Lenny Kaye Guitar Star

[from Hit Parader, 1978]
by L.N. Tucholski

There are lots of things we could say about Lenny Kaye by way of introduction to the following interview. After all, Lenny has been involved with rock and roll on many different levels - from his concern with rock's early heroes with his "Nuggets" album compilations, his book with David Dalton, "Rock 100",- his contributions as a rock joumalist, his varied efforts to promote rock on radio... But none of these things explain Lenny as clearly as the work he's done with Patti Smith in the 1970's to continue the development of rock & roll as music and energy. A talented musician, Lenny believes in the power of rock to give us a sense of ourselves we can't get anywhere else. - The Editors.

LT: Why did you become a musician?
LK: Maybe because music is the most emotionally expressive of all the arts, because you're dealing with things that aren't tangible. You're dealing with notes that rise in the air and die. It's such an abstract art. When I play guitar I can express all the facets of my personality, the dark sides and the light sides. It becomes the moment, caught in the heat of performance.

Rock and roll is really my whole life. I love the music and everything associated with it, I always have - I played in bands before I was a rock writer; I used to sell records in an oldies store; I produced records. To me it's all the same thing, so I've never minded whatever area of it I've worked. I just like being part of it. It took me a long time to come to the guitar, because, you know, it takes you a long time to find your direction, to narrow down the vast array of choices that are given to you at any particular moment in time. You have to winnow through them to find exactly what your space is. And I may never have expected it or imagined it in any of my wildest dreams. But I feel really in place when I'm playing that guitar. I'm doing something which I feel, that comes to me in the form of instinct, something I can express myself through. The very act of playing those six strings integrates with my personality, and the more I do it, the clearer that connection becomes.

The most intense expression of the guitar is in rock and roll. The electric guitar was created especially for rock and roll; it's a truly expressive electric instrument - The synthesizer is an electric instrument too, but that sound comes out of dials. Guitar music comes through the hands; you can literally pull out a variety of sounds and feelings.

LT: How do you feel about improvisation versus structure in your guitar playing?
LK: My particular talent, actually, lies in improvisation. As a technical guitarist, I'm not really that great. There's lots of things I can't do, really. I learn every day, but technically, there's places I still can't get to. It's frustrating. I started guitar late, and my background is spotty in some regards. But improvisation - the melding of those kinds of instantaneous energy forces - that to me is the highest form of music, not as dependent on what you play as how you play it. On the other hand, I like structure, there's a sense of form in structure which is really beautiful to unleash. It's like building something, you know, setting each piece up and 'watching it take shape with everything interlocking. It's being able to do something more than once to find the best way of achieving an effect. Improvisation by its very nature means that you don't want to repeat what you've done, but take it to a new plane. "Ask the Angels" and "Free Money", for example, are to me perfectly struc- tured songs, and part of the pleasure in playing them comes from watching every part kick in whenever it's meant to. It's like watching the engine of a car move. It has total structure, and when all the gears are meshing at their certain times, and the car moves ahead smoothly, it's a marvel to watch.

With improvisation you take a lot of chances, you push yourself out in the hope that you'll discover something further than where you've been. It works like a telepathic connection between individuals. The most beautiful moments of improvisation are those sudden links within the band, even if it happens just between two members during a song. If you're locked in with somebody, it's a great feeling, and if. three of you are going, or four, or the whole band is there, you're soaring. And if the audience is there too, you're gone, you know, because it takes you by surprise. It's like going to a town that you've never been to before. Anything can happen. That's the story of "Radio Ethiopia." It's a very difficult piece of music, as anarchic as it sounds. During "Ask the Angels" if my concentration lapses a few seconds, I'll still be playing along, you know. But in "Radio Ethiopia" if my concentration lapses, we're gonna lose it, and it forces you to truly participate, note by note.

LT: There's no repetition so you have to constantly invent new things.
LK: Yeah. It's like following a trail that you know goes no place. And there are times when we'll play "Radio Ethiopia" onstage and it'll just be a mess, man, we'll be fightin' and everyone will be struggling going their own way. But you'll hear it later and you'll hear the thread, the group thought that connects it, which makes a band a band.

I love both ends of it; that's why I love the fact that we have a hit single, because that's great structure at its most pointed. "Because The Night" is a great package designed to hit you right between the eyes. On the other hand, "Radio Ethiopia" is a favorite cut for me, even though it's not one of our most requested numbers. (laughs) But to me, you know, that's the core of the art we're doing. And since we have both those poles covered, we have everything in between, which means we are a band with total freedom, which is all we ever wanted in the first place.

It's great that we're succeeding at what we're doing, because it proves to us that it can work, you know, that these aren't just some weird, idle dreams put together by a few heads in the clouds. You can beat the system if You put your mind to it, and keep yourself strong. It's rough, you know; this band has gone through lots of weird hassles, not the least of which was when Patti fell off the stage. But at each level we forced ourselves to believe in what we're doing so much that we pushed it up to the next step, and so on, until our future began to belong to us.

