interview with lenny kaye, march '96

[by Lawrence French and Frank Andrick]

Lenny Kaye was the lead guitarist of The Patti Smith Group from 1975 to 1979, and is once again assuming that role as Patti Smith emerges from a 16 year hiatus, and returns to concert stages across the country. Lenny is also a rock critic, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's nominating committee, and the author of a forthcoming autobiography of Waylon Jennings. Among Lenny's Top ten albums, as listed in Rock Critics' Choice, are Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, Velvet Underground Live 1969, The Stooges' Funhouse, Johnny Burnette & His Rock & Roll Trio, The Doors, Derek & The Dominoes' Layla, The Ronettes Sing Their Greatest Hits, and Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.

Interviewer:   You're back in the studio doing a new record with Patti Smith, after a break of 15 years. In December you toured the east coast as an opening act for Bob Dylan, and now you've begun your first headlining tour since 1979. How did all this activity begin? Did Patti just call you one day?

Lenny Kaye:   No. It was under much less pleasant circumstances than that. As you know, her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith) passed away, a year ago last November (on November 4th, 1994), and I went out there (Detroit) to help her through the process -- just by being there as her friend. Patti means more to me than practically anyone in the world, except for my family. She's pushed me and helped make me the musician I am today, and I'd do anything for her. So I went (to Detroit), in the spirit of friendship, to hang out with her. Of course, I was friends with Fred, and I felt his loss as well. Over the past year, one of the ways that Patti approached her grief, was to put herself into her work and into her art, which is probably why art was invented in the first place- so you can understand your emotional processes. Out of that grew an album. She asked me to help her work on it, and to play with her musically. So from a very small beginning, in the sense that it was really conceived of as being a very acoustic (record), and on a small scale, it grew of its own natural accord, into this show that we're doing now. I don't know what kind of a show it is, but it's a little bit of everything.

Rejoining with Patti, was it at all like it was in the past, where you were working with her poems backed by your solo guitar, and then having it evolve from that, into a full scale song format?

Well, it was always a song format, especially since Fred had taught Patti chords, right before he died. She practiced them really hard. She wrote most of the songs on the record herself just using her chords, which is the first time (she's done that). That's why she wanted to learn to play guitar. Not so much to be some guitar virtuoso, but to be able to accompany herself, and to play her songs and understand her work. From that, as she kind of enjoyed the thrill of performance more, and started enjoying the electric end, we were able to blend those (ingredients) into the mix as well. It wasn't like at the beginning, when there was no blueprint at all. Back then we were kind of inventing whatever we did, whenever we needed to go to the next step. I mean, we returned to a place which we felt comfortable with. I'm primarily an electric rocker. I like to play hard rock. That's probably where I start, and all the other stuff flows around that. Patti has a certain degree of the rock and roll animal in her. So, we kind of get to that same place, but we just don't want to be one thing. We want to be many things. We like many different kinds of music, a lot of soft stuff, a lot of strange stuff, a lot of classic pop single stuff, and we like to blend it all together.

I like the idea of Patti learning her chords from Fred, it leaves you with the impression of the classic "passing of the torch" idea.

Oh absolutely! I mean, at least a couple of the songs that we're performing now, or have recorded for the new record are products of Fred, and I feel by doing them we are keeping his legacy alive. He's a very important musician that was very undervalued by the musical community. He was one of my guitar idols. I loved the MC5 and I especially loved Fred in the MC5 and in Sonic's Rendezvous Band. I was proud to call him my friend. I feel like one of the reasons we do this, is so his music can be heard. We try to keep that torch alive.

Electric Lady Studios, where you and Patti did your first album, Horses, is where you've returned to make the new record. It's a studio that has its own place in rock history, with the ghost of Jimi Hendrix hovering over it. Did you work on demos in smaller studios first, or did you work entirely at Electric Lady?

