Hippy, Punk, Guitarist, Historian
Lenny Kaye: "Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll" (496 pp., 2022)
You probably think of Lenny Kaye as the Patti Smith guitarist who sometimes gigs around on his own. Plus if you’ve been paying attention the guy who compiled the seminal 1972 Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Golden Era, 27 1965-68 singles by here-and-gone American guitar bands like the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction,” the Standells’ “Dirty Water,” the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and other now legendary one-shots Kaye claimed constituted a genre: “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's prophetic use of “punk,” a term Creem’s Dave Marsh came up with in 1971, situates him as the congenial young journalist NYC rockcrits knew him to be at the time—his monthly column in Cavalier lasted well into the Patti years, and he wrote for many rockmags as well. So along with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and the late great Greg Tate heading up avant-jazz fusioneers Burnt Sugar, Kaye is one of the very few rock critics ever to become a notable musician. In fact, Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll is far from his first book: not only did he deliver a 2004 biography of ‘30s crooner Russ Colombo and co-write Waylon Jennings’s 2012 autobiography, he also collaborated 50-50 on the hefty and informative 1977 coffee-table Rock 100: The All-Stars From Rock & Roll’s Hall of Fame, about which his starstuck collaborator David Dalton averred that while Lenny’s specialties were “the demi-mondes of rock, the garage-bands, the glitterati, the bizarre and idiosyncratic demons,” the two “ended up absorbing each other’s mannerisms.” So the simultaneously offhand and complex tone of Lightning Striking should come as no surprise except insofar as you can’t think of another book like it. Both deeply researched and casually personal, it’s an engaging memoir and an unconventional piece of pop scholarship at the same time.
A glance at the table of contents reveals two anomalies. First, there are 11 chapters, not 10, although the first is only six pages where the next-shortest is 26 and most run 40-50. “0 Cleveland” gives us Alan Freed’s March 21, 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball, 20,000 tickets sold for the 10,000 seats the racially integrated young crowd tussled over for precisely one Paul Williams sax showcase before the cops moved in. Some six months later, Freed relocated his Moondog persona to NYC’s WINS, whence he changed the lives of 13-year-old Robert Christgau, eight-year-old Lenny Kaye, and millions of others. Second, although all the other chapters are named after single years and cities, almost at the end comes “9 Los Angeles 1984/Norway 1993.” My surmise is that Lenny really wanted to justify his proposal’s hooky “Ten” but found himself hemmed in as the book evolved toward a close. Which is not to say that pairing Los Angeles with Norway doesn’t make sense. See below.
I’ve read a lot of music history, perhaps even more than Kaye if you count pre-rock stuff, and maybe you have too. But that’s no reason to bypass this book. It’s not just the granular he-was-there in re CBGB and especially Patti, who surfaces often in the 100-plus pages of “New York City 1975” and “London 1977.” It’s that Kaye tells all these stories with his own twist; as of page 14, where he brands Sam Phillips’s canonical “If I could find a white man with the Negro sound, and the Negro feel” “apocryphal,” I could see this was going to be the Lenny Kaye Version and more fun for it. Having migrated from Brooklyn down to North Brunswick, New Jersey, of course he grew up watching Dick Clark 60 miles away. Thus he devotes a chapter to “Philadelphia 1959,” with plenty of input from the bizzers who gave the world not just the eternal Clark but two eternal 45-rpm classics: the Silhouttes’ “Get a Job” and (with thematic input from Clark, we learn) Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop.” Before the relatively short chapter is over, we also get the 21-and-over lowdown on child trumpet prodigy Frankie Avalon and full-fledged teen idol Fabian, both of whom Kaye respects as people. Might these pages have been more judiciously expended on, say, the barely mentioned Kinks and Buffalo Springfield or the altogether absent Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman? Perhaps. But those aren’t the stories Kaye set himself up to tell. It was only chapter three, the bizzer lowdown he’d gathered was rich, and he couldn’t bear to throw such material away.
