We can buy you, if we want!
Lenny Kaye is an alchemist. He works wonders with words and melodies, be it on the printed page or operating his special one pickup Strat as Patti Smith’s longtime guitarist. He is a dues-paid member of rock journalism’s first generation, alongside Ed Ward, Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and the rest. He compiled the seminal garage punk sampler Nuggets, which completely codified mid-’60s fuzztone rock and was one of early punk’s sacred texts. And as might be guessed, he was a bit of a role model for Your Reporter, as a Rocker Who Writes.
Yeah, that’s me playing bass for Lenny on Them’s “Gloria” at a CBGB Johnny Thunders Memorial in 2001, when I lived in NYC. 23 years earlier, I saw him and Patti utterly transform that song at my first rock ‘n’ roll show, Sunday, June 25, 1978 at the Ritz Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas. In the Patti Smith Group’s hands, “Gloria” wasn’t merely a trashy three-chord rock ‘n’ roll anthem. It was a sacreligious religious text, which spelled out f-r-e-e-d-o-m. It showed me a road map past the Alice, Texas city limits, then led me to the rest of the world. It showed me that anything was possible, if you just had some belief in yourself.
I was 12 years old. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine….” Waitaminit – you can say that in a rock ‘n’ roll song?! Yes, you can. You can say anything. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY APARTMENT?!!! DAMN YOU!!!
I’ve had more than a few conversations with the man born Leonard Kusikoff in New York City on December 27, 1948. He embodies both the professorial and the poetic, twin qualities manifesting themselves all over his exciting new book, Lightning Striking ($35, Ecco/HarperCollins New York, 2022, 496pp). Subtitled Ten Transformative Moments In Rock And Roll (Dammit, Lenny! It’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!), it’s a psychogeographical journey through all the great rock ‘n’ roll scenes in America and England, completely written in the present tense to render these long-faded events dynamic and live. Well, “all the great rock ‘n’ roll scenes” might be a relative term in certain instances. If I were writing this book, I would not include Philadelphia 1959 nor the mid-’80s Sunset Strip glam metal scenes. But Lenny truly loves music. All music. And he brings such poetry, beauty, and intimate knowledge to everything passing through his word processor, you willingly read about genres you could give two wet shits about. And his prose is always enjoyable and informative. You suddenly know things you never wanted to know about a buncha singers named Frankie or Bobby, or some screeching hairspray jockey down The Troubadour in 1985. And you’ll like it.
But where the book really excels is in the deep cuts he excavates – the most tone-deaf hillbilly to sully Sam Phillips’ microphones before Elvis walked into Sun Records, or the first time Cosimo Matassa wound 3-M quarter-inch tape through an Ampex. You can program the most hellacious playlists from the obscurities Lenny throws at you alone. (In fact, the book has a soundtrack CD you should probably order. I know I do.)
As we got on the phone April 25, 2022, ten days before he roared into town with Patti to rock the ACL Live theater, then hang around to do events promoting Lightning Striking, we discussed the personal impact he had on me, as someone who played acoustic and electric typewriters and guitars. Aside for the upcoming indication it’s Lenny speaking at the next paragraph’s start, I’m the one speaking in bold type.
LENNY: It’s great, if you have two sides of your brain that interact – the analytical and the intuitive. It helps each one, the rhythm and the melody in a sentence, and the narrative arc in a great guitar solo.
I can recall the second or third time we spoke for print, you remarked that you felt it was two sides of the same coin, but you had to set one aside for the other for a while. Although in the last 30 years or so, you have written a number of books.
Oh, yeah. I kinda like it. You go on the road, and it’s very social, very performance-oriented. But it’s very hectic, and it’s nice to get back to the house, and it’s back to yourself and a piece of paper in front of you, writing words. I kinda need them both. If I’m on the road for a few weeks, I long for quietude. And when I’m down in the basement, pecking away? I wanna get out there and shake my tail feathers! [laughs]
I understand your new book concerns itself with your experience of many rock ‘n’ roll scenes through history?