No, we mostly started at Electric Lady, and practically did the whole record there. After we mixed a few tracks, we did go around to some other studios, to do some overdubs. Mostly though, we did it at all at Electric Lady. One of the main reasons was, not so much that it's mystical, but that it's downtown (on West 8th Street, in Greenwich Village). It was close, within walking distance of where we were all staying, and it happens to be a very well equipped studio, with a great room. But, I would be remiss in saying that that was the only reason. We had a very memorable moment there 20 years ago, and it seemed somewhat appropriate, as we recycled ourselves onto the next level of our own spiral staircase, that we kind of returned home. It felt very cozy to be in that studio. It looks a lot different now. They've remodeled it, so there's a whole new control room with a different board. Still, being in the studio where we made Horses, and where Jimi Hendrix stood for the last time on American soil... [Lenny indicates being awe-struck.] (At Electric Lady) we could feel that we were in the heart of New York. We are a New York band and I think that Patti wanted to come to New York to get that energy. She was returning to her grander roots, as well. From Michigan, she was coming back to the city that she loves.

Is Patti planning to move back to New York?

I believe she's thinking about it, but like with anything with the group, we don't -- at least I don't -- plan too far ahead, because everything that's ever happened with the Patti Smith experience has always been amazingly more, and grander than anything I could have possibly daydreamed. I mean, I never would have thought that our story would have taken us from a small lower east side church, doing a poetry reading (in 1971) in front of 200 people, mostly our friends, to a soccer stadium in Florence, Italy, for a final gig in front of 70,000 people (in 1979). That kind of movie, even if I was sitting back smoking some of nature's finest herb, and letting my mind wander wherever it may go, never could I dream a tale like that. Also, I never would have felt that we were going to come back in quite the same fashion. That Patti would have almost turned the corner on herself. I had never thought of, or even hoped for the band to reunite. It's just too amazing to even play a show like that. It never occurred to me that this would happen. So I don't speculate about anything.

When you went into the studio, how did the process begin? What songs did you work on first?

We had the blueprints of some of the songs. We had never officially recorded any of them. We hadn't played them live, so it was the kind of thing where we were learning a lot of them in the studio. A lot of it was improvised in the studio. There are some fairly long cuts that had to be played from start to finish, without stopping for air. There were some set pieces. I've had a lot of studio experience over the past 15 years, since the last time we were in the studio (to record Wave), so we were able to bring that to bear, plus a certain sense of maturity about our own powers as musicians, and as artists. So that made it easier. The fact that we were on untried ground kind of made it an adventure. It was also nice having a clean slate. We didn't want it to be a revival of who we were in the 70's, although there's definitely elements of that. We are still the same people, but there's 15 years that separate us from those moments. In fact, for Patti, she's never stopped creating. She continued writing, and she did the wonderful Dream of Life record with Fred. So this seemed to be the next natural progression for her. An artist has a lifeline of 50 or 60 years, hopefully, and over that time they'll do a lot of work and then rest, to get to the next direction. The point was, did this music need to be done? None of us, I think, wants to tamper with the work that we did in the 70's, or kind of deny its validity, as The Sex Pistols are doing. I don't know, but maybe the way the Sex Pistols are describing their tour, it's within their entire construct anyway. We felt we had done what we set out to do in the 70's and we didn't want to drag that through the mud. Obviously there are things that need to be said now, and that's Patti's job.

Who's producing the new album?

I'm co-producing it with a man named Malcolm Burn. He's out of the Kingsway studio in New Orleans. He did Iggy Pop's new record and Lisa Germanno's. He's good, really good.

Do you find that playing and writing the songs in the studio are the active parts of the creative process, and that producing the record is maybe a more reflective or contemplative aspect of that process?

I just lump it all under "doing work." I try not to separate these things because you get can get into a thing, where you say, "Is producing more or less valid than doing it yourself?" or "Exactly what is your role?" I think my role is fairly constant with the people I work with. I just did Waylon Jennings' autobiography. To me that was a lot like literary production. I would find myself relating to him in the same way when we would be riding in a car, as I would to a musical artist sitting in the studio. Listening to what he has to say, trying to find little things about him that he may not even recognize are there. Trying to see what can be made of them, in terms of placing a portrait up on the wall of this artist. I like to think that, if writing is somewhat driven by the rational part of your mind, and music comes from a kind of intuitive spot, then producing blends the two together. You're listening to stuff and thinking about it, but you're also reacting to it in a very musical way.

