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LENNY KAYE

LENNY KAYE
November 29, 2008 | Author: Greg Phillips

lennypattiLenny Kaye was in particularly good spirits when I contacted him at his home in Pennsylvania, one Sunday morning (Lenny time) in late November. He’d just come off a successful world tour, his country was experiencing a rare moment of euphoria thanks to the election of an intelligent new President a few days earlier, and he was looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation. The night prior, Lenny had celebrated his 44th year in music with a gig at Gallos, a local bar in Stroudsburg, where he played covers for four hours with the duo he calls The Cordovas. “It was great,” said Kaye of the club gig. “We went through all the eras.  I think the best moment was when ‘Personal Jesus’ morphed into ‘The Letter’. It was a good segue. We have fun. It’s about as local a bar as you can get.” The regular gig, where Kaye and his buddy George play tunes by anyone from Miley Cyrus to Depeche Mode to a small audience of around forty to fifty people, is tremendously important to Kaye.

“It’s really nice to bring things down to the grass roots level. That’s what it is all about. There were several years in the eighties when I wasn’t playing as much and I was getting caught up in the business side of things and you forget why you got into it in the first place. Around that time I started playing once a week at a little bar and I was playing for the pure love of it. I didn’t know I’d be playing music two years after I started, let alone forty four. So whether I’m playing the Sydney Opera House or a local dive, I’m grateful.”

Of all the rock and roll stories in the world, Stroudsburg is one place that hasn’t figured prominently in any as far as I know, and I guess that’s part of the appeal of playing there, devoid of any hype. However, New York is a city with which Lenny Kaye’s name is very closely associated. Patti Smith’s 30 year music accomplice  is as much a part of New York rock royalty as any of his peers, right up there with Johnny Thunders, David Johansen, Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine,  Blondie, Wayne County, David Byrne, and The Ramones  in historical significance. Back in the early 70s, all of those guys were forging a path for today’s alternative, independent rock bands to proudly follow. It was a scene connected to the art world and abundant in large than life personalities, based in hip hang outs such as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. Rock history was unfolding before their eyes, but at the time, Lenny and Patti just saw it as a chance to be with  friends, rather than any conscious attempt to create a scene.

“I think everybody moved instinctually,” said Kaye on reflection. ” It was a very small self-contained scene scene that kind of infiltrated others. It all took place in a 16 block radius. People were involved in many different aspects in a way in which would cross pollinate. We were just putting things together, just to see what would come out.  We’d put our influences in the pot in more ways than one and watched it grow. A lot of stuff we did … particularly before ‘Horses’ … things just emerged. It was very organic growth and because Patti was so on the brink of what was happening in popular music at the time, we didn’t really think of a direction for it.”

“You know … sometimes you notice these things in retrospect. I was happy to have a local bar like CBGBs or Max’s to hang out and see my friends. In the early days, most of the time you were just playing for the other bands. Everybody was so ‘outra’ that there was no sense of spotlight. If you were individual and wanted to push certain boundaries, you could do that. There were no great goals or even any real awareness of what was going on. We didn’t realise until later that there was an appeal and a magnitude to other people. You know, it’s a thing that has happened at various periods all over the world, where a scene develops and it’s hard to say why. Whether it be Liverpool in the 60s or San Francisco, or LA in 1986 with all the hair bands, or Seattle. It’s great to watch the geographics move around. I’m sure there was a moment in Australia, a scene … you know ..  Radio Birdman and The Saints. And there are a lot of bands in those scenes that don’t get out of it too.”
Kaye is a self confessed music historian and knows his stuff. He’s a former writer for magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem, and has written two acclaimed biographies, one on country artist Waylon Jennings and the other about 40s crooner Russ Columbo. Lenny tells me that he and Patti Smith are fond of a quote (although is irked that he doesn’t know the source), that implies that ‘to those who record history … history will eventually come to them’. I suggested to Lenny, that the historical work The Drones’ Dan Luscombe most enjoys is the ‘Nuggets’ project he compiled. Nuggets is an album Lenny assembled along with Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman in 1972. It’s a compilation of US and UK pop and rock from 1965 to 1968, which many now say is the pre-cursor to garage rock. In fact the liner notes written by Lenny contain one of the first uses of the phrase ‘punk rock’. I put it to Kaye that he must feel quite validated that so many years later, people are still getting something out of the Nuggets compilation …