So even before Lenny Kaye the guitarist starts putting his two bucks in, this book is earmarked as his ride: not memoir as coherent autobiography but memoir as researched keepsake, not history as narrative musicology but history as I-was-there storytelling. There’s a winning casualness to the tone that more coherent and comprehensive chroniclers like Reebee Garafalo and Ed Ward don’t have on call, and there’s also a beginning, middle, and most important end that’s all the graver and darker for never being explicitly laid out as such. Before I’m finished I’ll try to compensate. But first I owe it to both Kaye and you to touch on a few of the many pleasures and benisons Lightning Striking has on call.
Before Philly comes Memphis, meaning “One Sun. One star system among many”: Elvis of course, but also Cash-Perkins-Jerry Lee. (Stax-Volt? Nah.) Then New Orleans back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Professor Longhair before the definitive “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the long-running ‘50s hitmaker Fats Domino, storefront superproducer Cosimo Matassa, and indelible skyrocket Little Richard. But no Chicago, hence no Chess, which means not only no Chicago blues but no Chuck Berry, every one of his 14 mentions incidental even though that’s more than the richly rendered Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols get, many more than James Brown or Aretha Franklin or Michael Jackson, and infinitely more than the altogether unmentioned Prince (though let the record show that it was Lenny Kaye who produced Patti Smith’s devotional 2002 reading of “When Doves Cry”). Instead Kaye proceeds from a teenpop Philly that briefly generates Gamble-Huff to a cannily researched Liverpool, a fondly recalled San Francisco, and then . . . Detroit.
Of course Berry Gordy gets more ink than Gamble-Huff; after all, “only Motown offered a viable alternative to the Beatles’ chart dominance.” And toward the chapter’s end Kaye makes some room for not just George Clinton at Westbound but techno’s “Belleville Three—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson.” Nor is this tokenism—the history begins by pointing out that Detroit’s counterpart of San Francisco’s Summer of Love was a long, brutal July race riot whose scars are still with us. The chapter’s lead proper, however, takes place in NYC: the less than legendary Gotham debut of the Stooges and the MC5. And though there follows a roll call of Detroit guitar heroes—Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad, briefly Glenn Frey, lesser lights—it’s the MC5 who dominate, as for Lenny Kaye why shouldn’t they? In Detroit in 1976 it’s that disbanded band that provides the customary local guest guitarist for the Patti Smith Group’s “My Generation” finale: Fred “Sonic” Smith. So of course Kaye takes it upon himself to introduce the two Smiths, and as I trust you’re aware thus sparks a fine romance. “That night, after the show, they sit together backstage, slightly stunned, deer caught in each other’s headlights, enfolded by love.”
Detroit is where Lightning Striking starts morphing from history to memoir. The “New York City 1975” and “London 1977” chapters that follow are researched, sure. But mostly they’re lived, because Kaye was a major principal in NYC’s punk scene and a professional participant in London’s. In May 1976 the Patti Smith Group—by then having added keyboardist Richard Sohl and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty to the guitar-wielding Kaye, who’s backed Patti since her very first performance in 1971—finish off a European tour with two sold-out shows at Camden Town’s Roundhouse. The lead singer of a lesser-known band called the Sex Pistols is unimpressed, asking his 100 Club audience: “Did you go down to the Roundhouse to see the hippies? Horses, horses, horseshit.” To which Kaye responds: “Guilty as charged. I may be a hippy, proudly so. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be a punk. We’re all miscegenated.”
Though we’ve seen glimmers in Detroit, it’s in the New York and London chapters that Kaye’s burgeoning guitar expertise makes itself felt. Circa 1977 I got a taste of this while writing my New York Dolls encomium for Greil Marcus’s Stranded, when Lenny was kind enough to explain to me how second guitarist Syl Sylvain mediated between rhythm and melody like the skilled bassist Arthur Kane wasn’t, providing “a modicum of conceptual stability, a common ground where the band’s primitives could meet the musicians.” From James Williamson’s “determined alpha dog sense of riffage” to the “maelstrom of double helix” Kaye extracts from Tom Verlaine in Electric Lady Studio B, the deeper we get into Lightning Striking the more Kaye the writer’s savvy as guitarist and producer comes to the fore, fusing the musical and linguistic expertise of a true adept. Kaye isn’t the first to point out that producer Chris Thomas turned Never Mind the Bollocks into “a pop record.” But has anyone topped language like “orchestrating Steve Jones’s guitar so it layers and underlines, a top-of-the-bar sweep to announce each power chord (no third), whining feedback in the third verse that tensions release”? I doubt it.