Well, it’s not really a memoir. I didn’t want to write it with me as a major character. What the book is, is an evolutionary history of rock ‘n’ roll through its locuses of energy, where the music changes and transforms and evolves. It starts in Memphis in 1954, proceeding through New Orleans in 1957 which is kind of the B-side of rock ‘n’ roll’s creation myth. Philadelphia 1959, when the music is resolutely teenage on American Bandstand. Liverpool 1962, which responds to the American idea of rock ‘n’ roll. The Summer Of Love in San Francisco 1967 – yeah! Detroit 1969, with the MC5 and all that high-energy/back-to-the-basics. New York 1975, which I lived through. London in 1977, in response to what would be known as punk rock. A really fun metal chapter, combining Los Angeles in 1984 in the glam metal years and Norway in the black metal years. The book finished in Seattle.
Since rock ‘n’ roll parallels my own lifeline, I recount when I rolled on the floor laughing with my little sister while listening for the first time to “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. I was amazed by its energy and out of controlness. And then I move through the scenes. I’m kind of a minor character. A lot of the early things, I’m kind of relating to rock ‘n’ roll as a fan and a potential musician. Then when I take up the guitar, I’m kind of part of this flow. But the focus is certainly not on me. It’s about the music that inspired me, that has illuminated all of us in a certain sense, and its pathway from great moment to great moment when things change, when a new generation makes its appearance on the scene.
Right. And you took part in one of those moments, or at least helped guide it or set certain things in motion.
Most of the time, I was just watching it from afar, wanting to be there. Like in the chapter on San Francisco, I talk about a poster that I put on my wall from the Fillmore from New Years Eve of 1966 into ‘67, with Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, and how much I wanted to observe it firsthand and what the magic that was happening there was like. And then of course, I’m standing on the street outside CBGB sometime in the mid-’70s, and I’m just realizing how this gathering of bands and creative individuals is starting to generate the same sort of seismic change in rock ‘n’ roll as San Francisco. It’s a great journey. Each of these scenes last maybe about five years total. Yet a kind of group of musicians – Brian Eno calls it “scenius,” which I really like, that concept – forms an ecology of bands and audience and the social situation is going for. Eno likes that sense of a cauldron, where everything is thrown into a stew pot, and after a year or two everything starts taking shape and develops an understanding of what it’s going to be. Then it moves into its cliche and stereotype, at which time it’s time to change the channel again. Scenes are very reactive with each other and kinda predict their own future, as they move through their timeline.
Somewhere, Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine are taking notes.
I find that fascinating. Of course, Austin has that same kind of thing. When Willie and Waylon made it the center of creative country at a certain moment in time, that’s a great tale in itself, one that I actually did tell in Waylon’s autobiography. I’m kinda familiar with it. But I like the changes that take place in out of the way places, even if it takes place in a major city. I mean, CBGB might have been on Mars, for all the notice the music business 60 blocks uptown was taking of it. But I like that kind of distance, because it takes time to understand each other, to figure out how they want to be. So I tell the story of these transformative moments. There‘s many others I could have included. I wish I’d stood on that playground in the Bronx when Kool Herc was inventing hip hop. Or I could have gone to Kingston, Jamaica, because I love reggae. But these were the musics that kinda paralleled my own life in rock ‘n’ roll – the things I was interested in, the things that helped make me a musician and inspired me to continue the journey through music as it’s made.
Yeah. And you were in a unique position, touring with the Patti Smith Group through the world’s punk scenes, to observe what was going on locally everywhere. I’ve read you in other interviews talking about encountering The Avengers in San Francisco, or wherever. I would love to get your sense memories of these things, particularly in Austin. There was an incident I questioned Patti about for my book, and she doesn’t remember too much about it. But a few days after I saw you guys at the Ritz Music Hall in Corpus Christi, TX, when I was 12, she was doing a reading here in Austin. A local band called The Skunks, who were Austin’s 2nd ever punk band, came up and invited her to come see them at Raul’s, which was Austin’s version of CBGB essentially.
Right. I remember that.
This scene had only been going for six months. There was no punk scene in this town, unlike what seemed to be brewing everywhere else in the world in ‘75. But Roky Erickson and Doug Sahm knew something was happening, and they put out this single called “Two Headed Dog” – Austin’s first punk rock record. It took two years before we had a punk scene. The catalyst? The Sex Pistols playing in San Antonio – bands are literally forming in cars heading back to Austin that night.