So it's really a kind of seamless division for you?

I try not to divide these things, because I do a lot of different things, and sometimes, in many ways they do conflict. For instance, a lot of rock writers per se aren't taken seriously as musicians because they feel a little self-conscious about it. So their music tends to be more ironic. That's not something that I enjoy. I feel like you gotta be real. It doesn't mean that you take yourself awfully seriously, but the thing is, it's not a joke. Tapping into these emotions is not a game, and I don't play it as a game. I feel if I'm having a really great guitar solo, it's the same thing as if I'm sitting there writing a great paragraph, and I come up with that one word that just knocks me off the chair. It's just doing your work, and that's what I really like to do. I do a lot of different jobs within the music business.

Did Patti write most of the songs on the new album with Fred?

There's a couple with Fred, and some that Patti wrote herself. I wrote two songs with Patti (including "Southern Cross"). Oliver Ray ("Walkin' Blind"), wrote a couple with her, so it's kind of spread around.

You said Oliver Ray wrote some songs on the record, and he's also playing guitar onstage with the band. Where did he come from?

He's a friend of the band's. He just kind of entered our world about a year ago, and he seemed to have a really similar aesthetic. In terms of official members, I don't really know exactly what it is. We're trying to blur those lines as well, so we can kind of have people come in and come out. Then, if some friends of ours want to come out and tour, we can find a place for them. That's why it's Patti Smith and friends (The billing for the California tour). We don't know exactly what it is, but we just want to have freedom of mobility. Oliver is a very smart kid. He's certainly tuned into modern music, and I think we are too. I like to listen to the way he hears things. We're helping him learn his way, as he shows us ours. It's very much a give and take situation. He gives us his youthful sense of sponging, the way he takes in stuff and we see him grow every day. It's the same thing with Jackson (Patti's 13-year old son), getting up and doing guitar on "Smoke on the Water." The experience of getting up and playing that for the next week and a half, he'll come out of that a much better musician. He really wants it badly. He's got that guitar in his hands all the time. He's fast, and in the last year that he's been playing, he can pick up something that I've been playing really quick. As soon as he gets it under control, he'll be just Mega.

What about a piano player for the stage show. Do you see yourself eventually finding someone to replace Richard Sohl?

Well, as you know Richard Sohl passed into the great beyond, and he was always our perfect piano player. A guy named Luis Resto played on the record. He's from Michigan and he was really great, but at this point we just want to keep the slot free flowing. Sometimes I like (not having a piano player), because stages can get cluttered. So when the right person comes along... We don't just want someone to put organ pads underneath the songs. We want someone who will help us move forward creatively, in the same way that Richard did. You know when it was just me, Richard and Patti, there was a real immediacy to the work we did. It has to be the right person. Geographically as well. Louie is really great, but he lives in Michigan and we are really a New York oriented band at this point.

Patti told us a funny story about the time you were auditioning piano players. When Richard Sohl first walked in, you said, "D.N.V" right away, because he looked liked the young boy, Tadzio, from Visconti's Death in Venice.

Yeah, he had that stupid sailor suit on, and he was just so like, "I'm beautiful, I know it, I'll play some great piano." "Okay, sure!" and then he'd go roomn, wramn, wramn.

What about Tom Verlaine? You've worked around each other for years now, and there's some real guitar player camaraderie that goes on between you. Can you comment on that?

It's just great having Tom around. He started hanging around in the studio when we were making the record. He plays on a couple of cuts and he did a great job. He's a really funny guy and a great musician. We've always felt a kind of psychic tie with him, and he's a friend, and that's what this is all about. We like to have our friends along. I think it's really interesting, some of the things he does with the songs. He just fits, and I like to listen to him. I don't hear enough of Tom, so if he's going to be on the stage every night I know that I'll get to hear a couple of great guitar licks in the course of that. That's really important. For me it's great to have another piece of sound up there sometimes. You know, Oliver's playing some of the electric modes, but at some point it's a power trio up there. I long for someone to fill up some of those empty spaces. So until we get a more permanent fourth member in the band, it's a great little slot to have someone fill so creatively.

