Lightning Strikes Lenny Kaye!
His New Book Explains How Rock & Roll Happens
Before he became the guitarist for Patti Smith and then the Patti Smith Group, Lenny Kaye was making the freelance rock writing scene in New York in the last 1960s and early 1970s, and working at Village Oldies. He wrote for Richard and Lisa Robinson's Rock Scene, and for Changes. He had a column for the literate skin magazine Cavalier, and contributed to Jazz & Pop, for which he wrote about "The Best of Acapella" in the December 1969 issue.
In his new book, Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll (Ecco/Harper Collins), in its New York City 1975 chapter, Lenny talks about his "duty" to write that acapella story, "because only I seem to be aware of the perfection of its niche existence, a clustering of street-corner groups in a doo-wop afterthought in which instruments were dispensed with, the human voice unadorned, in the moments before and after the British Invasion when it effectively disappears except for revival shows." He mentions the Zircons, the Diablos ("without Nolan Strong," he notes with scholarly precision), the Vi-Tones. In 1969, if we were around the Herrill Lanes bowling alley, my friends and I would go to listen to a 45 by the Islanders, a local New Hyde Park vocal group whose Polaroid appeared on the cover of Best of Acapella volume three on the Relic label. When I drive by the bowling alley now at Herricks Road and Hillside Avenue, I wonder if the Islanders version of the Jive Five's "My True Story" b/w "Hey Hey Baby" is still on the jukebox.
Lenny Kaye, screenshot for Critical Conditions by WR from Zoom interview, April 2020
Lenny Kaye's passion for preserving and extolling the virtues of lost fragments of our shared musical history was recognized by Elektra Records' Jac Holzman, who hired him to put together an anthology of mostly American regional rock from the mid-1960s, songs "from albums that have that one special track." It hit the world in 1972 as the two LP-set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. Nuggets put the phrases "garage band" and "punk rock" into the wider culture. Lenny writes that Nuggets, "defines my own coming of age as a musician and writer, though I don't realize this at the time. I'm still becoming the history so recent I've only begun to grasp that there's an era ended and another on the way."
In brief, that is what Lightning Striking is about. Ten cities, ten different years, ten music scenes, or styles, each one starting as a secret club, maturing, peaking, and absorbed by the mass culture, ready to be replaced by whatever comes next.
The ten cities and years are: Cleveland 1952; Memphis 1954; New Orleans 1957; Philadelphia 1959; Liverpool 1962; San Francisco 1967; Detroit 1969; New York City, 1975; London 1977; Los Angeles 1984/Norway 1993; Seattle, 1991. The dense information is leavened by Kaye's breezy bop-a-lu-la writing style, his way with a pun (see: "Artyfacts," above). There are pleasing and frequent bon mots, which as a guy from Central New Jersey living for more than 35 years just across the border in the Pennsylvania Poconos, he pronounces "bon motts," like the apple sauce brand, and not like a French teacher, talking about some guy named "Moe."
A few weeks ago, Lenny and I, "fellow scribes," as he put it, had a conversation on Zoom about the book. Here are some excerpts, condensed and edited for clarity and concision.
WR: Your book is the work of a historian, observer, and participant. How did those positions affect the writing?
LK: I am a participant, I am a writer, a fan, and I wanted to write a book that had them in the right order in my personality. I have aspects of my personality that work in tandem with each other. And of course, they all blend. There is rhythm and melody in a sentence, and a narrative arc in a guitar solo. I didn't want to write a memoir, but since the history of rock and roll paralleled my lifeline, I could tell my own story of moving through the music, how I was able to watch it grow, and move from generation to generation. I mostly wanted to tell the story, to tell the history of rock and roll through its "transformative moments." And looking at the history of the music we celebrated over these many years, it seemed to me that moving through these moments of time and space were when seismic change happened within the music, when it moved from one era to another, and how it appeared to me, as a participant and mostly as a fan.
WR: THE WRITING STYLE HAS AN ACCESSIBILITY THAT HELPS THE READER GET THROUGH SOME DENSE THICKETS OF MATERIAL. I RECOGNIZED YOUR SPEAKING VOICE, FROM MANY YEARS AGO.
LK: I didn't want to be too glib about it, but I believe your best history is told in an accessible way. There's a lot of information, days and dates and minutae, and I wanted to write about it in a way that was friendly. My last book, about crooners [You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Songs of the Croon, 2004] was an attempt to be a little more artistic. Rock and roll is a little more down to earth, so I just started telling my tale, and I had a few bon mots I look at it now, and say, hey, that's a good line! But you want to tell the story so that the reader is drawn in, the same way you want a piece of music to draw the listener in.
One thing people have noticed is that a large part of it takes place in the present tense. I didn't plan to write in the present tense, it's just that the way to make the reader feel that they are there in that time and space. It was a pretty good stylistic trick, but it's not one I scoped out in advance.
MAYBE THAT'S BECAUSE ALL MUSIC TAKES PLACE IN THE PRESENT TENSE?
That's how you experience music, when you're listening to it. It's unfolding. A piece of music continues, as a musician, it's about the note you play at that moment in time. You're in the present of that note. That's why music is the most visceral and involving of arts, as it unfolds, even as background music, you have to participate in it, you can't sit back and contemplate it. It's uncanny this effect, of notes on a scale, how when blended and manipulated and put into place, it can affect an emotional response. It's kind of magical.
DO YOU REMEMBER PETE FRAME OF ZIG ZAG MAGAZINE AND THE COMPLICATED FAMILY TREES HE WOULD MAKE OF BRITISH BANDS? THE SEATTLE CHAPTER MADE ME THINK OF THAT, BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY NAMES, AND MUSICIANS, AND BANDS, WHO ARE ALL RELATED IN SOME WAY. HOW DID YOU DIG IN TO THE DETAIL: A DIARY, NOTES TAKEN AT THE TIME, RESEARCH?