“Jesus, Doug! Got enough phase shifter going on there, buddy?”
What you guys walked into six months later was our scene coming into full bloom. But yeah, Patti walked into Raul’s that night while The Skunks were onstage, and she brought her Fender Duo Sonic and joined them.
[laughs] We would do stuff like that. Patti and all of us, especially in the early years? We felt like we were Paul Revere. We were going around the country, saying, “Wake up!” And leaving musicians who were looking for a way to express themselves in our wake. I like the fact that none of them really sounded like us, because we were a weird hybrid of all sorts of influences. We never referred to ourselves specifically as “punk.” Because I’m not sure what that means, except a very defined style. And as another great Texas musician – Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola – said, “Definitions define limits.” So to me, when you call yourselves a punk band, that doesn’t mean that you have freedom to move outside of that definition.
What I like about all the scenes that I talk about in the book is that they’re very amorphous, at the start. They’re like cosmic dust kinda coming together to form a planet. Especially in something like CBGB, each of the early bands were maybe punk in sensibility, and in newness and kinda wanting to reinvent themselves. But they all were like different ideas. For me, when things get too figured-out as in Punk with a capital P, it becomes a little more predictable. I think that still makes for great records and great scenes and great interaction, but I’m always about when the borders are blurry, when you don’t know what’s gonna happen when you see a band, when you don’t know what they’re gonna sound like. They’re not gonna be the definition. And I think when things get very well-defined, then it’s time to reinvent what is the initial impulse.
Style changes all the time. There’s sea changes in style and the way music is presented. But really, in the main, it’s all about songs being simple. It’s all about, “I want some love, I need some love! I want to figure out who I am. I wanna have a party!” That’s a constant. But really, styles kinda turn on a dime and I wanted to chronicle that in the book. So it kinda shows this sense of forward movement, especially in a music like this. I lived that music from when I was six years old until now. I have been a part of it. I may not be a part of what the music of the 21st century will be. But it doesn’t mean I think it’s better or worse than music then. Music just is. And I’m excited when I hear a new song on the radio that floats my boat and makes me stick my hand out the window of a car and go, “WOO HOO!”
I love a great chorus. I love all music. I love country music. I semi-play pedal steel guitar. I appreciate free jazz. I really like Bing Crosby. I wrote a book about the crooners of the 1930s. I just love the human impulse to make music. I think it’s one of our defining characteristics as a species, that we can take these random notes and frequencies and make emotion out of them. It’s almost the most abstract of arts.
You touched upon something I am trying to get across at least in the introduction of my book: There was nothing that defined punk initially, except that these were the local weirdos who bought Stooges and New York Dolls records. But the way they all approached sound was initially very diverse. I mean, you can’t tell me that The Cramps and the Ramones and Suicide and the Sex Pistols and the Clash are all the same thing. But they’re kin by a certain spirit here.
Amen! Amen! And that’s why sometimes, when you get a title, it obscures the diversity beneath it. I mean, yeah – you can call all those bands “punk” in a certain way. But to me, punk is a starting point. It’s what you do with it. Really, when I did the Nuggets album – which amazingly is celebrating its 50th anniversary – I didn’t use the word “garage.” I used the word “punk,” because they all seemed to want to reinvent themselves, to start from scratch. It was kind of an exciting moment in time. But I think that happens all the time. Call it what you will, but I know that kid in a garage somewhere in the world, manipulating a digital instrument and kinda figuring out a new way to put sound together? You could call that “punk,” or you can call it just “forward progression.” To me, that sense that you can do something new, that you can stake your own claim, that you can become your own generation? That to me is the important thing, that sense that you can all of a sudden become yourself. That yearning – that, to me, is a punk sensibility that translates into musical imagination.
Can I tell you a little story relating to Nuggets and that impulse you’re talking about?
This comes from my area, Corpus Christi, TX. 1966: The Yardbirds play in town as part of a Dick Clark’s Cavalcade Of Stars tour, and this is the lineup with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
This was also the last date Beck played with The Yardbirds. Anyway, a local band you may know of, the Zakary Thaks –
– I do know of them!
