The last time Lenny Kaye put together a compilation album, it changed the world. Well, a significant part of it, anyway. The meticulously assembled double album released in 1972 under the title Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-68 became a touchstone for the generation that created the punk movement, first in the US and then in the UK. Listening to the Standells, the Seeds, Count Five and the 13th Floor Elevators, kids who’d been drowning in Tales from Topographic Oceans discovered that pop songs worked best when they were two minutes long and built on a minimum of chords, with lyrics that stuck to the teenage basics.
It’s funny to think that although it made its appearance only four years after the release of its most recent track, Nuggets was — intentionally or otherwise — a historical document. But it has never sounded dated, then or now.
Lightning Striking is something different. A two-CD set, it’s the support act to Lenny’s new book of the same name, subtitled Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, in which he reminds us of the talent that was lost to music writing when he swapped his Remington for a Stratocaster and threw in his lot with a young poet named Patti Smith in 1971.
I met him the year before that, when he was working at Village Oldies on Bleecker Street — “ten dollars a shift and all the records I could filch,” he writes in the book — and contributing to publications including Rolling Stone and Cavalier, a Playboy rival. His album reviews for Jann Wenner’s rock-culture magazine were outstanding, written with an evident love for the music. We bonded over doo-wop and the Velvet Underground, and In New York in 1971 he showed me where the individual Velvets had taken their places on stage during their nine-week season the previous summer upstairs at Max’s Kansas City, where he’d been to see them many times.
Back in 2004 Lenny wrote a fine book titled You Call It Madness, on an unexpected subject: a study of the crooners of the 1930s, including Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Now, a few weeks after his unforgettable appearance with Patti at the Albert Hall, comes his history of rock and roll in a series of very enjoyable vignettes, from Memphis in 1954 to Seattle in 1991 via New Orleans, Philadelphia, Liverpool, San Francisco, Detroit, New York City, London, and Los Angeles and Norway, who share the penultimate chapter (on Metal, of course).
It occurs to me that Lenny and I — born three months apart — belong to the last generation with first-hand engagement in the whole story, from hearing Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Frankie Lymon before we were into double figures and the Beatles, the Stones and Motown when we were in our early teens. I’m not sure of the deeper significance of this, but in Lenny’s case it certainly informs his writing with a precious first-hand enthusiasm. And I’m glad he’s chosen to frame the story of the music through that lens.
In the chapter called “Liverpool 1962”, for instance, he illustrates the effect the Beatles had on him when the British Invasion was in full spate: “It made me want to find out, or at least feel what it felt like. In the summer of 1964, after patiently absorbing barre chords from a friend who could play some of the diminished progessions that Paul brought to ‘Till There Was You’, I bought a cherry red Gibson Les Paul Special and a Magnatone 280 amp (true vibrato, the same kind Buddy Holly played) from a kid down the street who had given up the calling. On November 7 the Vandals (Bringing Down the House With Your Kind of Music!) debuted at the Chi Psi fraternity on the Rutgers University campus.”
I love how he freewheels through the early history. “How to sing like a girl. In the voice of a girl. That is Philadelphia’s tradition.” That’s true from Frankie Avalon to the Stylistics. By 1966 he’s getting closer to the music. A lyricist uncle bankrolls and co-writes Lenny’s first recording, a 45 called “Crazy Like a Fox”, a folk-rock-protest disc released under the name Link Cromwell. A year later he’s speeding across America with his friend Larry in a ’56 Ford, heading for San Francisco and the Summer of Love, seeing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Avalon and Quicksilver Messenger Service at the Fillmore. In a chapter called “Detroit 1969” he’s great on the story of the MC5, who foreshadowed so much, and the Stooges, with roles for the likes of John Sinclair, Danny Fields, Jac Holzman and Jon Landau.
Back in New York in 1971, he’s invited to accompany the unknown Patti Smith at St Mark’s Church on 10th Street. It was Sam Shepard’s idea. One rehearsal, in her apartment: “She chanted poems and I followed along, watching how she breathed. Simple chords, all I knew.” The story of how the Patti Smith Group emerged from the scuzzy Downtown scene of the early ’70s, intertwined with those of the New York Dolls, CBGBs, Television and the Ramones, is the centrepiece of the book and worth the price of admission alone. And it was Lenny who, before a show in Detroit in 1976, introduced Patti to the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, her forever soulmate.
Later on he takes us through Grunge and Death Metal, although the tracks representing those chapters on the album will probably be the least played in my house. But there are some gems: I didn’t know the hair-raisingly direct “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” by the ’50s Chicago blues guitarist Pat Hare or “Marcella” by the Castelles, a gorgeous slice of Philly doo-wop. And there’s the trick that compilations sometimes pull off, of making you listen to something extremely familiar with fresh ears. In this case, for me, it’s Elvis’s “That’s All Right” and Cliff’s “Move It”, both of which suddenly sounded once again like messages from another planet.
If the album is fun, the book that inspired it is a wonderful extended blast of insider knowledge with outsider perspective, expressed in the language of rock and roll. Lenny’s mission with Nuggets almost 50 years ago was, he says, “to make sure my favourite records kept on living.” Apart from anything else, Lightning Striking shows how well he did his job.
* Lenny Kaye’s Lightning Striking is published in the US by Ecco and in the UK by White Rabbit. The album, compiled by Lenny Kaye and Alec Palao, is on Ace Records.