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Conversations with Alternative Guitarists from Proto-Punk to Post-Rock
By David Todd
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 David Todd
All rights reserved.
... If You Dug It
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"This is the story of a transition period in American rock and roll, of a changeling era," Lenny Kaye wrote, "only noticeable in retrospect by the vast series of innovations it would eventually spawn." Of course, this was in the liner notes to Nuggets, his 1972 collection of garage rock "artyfacts." With this double-album time capsule, Kaye put his finger on a pulse that had been beating across the tail-finned, Farfisameets-fuzz provinces, a wooly resistance bashed out in anthems such as the Standells' "Dirty Water" and 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." If Nuggets was "the original sin" of rock, as Kaye once claimed to Rolling Stone, its tenets were the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not indulge in lyrical poesy; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's chops; thou shalt hold no chord progression higher than the I-IVV. The impact of Nuggets on the technique-challenged punks was obvious, yet even bands like the brainy Television returned to its ethos, the deep structures of three minutes by two chords or two minutes by three chords. Of this, Lenny Kaye as guitarist of the Patti Smith Group was a perfect example: a master of the short-attention blast who, on the flip side, specialized in sound fields that drifted into free verse.
Born in 1946 in New York City, Lenny Kaye got a taste of garage life in the 1960s playing the New Jersey frat circuit. As "Link Cromwell" he recorded a minor hit in 1966, but after finishing a history degree at Rutgers he headed back to the city to pursue another interest, rock writing. Just as he would find himself within the CBGB whirlwind a few years later, Kaye mixed during the early 1970s with Sandy Pearlman, Richard Meltzer, all the great new-journalism shit-slingers, matching them for merit if not audacity. "My role as a critic was more as a cheerleader," he laughs. "I look at my Rolling Stone reviews and I'm just wavin' the flag for the J. Geils Band." Success as a journalist was attainable for Kaye, but he never completely let go of his other aspirations. "One reason I became a writer was because I couldn't put together a band that could reflect my beliefs," he said outside CBGB in 1979. "When Patti and I joined forces, it was the beginning of a way to fulfill whatever musical aims I had."
Part Bowery poet, playwriting crow, and friend of Mapplethorpe, the equally multitasking Smith was a logical counterpart for Kaye. The duo first got together for a reading in February 1971: as Patti rapped, "This readin' is dedicated to crime," Kaye scrubbed along on repetitive guitar, keeping things simple but hitting all the right notes. The audience received them as a new kind of cabaret/rock hybrid, but it would be more than two years before their second gig. Slowly they brought in pianist Richard Sohl, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, and bassist/guitarist Ivan Kral — "It happened on such a gradual basis that we didn't realize that we had a band until we actually had a band," Kaye said in 1979. "Which, in retrospect, was where we were aiming at, unconsciously." By June 1974 the band that would become the Patti Smith Group took along Tom Verlaine as they recorded their first single, "Hey Joe"/"Piss Factory," which was packed with the ideas they'd explore over four albums beginning with 1975's masterpiece Horses. With their piano, their poetry, their freehand guitar, equal parts chamber whisper and rave-up, songs like "Land" reflected the band's unusual evolution: rock 'n' roll, yes, but tested part by part, rebuilt and renewed as "Rock'n'Rimbaud."
For much of the 1980s and '90s, Patti focused on family life in Detroit with guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5. Lenny busied himself by playing (gigs with Jim Carroll and 1984's solo I've Got a Right), writing (innumerable articles, books including the coauthored Waylon with Jennings in 1996), and producing (artists including Suzanne Vega and Soul Asylum), striking a balance he's maintained since. Patti returned with 1988's Dream of Life with Sonic on guitar, and then, after his regrettable passing in 1994, she was back with Lenny as of 1996's Gone Again. Billed as Patti and Friends, the band picked up where they had left off, trolling the cutout bins of rock history — which by then included their own nuggets, such as the classic "Rock n Roll Nigger."
David Todd: I wanted to ask about cover songs, since the Patti Smith Group has always done them and recently did a whole album of them (Twelve, 2007). Was there anything in particular behind your choices, whether it was the songs you picked or the reasons you played so many over the years?
Lenny Kaye: Well, especially early, a lot of stuff was part of these kind of segues: Patti would do a poem and then we would have a [cover] song illustrate it. I believe "Gloria" started out like that. We had bought a bass from Richard Hell for forty dollars, a little Danelectro, in thoughts of maybe she would play a note on it when we hit the E chord, you know. We played that at the start of her poem "Oath," which goes "Christ died for somebody's sins but not mine." So then from there it was, "Let's do 'Gloria,' that will be fun." "In excelsis deo," you know what I mean? We put the two together. Sometimes [with cover songs], especially the ones that have a circular chordal pattern that just keeps repeating, we would use them as fields and see where they went. "Land of a Thousand Dances," for instance. Once we got past the song and started cycling the chords, Patti would improvise over it and it would grow into what it would grow into.