Yes! They probably should have been on Nuggets! But they’re local support for this bill, and they’re watching Jeff Beck at soundcheck. And he’s stepping on some box on the floor.
And they ask him, “What’s that thing there that you keep steppin’ on?” “Oh, it’s called a fuzz box. This bloke named Roger Mayer built this one for me. They’re brand new in England.” Or whatever he said.
Anyway, afterward they went to this guy Smitty who worked on everybody’s amps in the area at this shop that I think is still around called The Horn Shop. They reportedly told him, “Jeff Beck had this little bitty box with a button on it, and it was between his guitar and amp, and he kept steppin’ on it and all Hell would break loose!” For weeks, Smitty kept coming to Zakary Thaks rehearsals: “Boys, try this ‘un out. Is this anythang like it?” They kept suggesting refinements until he got something approximating Jeff Beck’s fuzz sound.
It reportedly was this weird Rube Goldberg-looking thing with a lightbulb sticking out the top and a VU meter! [laughs]
But that was what they used on that song, “Face To Face.” And Smitty ended up building those at 15 bucks a pop for the musicians of the Coastal Bend.
Well, fast forward to my time in New York. Sometime after you and I played on that CBGB bill, Giorgio Gomelsky contacts me to DJ an event at The Green Door. So I tell him this story about how The Yardbirds inspire the first fuzzbox in the Coastal Bend. And he tells me, “I tell you, Tim: The Yardbirds played everywhere in the U.S. in 1965. And when we came back six months later, every local band was The Yardbirds!”
That’s the best summary of the American Garage Band Experience I can think of!
It was a great moment in time. Actually, Rhino Records is working on a five LP box set for the 50th anniversary, to come out on Record Store Day Black Friday in November. It’s going to be two discs of the original, and what would have been two discs of what would have been Volume Two, had I been able to put it out in 1973. There was a master list that Elektra had, and there’s gonna be a fifth disc of might-have-beens as I developed the idea of Nuggets. These were on the original list but kind of seemed outside the parameters. But it’s gonna be a really cool package. The fact that an album that is essentially an oldies album, even though all of the tracks were maybe five years old at the time, has lasted for 50 years is rather remarkable I have to say. I’m kind of astonished that we’re still talking about Nuggets a half-century into the future!
It’s an album that folded into the DNA of punk scenes worldwide, alongside Raw Power or In Too Much Too Soon or whatever. It proved that the basic lesson of punk was not just about rock ‘n’ roll. It was about creative expression and what tools you had on hand.
If you wanted to make a movie, you’d go find a Super 8 camera someone had thrown away. The equivalent today would be to make a movie with your cell phone.
All I know is that it brought rock back to a certain sense of basics. The songs on Nuggets are not that simple. They’re not just three chords. There’s a lot of things happening if you start taking the records apart, and I have because I have participated in many Nuggets tribute nights. But it brought it back to the basic grassroots, in the same way as all the scenes I talk about in the book bring things back to Square One and start rebuilding. That to me is kind of the thread that links all these things – the sense of coming. That’s a present tense word.
One of the things I realized as I did the book – after the fact, because it wasn’t a conscious decision while I was writing it – most of the book takes place in the present tense. As I describe something, I describe it as it happens, as opposed to describing it from some lofty place looking backwards. And I think it gives the book a kind of immediacy and sense of you-are-there. Because in all of these scenes, we are there. They are part of our gene pool that we use to make music as we continue through the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
I am fascinated by this impulse summed up by Giorgio’s remark about how every local band was The Yardbirds six months later. That is something that has happened through every rock ‘n’ roll wave in history. I wrote a few years ago in The Austin Chronicle about the four shows Elvis Presley played here in 1955 and early ‘56. He played about 225 dates in 1955, and 100 were in Texas.
There’s that great picture of him backstage with Buddy Holly, looking like, “Hey, I can do this too!”
There’s that famous quote from Bob Luman talking about seeing Elvis at that time, and he said, “That was the last time I tried to sing Lefty Frizzell!” [laughs] And yeah, The Yardbirds coming through town, and every band becomes The Yardbirds and maybe a bit of the Rolling Stones. It happened with the Ramones in the ‘70s.