I take it that some of the longer songs that you alluded to earlier will feature some extended passages with you and Verlaine playing off each other?

Yeah, there's a very long song called "Fireflies" on the album, it's one of our ten minute specials. It was written by Oliver. It moves off a chord progression of his, and it's Tom being rather firefly-esque. It's really a good track and we get the chance to really stretch out. One of the songs that Tom really plays the best on is "Mortal Shoes", but I don't think it's going to get to the album, because we just did a new song last week, the song we've been playing (in concert), "Gone Again." It's a song of Fred's that we just recently relocated, after loosing it for about 11 months. We had lost the cassette that Fred had recorded different pieces of the song on, and then Patti found it. We re-recorded "Gone Again" and it probably means that something has to be bumped, because we're up near an hour of music at this point. Anyway, Tom played really great on "Mortal Shoes." That will probably sit around and get used for a B-side. It's a cool piece of work, and it will show up someday, but probably not in the immediate future. (Lenny starts singing from "Mortal Shoes"): "I was cool, and then I wasn't, but now I'm cool again".

The new album's coming out in June?

Yeah, hopefully. When we're done with these shows (at the end of March), we'll get back to New York, we'll go right back into the studio, and hopefully we'll have a really good weekend and then we'll be done. We just have a few more things to mix.

Does the new record have a title yet?

I never title anything until it's actually finished. I have many superstitions, and that's one of them. Words have power, and I don't want to release its feel into the air until it's done. You know, it's like you don't really name the baby until it's born. You don't even know if it's a boy or a girl yet. Plus, things (on the record) change rather frequently. (The record has since been titled Gone Again).

You're still finishing up the record, so how did you decide to go out on this mini-tour of only 8 shows? Was the idea to just take a break, and get out in front of a live audience to see how the new songs worked?

Yeah, exactly. Patti came out here (to San Francisco and Los Angeles) in September '95, to do the poetry circuit and really felt warmly appreciated by the California people. So, again we're just working this out. Monday night (March 18th, at San Francisco's Warfield Theater) was our first headlining show in years. I mean, all the other stuff we've been doing was kind of weird little poetry things, with some music, or just a little odd appearance here and there. Opening up for Bob Dylan was just eight quick songs. So this is really our first headlining bill (since 1979). It's kind of helping us to figure out how we want to present this show. We don't really know. It's Easter vacation for Patti's kids, so she doesn't have to be home to make sure they get to school on time, so it was a good time to do it.

I get the feeling, from an audience perspective, that the show is finding its own way. These days most shows are so set, with computerized lighting cues, choreography, and so-forth, that they can't really be changed. It's refreshing to see a show that has real improvisation, and the element of chance.

Oh yeah! We hope that it always finds its way. One of the things I know Patti is interested in avoiding, and myself as well, is getting into the show rut. Where you go there, and you play the same show. In many ways what happened at the end of the (Patti Smith) group, was that we were playing places 7 or 8,000, where you can't really hear the words, and you can barely see the people. It's really a little closer to spectacle that it is to show, and Patti didn't have the room to creatively move. She was fighting against the limitations of the show format, and sometimes she self-destructed. Now, she seems very happy. She's got some poetry, she's got some acoustic stuff, she's got some rock stuff, and we can move between them all, and be all the many things we are, which is really important.

In many ways it's more balanced than if you just did one type of song for two hours.

We just don't want to get hooked into that Rock and Roll racket. We're always advising each other to just keep it on an even keel, and it helps that we're not hungry. We're not desperate to do this, that, or the other thing. We've always wanted it on our terms, and this time it's not going to be any different. We want to be able to make the records that we want to make, and do the shows we want to do, and if it starts getting too predictable, it's going to lose whatever magic it has. When that happens you just become a jukebox. That's what they have jukeboxes for.

And we trust you'll hang it up before that happens.

