Lenny Kaye has lived the rock ‘n’ roll life, compiling the garage rock Bible “Nuggets,” writing songs, producing records, working in record stores, as a rock critic and as a DJ in Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius/XM radio and playing guitar with Patti Smith.
So it’s no wonder that “Lightning Strikes,” his new book is revelatory as he describes the New York music scene of the 1970s, an “I was there and this is how it really was” account of the rise of punk rock, the CBGB and Max’s Kansas City scenes.
And his accounting of the London scene that birthed the Sex Pistols, the Clash, et. al, is just as personally insightful, delineating, from an insider’s point-of-view, how English punk rose up to shake the world.
Those are two of the “Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll” that Kaye covers in the 496-page tome that’s part history, part musical critique and part personal reflection and remembrance
Kaye, who turned 75 in December, isn’t old enough to have witnessed Cleveland in 1952, Memphis in 1954 or New Orleans in 1957. But he gets to the heart of each of the 10 scenes he’s chosen for the book, making fresh connections as he puts context-setting spins that set the stage for oft-told stories of Alan Freed and the Moondog Coronation Ball of Elvis Presley and Sun Records, Little Richard and Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
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But Kaye, who writes “I grew up with rock and roll” and “I grew old with rock and roll” was ready for Liverpool 1962 and sets up the beginnings of the Beatles and the British Invasion with a combination of a fan’s admiration from afar and gritty detail that makes the Cavern club scene come alive more vibrantly than most of the hundreds of books written about the Fab Four.
Kaye, who, like his 40-year collaborator Smith, has got some Beat poet in him, writes with flair and passion, be it describing music, performance and the rehearsal spaces and dingy clubs where the music was born and nurtured or telling his stories of, say, having a flat tire somewhere outside Lincoln while driving west to check out San Francisco 1967.
Next on the docket is Detroit 1969, the MC5 and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and, in its decades-later extension, the White Stripes, a scene that was lauded by Creem magazine, for which Kaye wrote, and has only, of late, become recognized as the birthplace of punk rock and everything that followed.
Somewhat surprisingly, Kaye devotes space to the Sunset Strip scene of Los Angeles 1984. Critics back in the day disparaged “hair metal” (guilty as charged here). But Kaye shows why that hedonistic scene was one of the drivers of rock – before linking it with the death metal horrors of Norway 1993.
The final scene in “Lightning Striking” is Seattle 1991 where Kaye insightfully positions Nirvana, as the runt of the litter, that enveloped qualities of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, the Posies, the Melvins, Alice in Chains, to become rock’s final earth mover.
For rock, as linked in Kaye’s chronology is now somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 years old. So the guitar assault is not likely to ever again be at the top of the pops. Nor in the splintered culture of the digital era is any musical form likely to exert the cultural dominance of rock from the mid ‘50s to the mid 90s.
“This doesn’t mean rock is dead,” Kaye writes. “Far from it. It now assumes its hallowed place among the many ways musical invention can be subdivided and explored, be it romantic piano music of the nineteenth century, Dixieland (jazz) of the early twentieth, big band, swing or doo-wop vocal harmony, blues of every shade, any of the endless permutations that slice EDM into its component bpms.”
That’s resolution of the “rock is dead” debate would be a perfect ending. But, Lenny being Lenny, there’s a coda to “Lightning Striking” that alone is worth the price of admission.
It’s a “Selected Biblio-Discography” — a listing of the books and articles he used in writing the books and songs and albums that emerge from each of the scenes.
With a little effort, the latter, if you could somehow find all of them, would make a killer, if hours long, playlist. But, again, Lenny being Lenny, he’s put together “Lenny Kaye Presents Lightning Strikes,” a 2-CD compilation that runs from the Boswell Sisters’ 1934 prophetic “Rock And Roll” through “Gimme Chocolate!,” a 2013 song from Babymetal, whose the J-Pop meets metal somehow fits into Kaye’s literary discussion of Norwegian death metal.
The compilation master unearthed some true gems for the CD – from Pat Hare’s early Sun recording “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” to “Cavern Stomp,” from the Big Three, the loudest, most raucous of the early 60s Liverpool bands to a stereo version of the MC5’s “Looking at You,” an early version of the song that became Blondie’s smash “Heart of Glass” and his own nugget – “Crazy Like a Fox,” credited to Link Cromwell. Let’s just say it wasn’t a hit.
In short, that makes “Lightning Striking” the best rock book of 2022.. By December, it could very well still hold that position. Especially for those who like Kaye live-and-love rock and roll.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @KentWolgamott