“I perceive differences with every show,” says Lenny Kaye, lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, who are currently touring the West Coast. “Patti always captures the mood of the night, the crowd, and what happens to be on her mind at any particular moment in time. In Los Angeles, the Ace Hotel shows (January 29-30) will probably be a more formal atmosphere. At the Roxy (February 2), we’ll celebrate our long history with L.A. and finding out who were are on the West Coast, but we’re a band that’s somewhat unscripted, so you never know.”
Kaye notes that he’s been playing in bands for fifty years — and has been in a band with Smith for forty, despite their “fifteen-year interregnum,” he adds. “The thing about playing with Patti is that we’re not on some kind of weird ‘Sounds of the ’70s’ package tour. We are our own creature. We expand creatively. She’s always challenging us to move forward, to look ahead, rather than backward.
“There’s no element of nostalgia where we’re concerned,” he continues. “We’re not ‘Hey, remember those motorcycle jackets?’ I look out at our audience, and there’s a real spread of ages. Our message is not tied to a remembrance of a golden era. As Patti likes to say at the beginning of ‘Rock N Roll Nigger’: ‘It’s now. It’s all about now.’ And that’s been true for our creative life. I’m privileged that we were never a flash in the pan or got trapped by a huge success and are now back replaying our moment in time. We’re our own force with our own unique sense of possibility.”
Such as the pair writing “Mercy Is,” a lullaby that Russell Crowe’s title character sings to his daughter in the Biblical epic Noah, which garnered a Best Original Song nomination at the recent Golden Globes Awards. “Patti and I put on the tuxes and walked the red carpet.” He laughs. “It was kinda weird, and a lot more chaotic than it looks on TV. Our world is not as glitzy and camera-ready, so we were as much amused bystanders as anything else. But we were honored to be part of it, and it’s nice to see Hollywood from the top down. It was really fun to sit there, see the stars, and have the thrill of our names mentioned as among the year’s cinematic achievements. But the most important thing is the song developed into one of our most beautiful and heartfelt creations.”
Although Kaye made his recording debut using the nom de rock Link Cromwell on the 1966 single “Crazy Like a Fox,” prior to joining forces with Smith, he was best known as a rock writer, beginning his career at Jazz & Pop magazine, where his editor was Jim Morrison’s future partner in pagan marriage, Patricia Kennealy. “She’s still a good friend,” says Kaye, “and I’ve always been grateful to her for giving me a vehicle that got me accepted into the New York rock writers fraternity/sorority. I got to write about The Stooges, Nico, The Velvet Underground, Pharoah Sanders, and those two Best of Acapella compilations, which caused Patti to call me up and led to a lifelong friendship.”
Kaye has since written for countless publications, contributed liner notes for three Grammy-nominated boxed sets (Bleecker and MacDougal, Crossroads, and Elektrock), and co-authored Waylon Jennings’s autobiography. He also penned You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon, an Impressionistic Study of the Romantic Songs of the 1930s.
“Most of the stuff I’ve written about musically has taken place in my lifetime, so I could view it though the prism of having lived it,” says Kaye. “But to go back to the late ’20s and early ’30s, which was such an essential moment in the development of popular music, and see it through Russ Columbo’s, or Bing Crosby’s, or Rudy Vallee’s eyes was a fascinating journey. I’ve got a Romantic streak a mile long, so to see these sensual singers learning how to, as I like to say, whisper to a woman in her own language was a beautiful thing. And because the topic was not exactly mainstream, I could take all the tangents and learn how Chopin or the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio related to my concept, and to write it in the style of the crooning, the sense of musicality and the poetry. To try to capture the feel of the era of the music, which is the great literary challenge.”
Jennings’s book was “an entirely different thing,” he says. “When you write somebody’s autobiography, you have to find their voice, and the better you are at it, the more transparent you are. It’s not just a question of turning on the tape recorder and writing down what someone says. You have to talk to twenty-five to thirty people in their circle, fold their narrative through your subject, and become your subject. I always joked it was Waylon and Waylenny.”
Kaye recalls that Jennings knew nothing about him when they started. “I went there as Joe Writer. I told him I knew there was a lot of sex and drugs in the tale, and we all love those stories, but I was more curious about what made him get up on stage 250 to 300 nights a year. And he said, ‘Well, get on the bus today.’ So I did, and we got to be very friendly. He always enjoyed learning something about me that I hadn’t told him. One day, I came down to the living room and he was listening to [the Patti Smith Group’s] Radio Ethiopia, and he said, ‘I like that “Abyssinia” song.’ Say what? But just getting to know him was a great, great, great experience.”
Kaye’s also known for his serious — and eclectic — record collection. “If you’re looking at what I’ve done,” he reflects, “you can see that I’ve just wandered around all the musics. I’ve had my country period. There’s also been times when I’ve been obsessed with bebop or reggae. There’s so many musics in the world, and I try to find the moment where I can get into one of them and understand it from the inside out.”
For example, he says, “I always liked Charlie Parker academically, but it wasn’t until I found pianist Dodo Marmarosa and discovered how ‘hooky’ early bebop was that I was able to listen to their recordings and hear the same excitement they were finding that I would later find in punk rock. The sense of discovery, and the release of inhibition. That’s a great moment in time. I just really hope to continue finding music and being able to come back and hopefully write about why that fascination is real.”
Read Part 2 of this interview to find out more about Kaye’s seminal 1972 garage-rock compilation Nuggets, some of his current projects, and what goes into his tour diaries.