There’s always the one that’s easiest to emulate. I think the Ramones became the punk template because they reduced things down to skeletal essentials. Their songs were like chants. Their rhythm was very straightforward and basic. Their look was basic. I never underestimate the Ramones, because really they had a genius package: Putting together the sense of themselves as brothers, the motorcycle jackets and blunt force songs. But they were also the easiest of bands to take on their trappings. I’m not surprised there weren’t more bands that sounded like Television or us, because our sensibility and our kind of reach was so much more broad. It was very hard to bring it into a kind of neat little package. And so when the Ramones went to England, they were the template. When the Sex Pistols came to San Antonio, they were the template for all the bands.
But again, sometimes what you lose is the breadth of imagination and places to go. And once that moment where this type of very defined music has been figured out, there’s nowhere else to go. One of the reasons Patti has lasted all these years is that we can go anywhere. We can do a song with an acoustic guitar and a heart on a sleeve. We can do something complex and improvisational like “Radio Ethiopia” or “Constantine’s Dream.” We can rock it out. We can experimentally move around the corridors of jazz. We have a lot of freedom to move, and that’s what Patti has always said from Day One: “Beyond gender, beyond politics, beyond definition.” That to me is a key to making sure you have all your creative outlets open to you at one time. Once you declare yourself, “I’m a punk band!” Or, “I’m a hardcore band!” That’s all you’re gonna be. We never wanted to be limited by any sense of what people think we are. We want to make those decisions ourselves.
Well, I’ve always said that true rebels always resist definition.
It’s why you hear John Lydon to this day insist, “No, we were never a punk band!” [laughs]
And his future would show that he felt limited. I always think about that moment the Sex Pistols are onstage at Winterland, and he’s hunched-down and he looks at the audience and asks, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” People think that’s about the audience, but no. He’s looking at himself ruefully and thinking, “Man, I needed to be so much more, and I’m in this kind of band that has no room to breathe in.” And that’s why he went off and did Public Image Ltd.
And it doesn’t help when you’ve got Malcolm McLaren for a mis-manager.
Yeah, that’s quite a tale, and in the London ‘77 chapter, I go really deep into it. Because it’s a really interesting thing especially in England, where your sartorial look has to be very much reflective of your music. I don’t think the bands out of CBGB were – well, we dressed kinda cool. But we didn’t have that one look. And all of a sudden, everything is over there and you have to have the right accessories. England is very much into the subculture of style. In one way, it makes you more communicated. The word can be spread because everyone is gonna show up at your gigs, because everyone is wearing the required trousers and the ripped t-shirt and the razorblade as an earring. But then that look is very old-fashioned two or three years later. Then it’s interesting that punk couture transforms into the highly stylized New Romantics and the look of New Wave. [chuckles] I have to say, except for a couple of exceptions, I have to look at pictures of myself in the late ‘70s and I don’t dress that much different. I just kind of dress the way I’ve always dressed. I don’t have any embarrassing fashion moments where I now think, “What am I doing in that!” [laughs]
Of course, really in the end, I’m not about fashion. Patti’s not about fashion. We like to look suave. But really, in the end? We want to not be trapped by a certain moment in time. And that’s kind of a trick. Patti and I have been playing together for 50 years. Remarkably so. And we’re hopefully ready for the next 50.
I’m really proud of my book. It took six years to write. It took a lot of research, and there were a lot of rabbit holes. And it took a lot of discoveries, even though I thought I knew everything about these different moments in time. It was just really amazing for me to immerse myself in the sounds of legendary, physical scenes when they’re making a mile marker on the roadmap of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s cartography. I’m just so proud and honored to be a part of this music that I celebrate in the book. It’s kind of my love letter to the sound that has given me the motivation in this life to become all that I can be.
Thanks to Lenny Kaye for being so generous with his time and knowledge. And thanks to Patti Smith’s tour manager Andrew Burns for facilitating this interview. (I interviewed Patti an hour before for The Austin Chronicle.) That Better Call Saul review’ll have to wait ‘til next week. Have a wild weekend! And if you enjoyed what you read, please hit that subscribe button on your way out. And share with your friends!
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