LT: What do you think about criticism that your band is "self - conscious"?
LK: Well, I think every band is self - conscious in the sense of being aware of yourself, being conscious of what your art is doing. I mean, I'm all for primitive artists - guys who come out of the bush with a natural unleashed talent or just singing out of some weird wellspring in your soul. But, you know, it's the 20th century. We're not bush people. We're aware, we're a very self-aware human race and we're conscious of our actions. If nothing else the media has taught us to look at ourselves. When you hear yourself back on a record, you're very self-conscious because you're aware of the personality that's dealing it out. The thing to do is to make use of it, to turn it into art. Art, I think, by its very nature is self - conscious. It's talking about man to man, and that's like looking in a mirror, you know? What's more self - conscious than that? You're conscious of your reflection. I mean, we know when we make a move. Like when we do an oldie, it's a great oldie and we have a great time with it. But it's also a statement, a statement of intent, a statement of position, a statement of allegiance with some rock and roll idea that we have. And the same is true of our own songs, you know?

We're like a message band, and the message is really, "Get out there, have a great time, go some place you never went before. You have infinite potential, have a good time exploring it, instead of, 'Oh shit...' "

We preach anarchy, but a positive kind of anarchy. I'm not in favor of, like, throwing a TV set out the window. That's not anarchy. Anarchy is when you let yourself be free enough to realize your full potential.

I think this band is really just starting to grow, and I hope that the toil and hardships of the rock and roll life don't disconnect us from what we do ... I could say that we're smarter than a lot of bands because we have the experience of seeing ones we love die - The New York Dolls, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols. Bands that cut their own throats, self-destruction, it's as simple as that. We'd like to avoid that. But the fact of the matter is, the only way you can keep on top is to be self - conscious, be aware of what you're doing, and what risks you're taking, and what you have to do to protect yourself. Be aware of what you have to know, what your technology's about, where the people are, what they're doing, what they need. Maybe they need nothin', you know? But we as a band need somethin', so we figure maybe other people might, too.

LT: Did you learn anything as a journalist that's helped you as a musician?
LK: Yeah, sure. I got to watch how a lot of bands operate. But I tell ya, I really didn't know what it was like until I went on the road. It was a big surprise. You never expect it to be as tough as it is, physically and mentally, the strain. I mean, the physical toll of just getting from one place to another, getting up early in the morning and going to an airport. When you do it every day, it's like commuting - two or three hours for traveling, sound checks...
LT: What kind of a sense of humor does the band have?
LK: We have a great sense of humor. Why did the rooster wear red suspenders? But everything cuts two ways. When we do a Debby Boone song, we have a chuckle about it, of course. It's great, "You Light Up My Life," 18 million records sold, the quintessence of middle America. On the other hand that song is a great song, and we don't do it as a joke. I think "Space Monkey" is a riot; it also deals with some heavy metaphysical things. We take ourselves very seriously, but we're not Moonies, you know? We laugh at ourselves as much as we laugh at everything else around. Turn on the TV and it's a riot. But it does reach and transform millions of people. It's just perspective. We have a pretty good sense of it, but we're older as a band, and it gives us a kind of settled knowledge about what we're doin'. We have more patience, in a sense, because we've seen rock and roll go through more than a couple rises and falls.

So, when we're down, we have the strength to keep on going 'til we're up. I don't think that because we had a hit single and album with Easter that it's gravy train from here. Now's the time we're going to have to start keeping our noses to the grindstone. But that's what we like, we're a band that enjoys work. We thrive on it, we're all nervous when we haven't got any of it to do. We've got a record company, we've got books coming out, we've got films we're working on. We've got it all covered, and hopefully that's just the beginning.

LT: Where is the future of rock and roll?
LK: I'd like to think the next ten years of rock and roll are going to come from the New Wave, but really; I don't care as long as the music is good and has integrity. Greatness transcends labels. But we try to help foster and catalyze the spirit that is waking rock and roll up. I don't want to see rock and roll die, which I believe it was in danger of doing three or four years ago. Musics do die - you don't hear about the Big Bands anymore. I don't want rock and roll to be like country blues. Where's country blues today? City blues will be dead in another five years. Where's the Jimi Hendrix of city blues? Rock and roll really carries the power. It's one of the greatest forms of 20th century art. I don't think of it merely as pop music, though it works perfectly as that. I think of it also as a way to express feelings and ideas. Despite our success, Easter isn't a typical x-hooks-per-side record. The themes that run through that disc deal with mankind's reach for the universe in the form of living gods, what could be more heavy than that?
LT: Is that part of the message?
LK: The message is simple enough - Freedom, with responsibility to your own artistic vision. But it's the simple things which often prove the most difficult.

Copyright © Hit Parader 1978

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