“I’m still gettin’ free beers out of it,’ he laughs.  “I tell you that .. in any rock dive in the world. It is really quite amazing. The great thing about Nuggets is that it was a moment in time that was as inspirational as anytime in rock and roll. To be honest. I hardly ever go uptown to New York to see the big international bands. I still like to go into the rock clubs to see who’s doing what, you know, what’s new out there … to be at the grass roots of what’s happening. It was a great moment in time. I mean it was all over the place. Garage rock now is a very specific style. And while there were many different components to it back then, what I really liked about it was that first thought, that first idea, that’s what made it great.”

It seems that ‘first idea’ theory is one which resonates with Lenny in many different ways in his musical life. Thirty three years on from the release of Patti Smith’s seminal album ‘Horses’, Kaye is basically using the same gear on stage now as he was then, a Fender Stratocaster through a Marshall amp. He currently uses a JCM900. In fact the other members of Patti’s band recently paid tribute to Lenny’s musical stubbornness. He explains. “The rest of the band always joke that I never switch pickups. A couple of years ago before we went out on tour, they presented me with this guitar with all the pickups removed except for the middle one. And the guitar had just just one tone control. They called it the ‘Unicaster’. It’s kind of weird to look down on …. of course you have no choice .. one pickup .. one knob.

Other guitars in Kaye’s collection include a ’68 Gibson Les Paul, a Mosrite 12 string, Ephiphone ES-295, Collings D2-H, and a Guild D40. Additional amps include a custom built Cesar Diaz CD100 featuring four 10” speakers, and a Magnatone Troubadour. His pedal collection consists of a Boss CE-2 Chorus, MXR Flanger, Diaz Texas Tremodillo, and Ibanez Tube Screamer. A more recently acquired pedal is the Fulltone Fulldrive 2 , which he used to great effect on his Australian tour. Those who witnessed the haze of distortion at the beginning of ‘Rock n’ Roll Nigger’ at the second Melbourne show will attest to this pedal’s scary, sonic capacity.

The recent tour of Australia by Smith and her band was not your regular city by city trek. They were invited to take part in the Melbourne International Arts Festival, where Patti played two rock gigs, presented the documentary ‘Dream Of Life’ with director Steven Sebring, recited Ginsberg with Philip Glass, appeared at a book shop reading, and presented a photo exhibition among other things as festival headliner. It was a time they enjoyed immensely.
“It was quite pleasurable,” said Kaye of the trip. ” I got to enjoy Melbourne and it’s various neighbourhoods. I was getting into the groove of the place and the people. It was our first time in Australia for over ten years. So it was great to reacquaint ourselves and we were received so warmly.”

dronesoperahouseAdditionally, they ventured north for a gig at The Sydney Opera House where Patti invited our guest editors The Drones to not only play as support act, but also back her on the Nirvana classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Smith had seen The Drones perform in New York earlier this year when they featured in the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival alongside bands like The Meat Puppets and Built to Spill. Kaye was not at that New York gig but did find a lot to like about The Drones when he saw them play here. “I had not seen them before, but I watched them from the side of the stage. I liked their attitude, energy and their outlook, their immersion in the music. It’s always difficult when you’re due to play soon after. It’s hard to have your attention split. I’d really like to see them from the front of the house one time. But they were a really good band, and good blokes … and a blokette!”

Lenny’s attention now turns to two projects; one, producing  a recording of the Psalms by Jessi Colter (Waylon Jennings’ widow) and secondly, the solo project he’s been threatening to do for a long time. He has around eleven songs he’s working with and sees it being released ‘sometime in the future’. For those concerned that it may be another ten long years before Patti Smith and band return to our shores, fear not. Lenny said they had such a  great time and met so many new friends, that they are sure to return much sooner next time.

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