Interview: Lenny Kaye


Patti Smith and her band first rocked the world forty years ago with her fusion of poetry and primitive three-chord rock. Their 1975 debut Horses is regularly ranked as one of the most influential rock and roll albums of all time, and Smith went on to release other acclaimed albums – and to continue to thrill audiences – throughout the decades, all the while growing as an artist.

Smith’s secret weapon throughout most of her musical journey has been guitarist Lenny Kaye, who provided accompaniment at her first public poetry reading in 1971, was in Smith’s band during her 1970’s heyday, and rejoined when Smith returned to action in the mid-1990’s. In a parallel life, Kaye also put together the well-regarded Nuggets compilation which rescued a smokin’ set of 1960’s garage rock gems from obscurity.

This interview with Lenny Kaye was for a preview article for the Patti Smith concert on 1/27/15 at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was done by phone on 1/22/15.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?

Lenny Kaye: [laughs] Well, that’s a question we always ask ourselves. We try to make each show unique to where we’re playing and the mood of the crowd, and the vibrations of the night. It’s going to be a special show for us because our drummer Jay Dee Daugherty is from Santa Barbara, so the town has been part of our universe for the past 40 years.

We do a mixture of songs that people hope to hear – when I go to a concert I like to hear my favorite hits – but we also have some challenging songs which allow us to stretch and improvise. It’s going to be not very much Horses based, because we’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary of our debut album later this year. So we’re going to dipping into stranger corners of our catalog, and seeing what comes. But always it’s the audience and the venue and the stars above that determine the shape of the night.

JM: I saw the show back in 2009 that Patti did here with Philip Glass, and you and Jay Dee came out for part of that show. That was a very cool evening, but I’m guessing it was very different from what we’ll be hearing next week.

LK: Oh yeah, totally. I mean, this is our first full band show in Santa Barbara. With Philip it was a little more of a special occasion, and it was acoustic-based if I’m not mistaken. This will be amps turned up and people rocking. But when we speak of a rock show, one of the things I love about our band is that we have a very wide range of how we approach our music. You know, we can go from the most tender, intimate, and quiet things, to full roar and rebellion. In the course of the show we will visit all these facets of our personality.

Patti is always wanting to make sure that we are not bound by definition or convention. We believe that all of music is there to be explored and understood and elevated. In the course of what we do, we try to approach it with a sense of freedom and no boundaries. It’s one of the reasons why we are so long-lived as a band – that we continually try to move forward, and not be captured by who we were in the past. This doesn’t mean that we deny where we come from, but it also means that we don’t want to be trapped. We don’t particularly feel like our music belongs to any particular era or time. We always try to point forward in our sense of creation.

JM: That’s why we like you guys so much! Going way back, how did you first meet Patti?

LK: I first met Patti in New York when she was on the kind of local art/music scene. I saw her in a play written by Jackie Curtis called Femme Fatale. I saw her in this little underground theater, and I thought she was just a beautiful, charismatic person.

I was a working rock journalist at the time, and I wrote an article about a cappella doo-wop music, which was very small scene in the little New York to Philadelphia axis, people who loved doo-wop music, sung on street corners. I wrote an article about it for a magazine called Jazz and Pop, and Patti read the article and was moved by it because she understood that scene from growing up outside of Philadelphia. So she called me up and came down to the record store where I was working, Village Oldies, and she would come in and I’d play various great singles that we shared – “My Hero” by The Blue Notes, and “Today’s the Day” by Maureen Gray, “The Bristol Stomp”. We’d dance and hang out.

When she was going to do her debut poetry reading at St. Mark’s church in February of 1971, she wanted to shake it up a little bit. She knew I played a little guitar, and she asked me if I knew how to play a car crash on a guitar. “Yeah, actually, I think I can.” [laughs] And we gave our first little performance in February of 1971. There was no sense that this was going to be anything more than that night. We didn’t set out to have a band or get a musical act together.

But maybe two and a half years after that she did another poetry reading, and she asked me to reprise our greatest hits [laughs] from February ’71. And then we just kept playing, month by month and week by week, adding numbers. It grew very organically into a rock band. By the time that we added Jay Dee Daugherty to make us an official rock band with a drummer, we had our own sound. We were able to craft something that was unique and long-lasting, and had a lot of room for expansion. It goes to show that you really can’t plan these things. You know, you have to let them develop organically, and let them tell you where you are going.

JM: What was the New York City music scene like when the Patti Smith Group was first getting it together, rehearsing, and thinking about recording?

LK: It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time, especially when we were getting underway, where there was no music scene in New York. The Velvet Underground and all of the people that had grown up around the Night Owl Cafe in the West Village had kind of moved on. There were no bands in New York.

I didn’t see another local New York band until the end of 1972, when a poster for the New York Dolls appeared on the wall of the record shop where I was working. And again, we were slightly apart from that because we really weren’t a rock band. And there were no places to play. No clubs. The thing about New York, of course, is it’s such a stopover on any national touring schedule, that you sometimes feel overshadowed by all the amount of music in New York. But The Dolls created a little scene, and that kind of transformed into what would be happening around CBGB’s, and you had a lot of interesting, quirky, idea-oriented musicians who found at CBGB’s a place for them to perform, mostly for each other at the beginning, and grow their art kind of under the radar. Sometimes when you have a big behemoth of a music scene over you, you can grow unintended, and that’s really what happened at CB’s.

