Original artyfacts from Lenny Kaye
Patti Smith's guitarist on music, writing, Bruce and making Nuggets
It's a cool Canadian morning as Lenny Kaye stretches out across his rumpled bedsheets at the Wyndham Montreal. Only about 12 hours have passed since the lean, cheerful guitarist left the stage after a blistering performance with the Patti Smith Group; but Kaye is already well rested, smiling and ready to chat. Kaye recalls how he first met Patti Smith because of an article he wrote for Jazz and Pop magazine. "She came into the record store where I was working to tell me she liked it," he recalls. "She knew I played guitar; and she asked me if I'd play at one of her shows ... just a one-shot, really, but in November 1973 she wanted to do it again. Then we got a gig every month or so."
At the time, Kaye continued to hold down his day job at Village Oldies ("A lot of social misfits can find themselves in record collecting," he observes wryly) and also kept writing. "I wrote for any magazine that would have me," he chuckles, "Writing is the left half of my brain, and playing is the right half."
The right half became a greater factor as Smith's recording career took off with Horses (1975) and Radio Ethiopia (1976), albums which made ample use of Kaye's musical talents. "Over the years we've written songs in every conceivable way," he observes. "Patti will sometimes grab a musical idea out of the sky; there's always an element of spontaneity. Mostly we write them by living with them. We create what we call 'fields' — repeated chord progressions — and an arrangement grows from within it. 'Free Money' was like that, and 'Gung Ho' on the new album. 'Strange Messengers' too. That's another one that's continuing to transform live."
There was an entirely different genesis, however, for a key song on 1978's commercial breakthrough, Easter. "Bruce Springsteen was in the studio next door, recording Darkness on the Edge of Town. Our producer, Jimmy Iovine, had worked with Bruce, so Bruce wrote a couple songs that were kind of in our style, which I thought was cute," Kaye laughs. "I would love to hear a tape of those songs today."
Eventually, however, Springsteen sent over what Kaye remembers as a "semi-finished" demo of another composition, a song Springsteen had intended to record himself. But in a matter of months it became Patti Smith's first hit single, "Because the Night." "It originally had a Latin feel," Kaye recalls, "with lyrics about a working man coming home to his wife. I think when Bruce does it live in concert, he still uses his original lyrics; but Patti wrote new verses. She feminized them and changed their direction."
"Because the Night" propelled Easter into the Top 20; but when Smith retired from live performance the next year, Kaye had no regrets. "What began in front of 200 people in New York ended in front of 70,000 people in a soccer stadium in Florence, Italy," he says. "We'd accomplished all we set out to do and had not compromised our ideals."
Kaye went on to co-write Waylon Jennings' autobiography ("That was an interesting experience, riding around with him in his Jaguar") and produced albums for artists such as Suzanne Vega, Michelle Malone, Soul Asylum and Kristin Hersh. But another, very different record is also part of his legacy, the compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, which he was instrumental in putting together. Not only has it stayed in print for over 25 years (on three different record labels), but it deserves tremendous credit for fueling the retro "'60s garage" movement which spawned bands such as the Fleshtones, the Woggles and the Bomboras.
"It's one of those records that's gotten deeper with the years," Kaye observes. "Today, that genre seems more defined than it did at the time. Jac Holzman at Elektra had the idea for Nuggets, which was originally supposed to be songs from albums that only had one good song on them. But I went for the sort of music that Elektra never signed, songs united by their massive adolescent energy. If I'd had a clue about what I was doing, I might not have done it as well. I gave them a list of about 50, much less focused than what it eventually became."
Released in 1972, the original double-LP Nuggets contained 27 songs. "A lot of those '60s bands were still around in some form," he explains, "with managers who were difficult to deal with." Kaye's biggest regret was never acquiring the rights to ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears." "The new Rhino Records box set — which contains all the selections, plus three more CDs drawn from my original list — finally got all the stray animals into the corral ... with the exception of '96 Tears.'"
Kaye's current research project probes even further back. "I'm doing a book about early crooners," he says. "I've been spending a lot of time going through old copies of Variety from the '30s. We tend to think of those guys as old men, but you look at a picture of Bing Crosby in his 20s and you see he's sensual. There's a direct line from Russ Colombo to Iggy Pop."
History, however, is not Kaye's entire focus. "I honor the past," he says, "but I'm a present tense kind of person."
Whether past or present, his trusty Fender Stratocaster has been a constant. "The guitar is one of the great 20th century instruments; it really will define the era. It has a great sense of accessibility — and that hasn't changed much. I don't know what it's future will be, but it's very handy. Like a dog, it can be taken anywhere ... By the end of the '80s, I'd thought I knew everything I needed to know on the guitar. Then in the '90s I started putting together things I'd never done before, and my ramp of knowledge really quickened. When Patti was ready to return to the music wars, I was up a notch."
And, of course, as Kaye prepares for the next show on their current tour, being Patti Smith's longtime collaborator remains in the forefront of Kaye's mind. "It's an honorable and wonderful thing to be in Patti's band. The whole construct is different than it was in the '70s. [Pianist] Richard Sohl is no longer among us, and [guitarist] Ivan Kral is in the Czech Republic. These days I'm playing with Oliver Ray, my 'guitar brother,' and we've got a whole new energy on stage. We also have three albums of '90s material — in addition to our '70s albums and Patti's record with Fred [her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith] from the '80s.
"Now we have a second lifeline," Kaye concludes, "as trenchant and important as our first."
Patti Smith, accompanied by Lenny Kaye, performs at the Variety Playhouse, Mon., July 24, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22.50 day of show. For more information, call 404-521-1786.