see something and start spinning a story about some mystery about the sign. We just have a good time.
“She knows I’m always there for her and I trust her sense of vision and her sense of possibility. And I have to say of all the years that I’ve stood stage left from her, I’ve never seen her sing a false note. I’ve never seen her go on autopilot. She’s always totally engaging with the audience, trying to make contact and give them a moment that is special to that night.”
How did the scenes he writes about in the book evolve? Most, he said, “happened under the radar. You can’t invent scenes. They happen organically. I think of it as cosmic dust slowly, slowly coming together to form a planet.”
In the ’70s CBGB scene, “these kind of mutant outlier bands came together with a certain sensibility, but they were really very different than each other. Tom Verlaine (of Television) once said that each band at CBGB’s was like an idea. There wasn’t a sense that this was punk with a definition.”
Kaye said the musicians were “finding their way, understanding who they are, trading band members, making mistakes.
“That, to me, is really essential. That time of everybody finding their place and then, all of a sudden, the music fuses into a recognizable style or attitude. And at that point, it acquires a definition, and for CBGB’s it would be punk.”
I suggested that that term is not really accurate for all CBGB bands of that era.
“It’s a totally limiting definition,” he said. “It leads to a caricature, it leads to stereotype and it leads to an inability to have the freedom of movement to progress, to break out of this definition.
“With Patti … we wanted to have a field of noise … an improvisational thing. We also wanted to have a song with a recognizable chorus. To me, that’s how you have a lifeline. If you stick too hard to a definition, you become that definition. And that’s all you can be.
“I think once that music was called punk, it had certain strictures attached to it which you could see when it got over to England. It had a very specific style of dress, it had a very specific way of playing, which was very much in the Ramones mode. It had a certain political attitude, and all of these things, while there are going to be great records, limit the field of expression. And after a while, once things get so predictable, then it’s time for a change.”
Given that Kaye has been performing for many decades, I wondered if it still feels fresh. “What it feels like is trying to stay in the present moment,” he said.
“I try not to think of the note I just played and not to concern myself with the note coming up. I really try to enter the note that I’m playing at that moment and make sure it has all the movement that I’m asking from it. In the same way that when you go to a show and you’re not thinking about what’s the next song, or what did they do two songs ago, you’re experiencing the song in the present moment. To me that’s one of the most beautiful things about music: that it exists in the present. It’s not really a contemplative art. As it unfolds, you’re there.
“When I was into motorcycles in the ’90s — in my 40s, living in the country … it’s a really interesting combination of mind and body, and when you are on a bike and you’re going around a curve 80 miles an hour, you can’t step outside yourself … you have to become the motorcycle. Stare ahead and move through the curve. When I came back to playing guitar regularly in the mid-’90s, I was able to access that.”
He picked the book’s transformative moments by finding “the peaks of when something happened,” adding that “there were things I didn’t go to because I knew very little about it.”
He would have written a chapter about artists in the Bronx, like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, who helped invent hip-hop, “but it wasn’t part of my music. I was an observer. All of the places and times that I talk of helped contribute to my own consciousness as a musician and as an appreciator of rock ‘n’ roll, and so I was able to make my own personal journey through the music.”
He would have written a chapter on the alternative rock scene of the ’80s or the Asbury Park or Hoboken music scenes, he said, but his book was already getting “unwieldy.”
I asked him if rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity has waned. “I don’t think it’s lost its popularity,” he said. “It now takes its place among all the other music that have fully explored themselves.
“I believe rock ‘n’ roll, over its 50-to-60-year lifespan, understood every digression and way in which to play the music, especially within the realm of the electric guitar. And after a while you realize that this kind of exploration has turned not into innovation, but into interpretation, in the same way that people don’t write romantic piano of the 19th century anymore. There are people that interpret Chopin, but the next Chopin, I’m sure, is playing synthesizer somewhere and working with digital tools to make it sound up-t0- date and modern and, depending on your perspective, futuristic.”
So, rock ‘n’ roll has progressed as much as it can?
“Yes, I think so,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there’s not half a million records out there waiting to be discovered, to be unearthed … but I think like blues, like bebop jazz, everything that can grow from this foundation that we call rock ‘n’ roll has been figured out.
“I believe people will listen to the music. They will play the music. It’s a really fun music. It’s open to either deep thoughts or ‘Let’s have a party’ chants. But … I don’t think anybody is going to do anything different within the music that hasn’t been already done twice.”
That struck me as sad.
“I don’t think it’s sad,” he said. “I think just like the human has a lifespan, I think you celebrate that lifespan, but you need the next generation, and there comes a time when the next generation needs to express itself in its own way …
“I don’t think anybody is going to be writing a rock ‘n’ roll song that’s measurably different within the confines and definitions of the genre than has already been done.”
He grinned as he added: “That doesn’t mean there’s not great rock ‘n’ roll songs. Why, I might be writing one today in this very basement.”
Kaye’s musical accomplishments, in addition to playing guitar and co-writing songs for Smith, include fronting his own band, The Lenny Kaye Connection, and producing albums by artists such as Suzanne Vega (he co-produced her first two albums, including Solitude Standing, which contained the impactful 1987 hit “Luka”), Soul Asylum and Jessi Colter. As a journalist, he has written for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem and other publications, and co-edited Rock Scene magazine.
In the early ’60s, music journalism “was mostly fan magazines,” he said, adding that later, “people started writing about rock ‘n’ roll as an art form and tried to understand it critically.