I wrote the book page by page. I would do the research I needed for that page. To put Soundgarden in perspective, I immersed myself into that body of work. Found out how they came to be, flourished, and what the social setting was. Sometimes I would take notes, mostly I did page by page. I'm a very linear writer. I let the narrative tell itself. That comes from my experience as a record producer, where, if you have too much control, it will come back to bite you. So I'd like to say, "listen to the speakers. Hear what they're telling you." The sentence will tell you what it needs. I tried not to get too far ahead of myself. Two or three years ago, when I was about two-thirds through this, I realized, "if you look too high up the mountain, you will get stuck."
YOU MENTION BRIAN ENO'S "SCENIUS" CONCEPT, THAT MUSICAL SCENES COME TOGETHER NOT NECESSARILY FROM THE HANDFUL OF STARS OR MUSICIANS THAT DEFINE THE SCENE.
LK: It's not genius, these moments when things happen, in terms of most notable names. Television, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones . . . one way of seeing it is from the top down. But Eno saw it as an ecology of a moment, the audience where, the surrounding social framework, all of these things are contributing to the creation of a kind melting pot of all these ideas, some of which don't have anything to do with music, but provide what the culture needs, what the culture is calling for.
The best thing about CBGB was that it was remote! Hard to imagine now, anything in the middle of the East Village, being remote. The first two years, it was only the bands playing for each other, so it had time to develop. I wonder in this era of computer access whether a scene can have the time to construct its own identity, or when it's out in the world, suffused, develop a particular sensibility, sound, and leap of imagination.
WR: LOOKING BACK, IT STRIKES ME THAT THE CBGB BANDS THAT FIRST WERE KNOWN AS "PUNK ROCK"—PATTI SMITH, TALKING HEADS, TELEVISION, BLONDIE, THE RAMONES—NONE OF THESE BANDS PLAYED "PUNK ROCK" EXCEPT FOR THE RAMONES.
LK: CBGB had a punk sensibility, that traveled across the ocean, [England] where it developed a sartorial style, and a musical style, based on the Ramones template.
WR: A&R PEOPLE NOW SPEND THEIR DAYS CRUISING TIK TOK SEARCHING FOR THE LATEST BEAT.
LK: However the music gets out there. A hundred years ago, radio had not become any kind of mass communications, movies had yet to talk. There's always a race to keep up with the technology. I don't pretend to know how Tik Tok works. I like Instagram reels because I think they're funny. I know I have absorbed more than half a century of music that has gone through sea changes in style, but the reason people write songs, and listen to them, has remained constant: I'm looking for love. I'm having a bad time in love. Who am I? I want to party! All of these concerns are pretty similar from decade to decade, but the style of the music radically changes, and influences the shape of the music.
Now it's endless remixes, the way people collaborate, digital tools available to manipulate sound . . . It's kinda fascinating to see what it might become. It's not better or worse, it just is. It's just where it touches you, how it touches you. And how you can make it your own. I particular like my era. But I'm not one to say 'music was better then.' I often wonder what Dizzy Gillespie would have thought it he had walked into CBGB. Their scene, West 52nd in the late 1940s, bebop was discovering itself, was really an exciting moment in time. You can sense the exhilaration these musicians had, discovering something that moved their particular genre [jazz] forward, in a quick way. Patti has this aphorism: progress is not the future. It's keeping up with the present.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE PIECES OF YOURS FROM EARLY ROCK JOURNALISM, WHICH YOU ALLUDE TO IN YOUR DETROIT CHAPTER, IS YOUR ARTICLE FOR CREEM ABOUT GRAND FUNK RAILROAD PLAYING AT SHEA STADIUM in 1971, AND UNDERSTANDING THEIR IMPORTANCE WHILE CRITICS UNIVERSALLY DISMISSED THEM.
LK: What I did was see it through the eyes of the audience. Trying to understand their appeal through their fans eyes . . . there's Mark Farner in Shea Stadium standing on a piano, bathed in lights, saying, "you're the greatest fuckin' audience," and understanding there's a symbiosis between what the audience wants, and what you can provide. On a much lesser, non-Shea Stadium level, I can see that with Patti. When we play these days, some of the people are vintage, with us from the beginning, but a large proportion of the audience is young. And what they see in Patti is a certain sense of possibility, and empowerment.
HOW DO YOU VIEW THIS 50 YEARS OF LONGEVITY WITH THE PATTI SMITH GROUP?
When something gets a name, that's when the adventure is over. It gets into a definition that inhibits growth. English Invasion, Summer of Love. It becomes a specific thing. The original Nuggets developed a name, garage rock. If I'm at a record fair, if someone says, I've got a great garage record, I'll hear it, and it's got all the tropes. But my bottom line . . .is it a great record? Patti can't be defined. We can have songs with a big chorus, like "Because the Night," or a field of noise, like "Radio Ethiopia." Or everything in between. We can move in any direction because we try to avoid characterizing ourselves. I would not want to be on a "Punk Rock of the 1970s" PBS telethon, that would be limiting all you could do at the moment.
There are thousands of doo-wop records, but only a few transcend that definition. That's what characterizes all these scenes, like cosmic dust coming together, to form a planet. And then they get figured out, it goes out into the world, then it becomes a cliché, and a stereotype, it's over. It's time for the process to begin again. What I tried to do is show how each of these moments paved the way for the future. Their rise and fall will open the door to what happened after their moment of time and space is over.
There is a two-CD, 48-track compilation, Lenny Kaye Presents Lightning Striking available from Ace Records UK. There is also a Spotify playlist with 44 of the songs; some likely not available for U.S. licensing.
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