The bands there, each of whom had a certain sensibility – now it’s called punk rock, but then it wasn’t really, it was more like the spirit of newness, and experimentation was a form that seemed to many at that time to be a bit complex for entry. And slowly it coalesced into a grouping of musicians that could actually be called a scene. But it happened very gradually, and very kind of out of the way. There was really no sense that any of these bands were going to be able to communicate beyond the boundaries of lower Manhattan. Given the amount of talent and artful consciousness, a sense of togetherness grew. We always stood a little bit apart, because again, we weren’t really a rock band. When we originally played at CB’s we didn’t even have our drummer Jay Dee. He joined right after we finished our residency in the spring of ’75. And then we made our first record in the fall of 1975. So it took us a while to find our way.

JM: You said that the upcoming show isn’t going to focus on Horses, but with the 40th anniversary coming up, it’s in people’s minds. What are your reflections on that album?

LK: For me, it’s a very young band. We’re a bunch of colts straining at the bit, trying to channel all of these ideas that we had into the grooves of an actual record. For a band that was very much of the moment, all about improvisation, all about capturing the mood of the night, to make a record is a different animal. I hear us as very young, but certainly with our ideals intact, and on a mission to preserve the spirit of rock and roll in the same way that it inspired us when we were young. The sense of empowerment within the music was so real to all of us who were kind of mutants in whatever social universes we came out of. We found it within the music, especially in its grand flowering in the late 60’s, which was a remarkable moment culturally, and especially with music leading the artistic charge, it was very inspirational. And in a sense what we wanted to do was provide that same sense of inspiration.

As we made our first tours around America with Horses, we would find whatever city we would get into that there would be a core of musicians waiting for a rallying cry, waiting to create their own sense of creation, their own sense of growth, and to plant the flag where ideas that were off the mainstream could flourish. I feel like we attempted to celebrate the virtues of the music that had set us free, as well. What I’m always, of course, most happy about is that no matter how influential Horses was in terms of giving people a sense of possibility, that none of them really sounded like us. It was more a sense that, “Yes, we could find our own voice and become who we need to be.” And the artists who took notice of this – Michael Stipe of R.E.M., or Morrisey from The Smiths, or any of the artists that have come up to us over the years and said how inspirational Horses was – that they all had their own way of expression, that they didn’t become Patti. But nobody can become Patti. She’s a unique individual, and certainly has a sense of creative vision and artistic awareness that is unique to her, and yet can also inspire that same sense of creativity in those who partake of our music.

JM: Of course Horses has the great original tracks on it, but it leads off with a cover of “Gloria”. How did that song come together?

LK: The roots of that are very… I don’t know. We had bought Richard Hell’s Danelectro bass from him, and we had it in the practice room, and at one point Patti put it on and she bonged the low E string – bong, bong – and we said, “Oh, that sounds fun. Maybe we can do some kind of music for it.”

And so she started reciting the opening lines of a poem named “Oath” that she had written, which started out, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” A declaration – not anti-religion as it has sometimes been interpreted – but a declaration of one’s own responsibility for oneself. We thought it would be a really fun idea to attach “Gloria” to it. Of course, you know it starts with the E chord as well. And with that little foundation in mind we started playing it live, and as many songs did then, the song grew in live improvisation, until we would play it each night and some lines would be repeated, and the band would emphasize certain things, just as an organic arrangement. Pretty soon we would remember that the next night. So the song grew almost without us intending. We didn’t rehearse it that much. We didn’t rehearse it at all in the rehearsal room. We just kind of played it, and let the song emerge as Michaelangelo would find the form, the figure emerging from the block of marble.

A lot of our early songs came about like that. “Free Money” was just three repeating chords until it became an actual song. On Horses, our version of “Land of a Thousand Dances” also grew like that, out of nights and nights of improvisation, following it along, and riding the dynamics and soundscape for Patti to sing her visions. It’s pretty much still the same way we work in some of our pieces. On the last record, “Constantine’s Dream” arrived like that, where we played it, performed it, and improvised on it, and slowly the song emerged from its initial conception.

JM: That leads into my next question – can you describe the songwriting process with Patti?

LK: Sometimes one of us will bring in a fairly complete piece of music and she’ll be inspired by it, and set lyrics to it. Sometimes she’ll have a lyrical idea and ask one of us to frame it in song. Sometimes it comes out of a soundcheck where we’re all playing and a piece of music that seems particularly appealing, and we follow that along. You know, it depends on the song. Sometimes songs are very formal and set, and you’re moving from a verse to a chorus to a bridge, and trying to orchestrate that. And sometimes they’re just what we would call “feels”, where you have a certain chord progression or a certain feel, and you see where it leads. For me those, of course, are the most exciting ones, because you don’t really have any say about where the song’s going. The song is telling you where it wants to go.

