The influential Patti Smith Group guitarist talks about his crucial work as a music scribe
Lenny Kaye has long been renowned as the lead guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, starting with their groundbreaking debut album, Horses, in 1975.
Concurrently, he has also maintained a highly impressive career as a music journalist – and this is what directly led to his role within Smith’s band in the first place.
“I wrote an article for Jazz & Pop [magazine] called ‘The Best of Acapella.’ I think it was the December 1969 issue,” Kaye says, calling from his New York City home. “Patti read it. She got my phone number and called me up out of the blue and said she was moved by the article.” After that, Smith began regularly hanging out with Kaye at Village Oldies, a record store on Bleecker Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he was working.
“One day she came in and said, ‘I’m having a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church. I’ve heard you play a little guitar, and I want to shake it up a little bit. Would you come and back me up on a couple of poems?’ And of course, that was the beginning of a long and quite miraculous collaboration between myself and Patti,” Kaye says. “Patti and I are both writers, and we love music, so it’s almost fated that we would see within each other a common ground.”
Five decades into their friendship, Kaye and Smith still share a simpatico work style that involves both music and writing. “We’ve never forgotten the power of language and the way music can enhance and illuminate it,” Kaye says of their relationship. “It’s a thing that really brings us together. Even these days, on the road, sometimes we’ll sit in the same room and she’ll write over in one part and I’ll write in another, and do our work.”
Kaye believes this type of unflagging productivity is a crucial element for success. “Work ethic is important,” he says. “I’ve always respected the fact that that’s what we were put on this Earth to do. I always feel bad when musicians – or anyone, really – don’t have their eye on what the prize is, which is getting the work done. Both Patti and I are very work-oriented. We speak every day about what we’ve done, and what we’re going to do the next day. That’s what you have to do.”
Kaye’s self-discipline has led to a remarkable string of writing work: in 1972, he assembled the psychedelic / garage rock compilation album Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968; his accompanying liner notes are still regarded as an exemplary example of this type of writing. He has written and edited for several magazines, and published two books: Waylon, The Life Story of Waylon Jennings (1974), and You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon (2004).
For the past five years, Kaye has been writing his third book: “It’s called Lightning Striking, and it’s an evolutionary history of rock and roll through its legendary flashpoints, when the music seems to have a locus of geographical energy: Memphis in 1954. Liverpool in 1962. San Francisco in 1967. New York in 1975. There’s ten separate chapters, and I’m actually about ten pages from the end of the last one, which is Seattle, 1991.”
Even though his work schedule seems daunting, Kaye says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve been a writer now for over half a century. I think of it as complimentary to my work as a musician. A great sentence has a nice rhythm and a certain flow of melody, just as a guitar solo has a narrative arc and a tale to tell.”
Kaye’s career path began while he was attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, when he began playing guitar for various garage bands. But, he says, “I always wanted to write,” so he also started working for the college newspaper.
“I was very influenced at the time by Crawdaddy magazine, which had just come out. [It took] a more mature look at popular music and showed me ways in which you could have a heightened consciousness about describing music at a time when the music seemed to be expanding its own consciousness.” Kaye cites Sandy Pearlman, Paul Williams, Richard Meltzer, and Richard Goldstein as the music journalists who inspired him at this time. “These were all the people I tried to emulate,” he says.
After graduation, Kaye moved to New York City, where he worked as a writer for several countercultural magazines. It was 1969, and Kaye was drawn to pioneering bands like The Velvet Underground and the MC5 who, Kaye says, “were pushing the artistic envelope of rock and roll.”
Kaye wrote a record review of the 1969 self-titled debut album by The Stooges. The piece caught the attention of the band’s influential manager, Danny Fields, who began inviting Kaye to shows and press parties. “I became involved in that world where you would attend a press party, of which there were two or three a week, so you could supplement your rather meager income by a little buffet,” Kaye recalls with a laugh.
Soon, Kaye’s profile as a writer had risen high enough that he was offered his own column at Cavalier magazine, “which was in the hierarchy of men’s magazines: there was Playboy and Penthouse, and then Cavalier,” Kaye says, “and they were all trying to heighten their intellectual reasons to buy a skin magazine by having good writers and cultural interviews.” (Besides hiring Kaye, Cavalier also published some of Stephen King’s earliest stories.)
“For the next five years, I had a column that would pay my monthly rent and provide me with promotional copies from every record company,” Kaye says. “It lasted through 1975, when I started touring with Patti Smith and it became impossible to juggle my two worlds of writing and musicianship.”
This does not mean that Kaye chose music performance over music journalism, though. “I never really have picked,” Kaye says. “I’ve always felt that my writing informs my music. I always wrote from the perspective of what it would like to be in the band. When I would listen to a piece of music, I would imagine myself within the band and how the music would work around that.”
As far as advice he can offer to up-and-coming music journalists, Kaye says: “Keep writing! Just do it. And find your voice – that’s really the key. Because when you find your voice, then the words seem to flow a lot easier. It takes a long time, because writing is a craft. The more you do it, the more you understand how to communicate to the reader and elevate them.
“Writing can also be a journey of learning,” Kaye continues. “As you’re showing the world what a piece of music is like, you’re experiencing it yourself. It’s a great way to understand who you are, as well as make it understandable to your readers.”
Looking back over his own long and illustrious career, Kaye says, “there’s so many different ways to approach the language that’s music through the language of literature. I’ve been very privileged to have the ability to have one inform the other.”
AUDIO: Lenny Kaye and The Nuggets Live at Mabuhay Gardens 5/9/80