“When I was growing up as a rock writer, my great models were the Crawdaddy school of writers,” he said, naming “Sandy Pearlman, Paul Williams, Jon Landau, Richard Meltzer. They approached writing about the music with the same passion and intensity and art as the music itself.
“I learned a very valuable lesson: that you are not apart from the music. You are within it and you want to illuminate the music in the same sense as the music illuminates you.”
Kaye uses his knowledge of music and songwriting when he writes prose. “I understand that there’s rhythm and melody in a sentence, as well as that a guitar solo has a narrative arc,” he said. “So I try to move back and forth between those two worlds.
“I brought to journalism my experience as a musician, too, because early on, I tried to imagine … when I listened to a piece of music, what it was like to be inside the band… I found that actually to be a really nice perspective to work from, because it helped me understand how the band felt as they made this piece of music.”
He said his technique was enhanced by trying to “not judge them by what I thought the work should be, but to judge them by how successful it was through their standards.”
Does he shy away from criticizing?
“I don’t like criticizing … my opinion doesn’t mean a hill of beans,” he said. “I like a lot of stuff that I can’t even defend.
“My job as a writer is to help put a frame around what somebody is listening to. Perhaps find some facts that help illuminate a piece of work … perhaps just try to put the work in context, not only with the artists’ previous and perhaps future recordings, but also with what their contemporaries are doing.”
I asked Kaye if he feels he ever erred in a review. “I have lots of wrongs,” he said. “I’m still being dissed for my Exile on Main St. review in Rolling Stone, which I wrote five days after getting the record. I couldn’t see the forest from the trees.”
We discussed the flaw in analyzing only an artist’s early works. “I see that with Patti,” he said. “Everybody talks about the divine Horses and Easter and our early work and, yeah, whatever we did spoke to people at that time … But I look at the last seven records we’ve made and I would put ‘Constantine’s Dream’ from Banga up against ‘Land’ (from Horses).”
Kaye co-authored “Rock 100” with David Dalton and partnered with country rocker Waylon Jennings on his autobiography. He wrote the 2004 book “You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon” and served as a rock archivist by producing the 1972 double album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, a compilation of garage rock classics.
“I’ve met many people around the world who come up to me and buy me a beer and say, ‘Nuggets changed my life,’ and I have to say that’s because the songs on Nuggets changed my life.”
Does he think Nuggets created the genre of garage-rock?
“Unconsciously so … I didn’t realize it at the time,” he said. “This is the 50th anniversary of that immortal anthology. I just signed off on the tracks for what will be the box set. It will have two discs of the original, two discs of what would have been Vol. 2, had it been gotten together in ‘73 or ‘74 from my original list, and a fifth disc of might-have-beens.”
Kaye connected with his spiritual side when he produced country singer Colter’s 2017 album The Psalms, which he cited as “one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever been involved with.”
He remembers back to 1995, when he was working on Jennings’ autobiography and staying at the house where Jennings and his wife, Colter, lived. “I come down to the living room one Sunday and Jessi’s sitting at the piano with the Bible open, singing the Psalms … it was just glorious. I watched for about 20 minutes and I thought, ‘This is so spiritual, so beautiful, so in touch with the meaning of these sacred poems.’ ”
Jennings died in 2002, and Colter and Kaye recorded the album in 2007 and 2008. “She really expressed the divine light behind those songs,” Kaye said.
He added: “I am very spiritual. I like religions. I celebrate them all. I’m born Jewish, so I like the traditions of Jewish culture and relate to them. But I find they’re all like languages to speak to the spirit, whatever that spirit is …
“I don’t like extreme anything. I think often the church, the synagogue, the mosque stands in the way of the light.
“I like to celebrate the spirit however it manifests… All (religions) have their beautiful mythologies and language and I like to hear them all and appreciate them all, in the same way I like all music.”
I wondered what role he likes best at this stage of his life.
“I like to do it all,” he said. “When I’m performing for three or four weeks, there’s nothing more that I like than coming back here to the basement, doing my work; everything is very centered and quiet. Then when I’m here doing that for a month, I long for the excitement for the road.”
I asked which music scenes he’s watching these days. “These days (artists) come to me randomly,” he said. “I like a woman from Denmark called Kira Skov. I like this metal band called Blackwater Holylight (from Portland, Ore.).
“I don’t know if I see geographically based scenes because the internet makes it too easy to travel to see these scenes in their developmental stages and sometimes that’s too early for the definition to happen … it’s not quite as pure a revelation as it might be if (the music) had a year or two when nobody was hearing it so you can make those mistakes and you can go up blind alleys and you can try out things.
“I feel people today come up with an idea and broadcast it to the world — that’s probably a new scene and maybe there’s corners of the internet where like-minded people are gathering … look at us — we’re talking on a screen. The last two years have speeded up how we talk as a species.”
Kaye feels grateful to have written “Lightning Striking” as it “tells the tale of the music that has given me such inspiration and encouragement over my lifeline,” he said, adding that he enjoys re-reading “those fun bons mots that I came up with. It just makes me happy to know that it exists. About two or three years ago I wondered if I would ever hold it in my hand.”
He hopes that whoever picks up the book in the future “gets a sense that this music has meaning, and that the person who writes about it was encouraged by that. Hopefully it will have an effect, as the music has on me.”
In addition to his Little City Books appearance, Kaye will play pedal steel guitar in the 18th annual “Hank-o-Rama” Hank Williams tribute concert (featuring the Lonesome Prairie Dogs, Tammy Faye Starlite and others), May 13 at 7 p.m. at The Cutting Room in New York. For information, visit thecuttingroomnyc.com.
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