Sometimes you wind up spinning the songs so that they become yours. A lot of them on the Twelve album, especially Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?," have grown. You start expanding upon them and find a whole new way of approaching them. Then they become a space in the same way that John Coltrane would use "My Favorite Things."
DT: I heard one of your live versions of "Are You Experienced?" and halfway through I forgot what it was. The Nirvana song too.
LK: Oh yeah. Actually, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," that one Patti wanted to approach really differently, kind of as an acoustic hoedown. When we recorded it, we got a bunch of banjo players and mandolin players and just set 'em up in Electric Lady [Studios] and said, "Let's see what happens."
Sometimes we just do 'em for a night. Usually when we play our Bowery [Ballroom] shows we do a special [cover], you know. We've done "Kashmir" — I mean, we've done 150 to 200 covers over our life according to one of the fan sites. The other night at the Tibet House benefit, because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper, we did a little medley and I got to sing, "Hello, baby, this is the Big Bopper speaking." And to think that I was a twelve-year-old kid living in Brooklyn when I heard the news on the radio, and fifty years later I'm singing the songs at Carnegie Hall. I thought, "That's a nice little circle completed."
DT: Were those '50s rockers as important to you as the doo-wop of that time?
LK: I grew up to it, you know. I was young enough, or old enough depending on how you look at it, to hear Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" as the first song I remember hearing on the radio. I always think of my life as growing up with rock 'n' roll, and it was. I was able to mirror all the changes. When the music went into its glorious adolescence in the mid-'60s, I was a glorious adolescent. And when it became self-conscious, not in a bad way necessarily but when I became aware of certain elements that needed to be revivedin the '70s, I — within the parameters of what they call now punk rock — was old enough to have a memory of what was and what could be. And now that the music is in its baroque period, I feel like I'm pretty similar.
DT: I was thinking about that before, that not many people who heard the music of the '50s and experienced the '60s firsthand would have made the transition into the punk era.
LK: Well, I think you have to evolve musically. I mean, obviously you respond to the music of your youth the most. I still can put on a doo-wop record and be transported in a way that I don't know I would if I hadn't lived through that time. But the fact is that music is ever-evolving at a rapid rate. The difference between the texture and tools of sound that we have now and that we had in the '60s is remarkable, and yet the power of the song can transcend that. You know, it's nice to reinvent a song or to bring it into its future, but a great song is a great song. When I hear a great song on the radio, even if it's done by some wacky sixteen-year-old Disney artist, if it's got a good hook it's gonna pull me in.
DT: Is that always what you're looking for? I take it there are times you want something more experimental.
LK: My attraction with music is to something that tries to step outside the predictabilities of it. There are genres, blues for instance, that I find very formal, and I appreciate a great blues player, but what I look for is someone who takes it out of the ordinaire. You know, some people like to play covers and get all the moves in them correct. I like covers where you kind of learn the song and then interpret it through your own musicality. I'll learn the chords for most of our covers, but the guitar lick, unless it's a total classic, I'll just put in my own string theory.
You know, I don't like musics that are pure. I like when they mongrelize. To me it's more fun to take a jazz thing and take a punk rock thing and spin 'em together; that's in a sense what we were always doing with Patti. And we loved a classic three-minute single, we loved the hook, the sense of affirmation that comes with call and response, and yet we always wanted the chance to deconstruct that song so that it became pure noise. And I think if you look at our body of work, we have songs that are classic three-minute verse, verse, chorus, bridge, and we have songs that can go anywhere, like "Radio Ethiopia." And to have that kind of breadth is important to avoiding definition.
The best thing I ever learned was on the back of an album by a group called the Red Crayola in the '60s. There was a little quote that said "Definitions define limit," and I always remembered that, because I'm not a blues player and I'm not a jazz player and I'm not even a rock player in the sense that I can do those Chuck Berry licks. I like to grab from all of 'em, to have the freedom to do a beautiful '50s slow dance and then over the course of a song or two be atop the amplifier wrestling out feedback and going into the place where all musics become the same and you're not bound. To me the greatest parts of free jazz are where you've been released from any formal thing and you're just playing sound upon sound in that kind of mystical way.
I like surprise, and I like to be taken to someplace that I haven't been before. I like uniquity, if that is a word.
DT: Is that what you were looking for with Nuggets?