Enter, you remember, “Los Angeles 1984/Norway 1993,” which puts its cards on the table by beginning: “Ah metal, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways, thrash to hyperspeed, symphonic to grindcore, allowed to louder. The ultimate rock.” Since I don’t share this passion or the musical knowledge to go with it, I’m not about to calibrate Kaye the guitarist’s numerous preferences except to mention that while metal is rock’s most ostentatiously virtuosic style it’s also its most culturally retrograde. Kaye’s L.A. namechecks Whitesnake, Dokken, Ratt, Winger, and others but homes in on the big three as the critically respectable Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses surround the one and only Mötley Crüe: “They will leave a trail of blackouts and addiction, fatal auto accidents, careening through all the clichés of live-fast-die-young, only Mötley is intent on faster, younger. It makes me wonder how they will muster enough work ethic to sell 100 million records, and still be together after nearly forty years, all members still alive (at this writing).” So why Norway? Because liberal Norway generated the metal subgenre that multiplies Sunset Strip dissolution by itself: death metal. Kaye documents how literal that catchphrase came to be, occasioning not just drug deaths and suicides but murder per se. He gives it 10 unblinking pages, then sums up with an envoi: “Despite its twisted family tree, there is something comforting about the decibel avalanche at metal’s core, the layers of civilization it scrapes away. To unleash our subhuman roar, the primal animal.”
Though worthy of the true fan with a big brain Lenny Kaye is, I think this is bushwa, which doesn’t mean you’re obliged to agree even if like me you can’t stand Kurt Cobain’s heavy heroes the Melvins, honored by Kaye for their mind-boggling 32-album discography stretching from 1987 to 2021 (at this writing). But keep it in mind as Kaye ends his history with 47 pages of “Seattle 1991,” constructed around Nirvana in a felt, informed, compassionate account that comprises far from the entirety of his Emerald City summum. What you get throughout is an overcast burg with a “metal undercurrent” and more heroin ODs than a primal animal can stand plus related incidents like Chris Cornell’s 2017 hanging as well as Kurt’s 1994 blowing his brains out. Kaye plainly admires and even loves a lot of this music. But it’s kinda nice that he reserves special warmth for Pearl Jam, with “Eddie Vedder always up to lend support to a righteous cause.” Having given many Pearl Jam albums their worthy due without ever playing them again, I found myself admiring Ten and especially Vitalogy. Why I gave Soundgarden’s Superunknown an A minus I cannot fathom.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love pop music, happily stream my favorite anthem-of-the-moment, the chorus I can’t stop singing,” Kaye insists in an “Aftermath” that names said anthem as Tove Lo’s “kinky people getting it on” “Habits (Stay High)” (which as it happens I singled out in 2014 myself)—a postscript that at other moments, as I’m sure he’s aware, feels a little more elegiac than need be. All those Seattle deaths are a downer that he knows speaks poorly of the city’s “metal undercurrent.” But as I’ve said many times, people like what they like. And while a similar book might accommodate more Black music, particularly a hip-hop now in its fifth decade that Kaye acknowledges occasionally but never describes, his doesn’t—this writer is first and foremost a guitarist. Why then he bends toward metal to the exclusion of the alt-rock that even as keyboards crowd the scene and dotage impends has been generating exciting new guitar bands, many if not most led by women, is a little harder to understand. But be glad Lenny Kaye has taken berserk pleasure in way more music than most and then had the endurance, wit, and humankindness to spend years telling us about it.