JM: Around the time that you and Patti were getting to know each other, you put together the compilation Nuggets, which ended up being hugely influential. Can you tell me a bit about how that came together?

LK: I was hired… I was a working rock writer, and Elektra Records’ head Jac Holzman liked rock writers because he had very smart records, and he enjoyed seeing what writers would make of The Doors, and how they would analyze and understand them. And so he hired me for a few months as kind of a roving talent scout. As it turned out, most of the groups that I liked he wasn’t into, and vice versa.

He did have this idea for an album called Nuggets, which in his interpretation would be those songs which were the one good song on an album, and he wanted to gather them together, preferably not the most known. He gave me time to gather a list and curate it, and I kind of spun it in the direction that I felt most at home in, which was these bands in the middle ’60’s who were at the crossroads of music from hit generated singles to more expansive, adventurous album tracks, not only in terms of sound and feel, but length.

To me, especially in 1971 and ‘2 when I was working on the record, it was so much the recent past that it almost seemed like it had been overlooked. You had the British Invasion and then you had progressive rock, but how did it get from Point A to Point C? I’ve always like that moment in time where things are in motion. When they get figured out then life becomes a little predictable, and when they start you don’t know where they’re heading. But that moment when possibilities seem to open up, when wild cards present themselves, where you get a lot of experimentation, that to me is the most interesting part of musical evolution.

And, of course, the songs on Nuggets are all great, great songs. I mean, it’s about garage rock, and it’s about the birth of psychedelia, and it’s about a certain sense of desire and inspiration on the parts of these bands that were about as local as you could be. But also, it’s about great, great hit singles. I mean, to me that’s why Nuggets has lived through the years, because every song on it is a great song. It’s beyond genre in a certain way.

I think you could take any genre and find 25 most infectious songs, and have the same sort of thing. I’ve made up a Reggae Nuggets that we play – it’s our walk-in music when people come to see us. It’s the same thing. It’s all about reggae and that transition in reggae where it moves from ska into the DJ and electronic dancehall. But that moment where it’s still about songs, and it’s still about feel. To me, it’s so gratifying. Nuggets obviously speaks to a sense of renewal that happens periodically in music to make the next level of music happen. It becomes the touchstone of why people pick up the guitar in the first place, which is to understand who they are, and to express themselves. And to make a good racket, too.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

LK: Play for the love of it. Play because you have some emotion that you’re desiring to get out of yourself and onto the release of a musical note. People try to be very careerist about playing music, but I have to say all my successes in music have not been because I’ve planned how to make it in the music business. It’s come because I’ve done it for love, and it’s spoken to something deep inside of me.

There’s always that question, is it art or is it rent? For me, anytime I’ve moved toward the rent aspect it hasn’t really worked out as well as I thought, but every time I’ve done something for love or the true artistic sense of release, that’s what stays. I did Nuggets because I loved the music. I started with Patti because I loved her sense of vision, and sense of self-realization.

And then you never know where life takes you. I mean, for me I’ve been playing guitar now for 50 years. I celebrated my 50th anniversary in a band last November. I didn’t set out to become a professional musician. I would’ve learned to read music [laughs] had I done that. I did it because I loved it, it spoke to me, and it enabled me to find within myself, myself. I’ve always been grateful for that, for all the opportunities. And it’s only because I’ve followed my heart. And if there’s one thing that I’d say to any aspiring musician, especially in these days when all of the parameters have changed, all the means of distribution have changed, all the ways in which you can be a musician have changed – and they always change. I mean, being a musician in the ’60’s was a lot different from being a musician in the 1920’s. You have to do it for the love of it, and anything else that happens is a bonus.

JM: Since you’ve been on both sides of the fence I have a related question – what advice would you give to aspiring music journalist?

LK: The advice I would give to an aspiring music journalist is the same as I would give to a musician, because they’re very related. When you’re writing, there’s melody and there’s rhythm in a good sentence, just like there’s good narrative and frame in a great guitar solo. Your duty as a music journalist is to celebrate and understand the music, to enter into the spirit of the music more than sit on the sideline and not be involved. You have to write from a true love of the music, and understand that a musician often is not in as much control of what they play or sing as one would think. It’s always of the moment. It’s by the moment. And really you just have to write from the perspective that music is one of the most abstract and un-understandable arts. Why different frequency tones, notes on a scale affect us so emotionally is one of the great mysteries of the language of music. And music is a language. And when you write it’s a language, and hopefully the writing that you do will have the same musicality and sense of inner emotion as the music that you’re writing about.

JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career, or something about Patti Smith?

LK: I always think that people look at one perspective of what we do. In some ways, Patti is the Godmother of Punk. But what exactly does that mean? I would hope that everybody would approach our music in the same sense of expansiveness and adventurousness that we do, that we are beyond definition, that really what happens is that we are dealing with the enlightenment of the human spirit. That’s a beautiful place to be within the realm of art. Just remember that that comes with a sense of responsibility, and that comes with a sense of obligation to one’s audience and to oneself. To keep that balance going is the trick of any artist who is not tied to a particular moment in time. Other than that, sometimes misconceptions are great because even if they don’t get it right, it gets into their world, and that’s always a good path to self-knowledge.


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