LK: I didn't really know what I was doing when I did the first Nuggets. I was just gathering a bunch of bands that seemed to fit conceptually. I could try to figure out how they fit, but in looking at it there are many things that probably wouldn't have gone on that album had I been more conceptually aware, and I think it would have made it a lesser record. Because what's really enchanting to me is that there's nothing generic about it. It's not just a fuzz tone, just a yowling lead singer. It's all kinds of musics; all the bands seem to be moving toward an open-endedness that I found exhilarating. And I think what makes that record unique is that I'm questing as much as the bands.
One of the things I like about '60s garage rock is that it doesn't fit into the definitions that we think of now as "garage" rock. That word didn't even exist. If you look at my original Nuggets album, the music is all over the place.
DT: Although it was a kind of oldies album, it seems like Nuggets came out when it was most needed.
LK: I think it did. If it had come out a few years earlier it would've seemed dated, and if it had come out later it would've seemed like it was riding a wave. Don't forget I was a rock writer, and these were concerns of rock writers at the time, who were a little more proactive than today. You know, you definitely had a point of view, like the Cahiers du cinéma critics like Jean-Luc Godard or [François] Truffaut. You wanted rock 'n' roll to respect certain virtues that you felt were important, especially as the music started getting further from those virtues. And as I said, we did like the expansion of things in rock, but then it started to get professionally dull, and you start realizing that some of the reasons why you were attracted to the music — its energy, its confrontational sensibility, its sense of empowerment and excitement — were getting lost. I think even the liner notes of Nuggets allude to it, that these virtues were being forgotten as people ascended a certain ladder of professionalism. You wanted the grass roots to keep regenerating, and there was a lot of chat in the rock press about the groups that you saluted — the Flamin' Groovies, the Stooges, the MC5 — bands that you felt were continuing a certain high-energy, youthful tradition of noise and illumination. So I was aware of that, and in some sense I was waving a banner for these rock 'n' roll assets that people were forgetting about. And so Nuggets did come along at a good time.
The original album sold hardly any copies, but everybody who got one responded to the ... I don't know what the word is ... the sense that this was important. This was a way in which the music could [go]. And I think in some ways it did provide a certain sensibility that punk rock would go to.
DT: I have a couple more questions about Nuggets if you don't mind.
LK: I can talk about Nuggets forever. Nuggets is part of my greatest hits, and I'm very grateful because it helped define certain aspects of how I wanted my music to be.
DT: That was one question, how close you thought your music was to that lineage.
LK: Even though with Patti we're not really a garage band, there are elements that I like to keep alive. I like the sense of adventure, the sense of being a part of the stream of rock 'n' roll. I think that is a great privilege.
DT: On a musical level, were there riffs you picked up from the bands of the Nuggetsera, a catalog of some kind?
LK: I guess it's more to me the catalog of songs that you could play than riffs, you know. I mean, if you know a few Chuck Berry licks and "Satisfaction" you would have them, but mostly I kinda strummed along to the songs and let them point the way. I can only speak for myself, but I was never good at learning riffs as opposed to interpreting them in a way that I could play them, so in a way I was forced to find my own path.
You know, there are things as a guitarist that I did well. I had a strong rhythm hand and in that sense appreciated someone like Pete Townshend. I could not really aspire to be Jeff Beck because that kind of facility, aside from being outside the ken of most humans, was not my thing. But I did like to see the music through my own eye, through what I could play and back up.
DT: When it comes to your playing, did you find your approach change when you started performing with Patti?
LK: Actually, it was right in my pocket when we started, because I wasn't a lead guitarist at all. Like I said, I was essentially a rhythm guitarist, so it was natural for me to just pump along behind her and ride her dynamics. I mean, even from our first reading, Patti had a very musical way of performing. She would almost sing her poems, so if you could find the chords to fit behind them they would become songs. And you just had to make sure she kept moving, and you would get louder when she would rise. We played a lot with dynamics, Richard [Sohl] and I. The possibilities we had were louder/softer/faster/slower, essentially, 'cause we were playing very simple chords and rotating progressions. And it suited my style at the time. I would learn more as the songs got more complex, but we were very much in synch with what I could play and what Patti required as a singer-slash-raconteur.
Patti and I had one other thing in our back pocket, which was the freeform sound of jazz. When we got into an improvisation we would start sharding the sound so it became less musical and more just sound. And as a guitarist I had feedback; I had the clattering of the reverb in the amp; I had the way the guitar could make sound that wasn't musical by scraping my pick along it. I had sound manipulation that was not specifically musical, though it could be regarded as that. And we would employ that as the songs became more abstract.
Excerpted from Feeding Back by David Todd. Copyright © 2012 David Todd. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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