Well, I'm enjoying this (tour). The bottom line is, I really like to play, that's the thing I really enjoy doing the most in the world. I'll do anything, I love sitting in front of the word processor, and writing. I find it really focused, and I like to get out and bang around, and this is a really great opportunity for me to bang around, to my hearts content, with my favorite artist. However far she wants to carry it, or whatever she wants to do. I just think, `tonight, I'm playing. If I don't play tomorrow, at least I'm playing tonight'. I'm not going to worry about whether it's successful or not. I just want to be able to do it. About five years ago I was really in the doldrums about music. I wasn't playing much and Tony (Shanahan), our bass player, really got me out of it. He's from my hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and he said to me one day, "Why don't you come down and play? I've have this weekly thing Wednesday night at the Melody Bar. It's called The Slaves of New Brunswick. It's like all the local musicians come down and they all play a couple of songs." So they just gave me an amplifier and let me just stand up there all night playing away, and I started digging it. I mean I used to go to CBGB's earlier in the evening, and there'd be some band showcasing, trying to impress some record company A & R person, and I could see myself in that too. Then I'd go out to Jersey, and play with this band, and upstairs people would be drinking and picking each other up, paying attention to the band, or not paying attention to the band. Then I started remembering why I started playing in the first place. It was that moment. To be up there, to play at a fraternity party, where all those guys are drunk and you end up playing "What I Say" for 20 minutes. I just remembered why I like to do it. For that communication, between my hands and my head and that guitar. That's it, that's the reason. I mean I'll play for just one person, anytime, anyplace. If someone asks me to play a benefit, I always say, "Sure, no problem." I mean it's great to put your money towards a great cause, but the truth is that I just like to play guitar. If it has to earn its way, there's other ways to earn your way. As long as I'm playing, it's another day as a musician.

What can you tell us about your work producing the Kristin Hersh album, Hips and Makers?

Great album, great, great performer. I really didn't have to do anything except to make sure that she got it all to tape. She had her sense of what the album should be pretty well in hand. No electric instruments, just the cello, her, voices, a little background harmony. She's truly, truly, charming, a wonderful human being. One of the sweetest people and it's a great record. That was the record where I was just about ready to stop producing for a while. I'd done it for about 7 or 8 years and I was starting to get in a bad mood whenever I would get in the studio. It's a very small enclosed space, and I wasn't doing a lot of outside playing at the time. I was starting to feel like I really needed to do something new, which is when I got the book on Waylon Jennings underway. Then I started playing out more as a local New York musician, just because I needed to do that. I felt if I was to get out of producing for a while, that was a wonderful record to do it on. It's a totally transcendent piece of music. Really fun too. We recorded it in a room next to a stable where horses were going around, and jumping over gates and stuff. It was a really wonderful experience up there in Newport. You'd stick your head out the window and there'd be these little kids jumping on these horses! It was great.

Last time I saw you, it was with Jim Carroll doing poetry. Any loose plans for future endeavors with Jim Carroll?

Well we just did a cut for this Kerouac tribute album that's coming out. Me, Jim, and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and a guy named Antoine Sanco. I maintain a lot of contact with Jim, in fact we have a weekly breakfast together. Jim lives very near where my daughter goes to school. So when I walk my daughter to school, I just stop at his house at 8:00 in the morning, because Jim gets up really early, and we go across the street for some sausages and eggs, and we shoot the breeze. Actually in April or May I'm going to try to get him to do another cut. I got him to do one cut last year, so maybe this year I can get him to do another one. One by one, we'll just build them up. He's really a lot of fun. He's trying to get these books written, that's why he's not doing a lot of music. He has these novels which he's trying to get underway.

There's one about this painter in New York City, as I recall.

And another one about Priests, I think. I don't quite remember all the plot lines but they sound great. I'm glad for him, he's in a really cool place. The Basketball Diaries movie was extremely amusing. We all got to do the "People Who Died" video, which is really funny. If you ever rent the movie, at the end of it is the "People Who Died" video. It's got me and Jim and Tony Shanahan, and this girl, Allegra, and we all just did the song. It's pretty funny. Right after the end credits they put it on the video, and we're all just having a blast.

Your book with Waylon Jennings. How did that come about?

