Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Patti Smith is the name on the cover of the records (including Banga, which came out last month), and she’s the remarkable mind behind the words. Banga’s first single, “April Fool,” is below; bassist Tony Shanahan co-wrote it with her, and the big-name guitarist making a guest appearance on it is Television‘s Tom Verlaine. But one of the nearly constant presences in her music, for close to forty years, has been one of rock’s quiet geniuses, Lenny Kaye.
Before Kaye was a professional musician, he was a writer. He published his first science-fiction fanzine, Obelisk, in 1961, at the age of 15. He was playing in bands by the mid-‘60s. His first single, “Crazy Like a Fox,” came out in 1966, was credited to Link Cromwell, and went nowhere. Shortly thereafter, Kaye became a music journalist, with more acute perspective on the music of the past than most of the people who’d been paying attention to it as it was happening–he wrote a particularly terrific 1970 essay called “The Best of Acappella” that brought him to Patti Smith’s attention.
If Kaye had never played a note himself, though, his place in music history would still be assured for his 1972 stroke of genius, a double LP called Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968. “Produced, programmed and annotated” (as the back cover noted) by Kaye, it assembled 27 songs that had come out in a particular recent era, but that had all seemed ephemeral at the time. Some of them had been relatively big hits, like Nuggets’ opening track, the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night).”
Others had just barely made the chart, like the set’s closer, the Magic Mushrooms’ “It’s-A-Happening.”
And a handful were total obscurities, like Mouse’s Bob Dylan pastiche “A Public Execution.”
But Kaye was the person who was smart enough to think of them all as being examples of the same thing, and to assemble them into a sequence that made a strong argument for them individually and together. (Consider that the equivalent now would be someone defining an artistic movement by assembling a CD’s worth of forgotten songs that came out between 2005 and 2008.) “Most of these groups … were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance than going out on national tour,” Kaye’s liner notes pointed out. “The name that has been unofficially coined for them — ‘punk-rock’ — seems particularly fitting in this case, for if nothing else they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on-stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock and roll at its finest.” Kaye doesn’t seem to have been the first person to use “punk rock,” but in 1972, it was still a very new term to most of Nuggets‘ audience.
Patti Smith’s first recording with Kaye was, in fact, a cover of a Nugget — Smith’s 1974 single “Hey Joe,” best known from Jimi Hendrix’s version, but included on Nuggets in its 1966 recording by the Leaves. Here’s a live TV performance by the Patti Smith Group from 1976:
Corin Tucker noted when her first solo album came out that that the Smith/Kaye partnership was “a big inspiration for the way Seth [Lorinczi] and I worked on this record … Seth and I talked about Patti Smith almost every day when we were making this record.”
Kaye played with Smith until the Patti Smith Group disbanded in 1979, and formed his own band, the Lenny Kaye Connection; as you might expect, they had a pretty strong interest in rock history. They played at 1979’s Rock Against Racism concert in New York City — below are their versions of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” and the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” from that show.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, Kaye had a third (or fourth?) career, this time as a record producer. He worked on recordings by, among others, Soul Asylum, Cindy Lee Berryhill and James, but his biggest success as a producer was Suzanne Vega‘s 1987 album Solitude Standing, which included her Grammy-nominated single, “Luka.”
By the time Kaye and Smith started working together again in 1995, the template that Nuggets had set — compilations of amazing known and unknown songs from particular historical moments — had become a big deal. There have been hundreds of post-Nuggets collections of garage rock and psychedelia (some of them titled in tribute to the original: Boulders, Rubble, Pebbles, Gravel and so on); Nuggets was expanded to a four-CD set in 1998, and several more box sets have followed it.
Sixties “punk-rock” is only a fraction of Kaye’s expertise. In 1996, he co-wrote Waylon Jennings’ autobiography; his most recent book is 2005’s You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon, concerning 1930s vocalist Russ Columbo and his bizarre death. Here’s one of Columbo’s signature songs, “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love).”
Garage rock, though, runs deep in Kaye’s veins. Earlier this year, he appeared on stage at a celebration of Nuggets‘ fortieth anniversary, singing “Louie Louie” with the Jay Vons, and telling his story in a rather Patti Smith-like way. Listen to the performance below, and you’ll even hear him drop in a bit of a song by a little-known punk by the name of Link Cromwell.