It was brokered by a guy named Tony Secunda, who was a rock manager in the '70s. He managed The Move and T. Rex for a bit, then he got out of it and went for literary agenting. He set up David Dalton with the Marianne Faithfull book. I know David, I did half a book with him in the '70s (Rock 100). Then, when I came back from producing a really hard record I ran into David Dalton and he said, "What are you doing?," and I said, "I'm producing this record, and I just gotta get out of the studio." He said, "Why don't you get into what I'm doing? It's really fun. It's like writing a novel starring someone you like." So he put me in touch with this guy Tony Secunda who said, "Hmmm, would you be interested in Waylon Jennings?" He actually suggested a couple of other people. He started getting to me when he suggested Chet Atkins. Now as much as I like Chet Atkins, I'm not sure that there's a lot of story there. So, he said, "How about Waylon Jennings?" Now Waylon had already been through two writers, and he didn't get along with them. He didn't really want to see me, but Tony told me to go down there anyway. So I walked in and we really hit it off. I'm a musician, and told him that I wanted to relate to him musically. I knew that there was a lot of good tabloid stuff happening, but in the end, you are why you get up on that stage. He also like the fact that I wasn't a Nashville guy, I was an outsider. We got along great. I went on his bus the next week, to kind of get the introduction thing together. He took me to Wichita, Kansas, on the bus, and we went up to Milwaukee and by the end of it we were really close buddies. It's a pretty intimate relationship with somebody, when they tell you their life story. We got along really deeply. He's open, and he's a wonderful, wonderful human being. He has tons of integrity and it was a great story to tell. I was proud to be able to tell it. It took a long time. Writing a book is a lot of discipline. When you start thinking, "I have to write over 50,000 words," you don't realize just how many words that is! You know, you're sitting there, day after day, but it came out great. I think it's his voice. He's reflecting himself off me, so I'm hearing certain elements of him, and I think he'd like that. It will be out in September from Warner Books. That's why I do the song "Love of the Common People" (Lenny covers the Jennings tune, as his solo spot on Patti's recent tour). I was going through his back catalog, learning his ins and outs, and I came upon that song. I'd heard it a couple of times before. I think Paul Young did a version of it.

That's really funny, because Patti mentioned at her Labor Day show that you really wanted to be playing with her, but you had to go to Waylon Jennings' barbecue, and I thought she was joking!

Yeah, it was a homecoming to his hometown of Littlefield, Texas, on Labor Day. That was my closing scene (for the book). How I visualized him coming home. I hate to talk in the realm of clichés, but it was too perfect to pass up.

What do you have planned for future projects?

As I've seen my life move in ever quickening ways, at this point I don't even have enough time to keep up with my own hobbies. I haven't seen my garage in a long time. So I'm trying not to get involved because I know you can just sit around and do art stuff all day. As long as Patti is happening so intensely, what I'm trying to do, is basically just that, and not take on anything new, because when I go out at night, by about 3 o'clock in the morning I've joined at least two bands, and I've promised to produce four other people. It's always stuff I'd like to do. I think it would be kind of fun to play in a rockabilly band, or play steel guitar in this band, or do whatever you'd like to do, but every once in a while I have to say, "Well, you can't do everything." And this (working with Patti) is really time consuming. Probably when I get off the road, I really will... well I have to take care of my family, otherwise I'd probably bury myself in the computer world. I have certain hobbies which I really do love, like vintage motorcycles. After this, I'm gonna really tune out, just to see what happens. I'd better go now, I've got to do the sound check.

Okay. Do you want a tape of the Boston show when you opened for Bob Dylan?

Thanks. Which night was that, Saturday or Sunday?

The night Patti spilled her drink and got down on her knees and cleaned up the floor, so she didn't spoil the stage for Bob Dylan.

Oh, great. I'd say of those shows (opening for Dylan), that night was the best one. It was my favorite.

Lenny, thanks for your time, and good luck with the new album.

Thanks. I like the new songs, and I'm just really happy that the record is so close to being done.

Copyright © Lawrence French and Frank Andrick 1996

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