Doc Rock's Commencement address to the Class of 1979

Lenny Kaye Speaks His Mind

[from Creem, September 1979]
by Billy Altman

[If they ever get around to giving out medals of honor for a lifetime of service to the nature and spirit of rock 'n' roll, it's a pretty safe bet that Lenny Kaye would be among the first few to receive an award. His long list of activities over the years has included being a rock critic (from the days when those who wrote about this stuff tended to know what they were talking about), an historian of the chronicles of rock (his Rock 100 book, co-authored with David Dalton, is one of the few truly informative and entertaining rock "encyclopedias" around, and the Nuggets double LP set he compiled for Elektra records back in '72 went on to become the Old Teatament of 70's punk), oldies aficianado (walking past the Village Oldies shop on Bleecker Street and seeing Lenny behind the counter always gave you the feeling that the past was indeed in good hands), a producer, and a fan still excited about the whole fan element of rock (as witnessed by each "Ask Doc Rock" installment in Rock Scene). And, of course, he's also Patti Smith's musical right arm as guitarist/bassist for the Patti Smith Group. The following interview took place at Lenny's Upper West Side apartment at the end of May, a few days after the Patti Smith Group's appearance in town. Suffice to say that when Lenny Kaye talks about rock'n'roll, it makes good sense to pay attention. -B.A.]

CREEM: I spent most of my time the other night at your show at the Palladium kind of keying on your guitar playing and it seems to me to be coming out of a real mid-to-late 60's feel- Byrds, early Quicksilver.
KAYE: Well, I am a big fan of John Cippolina, I must admit, and of those 60's people I'd say he's probably the greatest inspiration; him and Jimi Hendrix. But then the 60's were a time when the guitar really came out to the fore in a lot of ways. I think, especially in terms of guitar the 70's has been a little retrogressive, more concemed with holding ground rather than breaking new ground, and given the type of band that we set out to be-and we've never tried to deny our 60's roots, in terms of the idealisms that we constructed early in our career-I think it's natural for there to be a lot of that kind of input; people who looked on the guitar, and by extension all instruments, as tools for making sound, not as guitar per se. On the other hand, we're not a 60's band 'cause, after all, it is ten years later. We're not interested in being a revival band and all our experience is filtered through the present and also what we hope is the future.

I'd say, chronologically, we're a little older than most bands so we have those roots to draw on, and unlike a predominant new wave feeling for a 'while, we don't believe in destroying our pasts. We believe in utilizing it, learning from it, and being able to move from there. We don't feel like making the same mistakes over and over and over again. Which also accounts for our longevity and our patience. I think over the past few years we've demonstrated a kind of patience in a band, of being able to wait for our changes and our evolutions to come naturally. To not force any kind of movement on ourselves that would put us in a direction in which we feel artistically uncomfortable.

CREEM: One of the things that's nice these days is that you hear certain sounds and they become small reference points, like that Byrds-like solo on Broken Flag on the new album.
KAYE: Yeah, it's like chimes or bells ... I think that's a lot of the external stuff you can draw in; internally, we just go for a sound that fits. There's less premeditation and more premeditation -in everything we do. We're smart not only about book-oriented stuff-y'know, Patti knows who Rimbaud is or who Artaud is-but we're also smart in terms of rock 'n' roll and a lot of what we do not only has statement in and of itself and its own artistic validity, but it also reflects some little portion of rock 'n' roll that we're interested in. It makes a comment, a statement of allegiance or fidelity to a certain type of rock 'n' roll, a certain sound, a certain reference point; the archeological artifacts out there.

If that's one of the things you're interested in dredging out. I think we work on a lot of different levels because we feel that cutting yourself off from any level cuts you off from a mode of experience. On a practical day to day level, it means that we run the gamut in our shows from entertainment-oriented stuff, from straight, happy-go-lucky songs that make you wanna groove in place, to wide open sound vistas in which anything can happen. We have the freedom to go that entire spectrum, whether it's a hit single, in the requirements of what a hit single is-not like some kind of requirements that some music biz guy sets up and says, "Well, this is the way to repress America" - reaching a large amount of people. You have to do it in a way that will speak to all of 'em. Short and punchy. Not waste a lot of time. And "Because The Night" and "Frederick," or even 'Free Money" or "Ask The Angels" have that kind of instant accessibility, the kind of thing that makes a song great, no matter what category you hear it in. And you can go from there over to the other side with Radio Ethiopia.

But that kind of variety is also something involved in our meanings, the depths of level within each song. You can go as far into each song as you want and still find stuff to take out because we have those complexities. Frederick's a great love song, it's a great dance song, but if you look at the words, and how they relate to words ... especially lyrically, 'cause Patti's really sharp lyrically. It's like if you look at how the songs relate to each other, what the world view that's being presented is saying, what the philosophy of the band is, what the philosophy of Patti is. 'Cause I think that Patti is one of the world's great thinkers, and the kind of ideas that she's dealing with are not your usual everyday rock 'n' roll ideas. To me, and to all of us, it's always been a little frustrating that people deal with the form of what we do first, probably because it's easiest. When to us, the most significant thing is the continuity of the content. The fact that you can see a direct line of ideas and changing ideas and transforming ideas that run from even before "Gloria," from "Hey Joe" or "Piss Factory," right through all the records. A whole body of thought. And that's why I'm doing this interview today rather than Patti, because Patti understands these changes. She also is involved in a feeling of transition and she herself doesn't quite know where it's going to lead. I haven't got that forward vision that she does, which is why what you'll mostly get from me is everything up to our present.

Patti's like the arrow at our head and where she points, the rest of the shaft follows. She's feeling her way, scouting out the next terrain for the band. I'm really interested in where it's gonna happen, 'cause I find that one of the ways for Patti to operate best is to find her own way, and where she comes out is consistently always greater than you could have possibly imagined under any circumstance. I mean, at the beginning, nothing we could have imagined In our remotest fantasies could have turned out to be as great as what we actually have today. All of us sometimes step outside the daily life of the band and look at what we've created and it's pretty awe-inspiring.

CREEM: What kind of changes have you gone through since you first started playing with Patti?
KAYE: It's hard to say, changes. It's like learning how to do something is a constant change. You're always adding to it, but what you start with, the core, doesn't really change all that much. In our first reading at St. Mark's, we did four songs. The first was "Mack The Knife", so it was like our first oldie. The second was this semi-blues called Fire Of Unknown Origin. Then The Ballad Of Jesse James, our hit single at the time, and then our Radio Ethiopia, which was Bad Boy, which ended with a car crash, heavy rhythms, lotta smashing around. And essentially that's the same thing we do now, except in much more complex form. The basic components of what we're into haven't really changed, we've just expanded on it naturally. At the beginning, there was no band. There wasn't even a regular act. There was just something that we did every once in a while and it seemed to be fun. But each time it came for us to take a step forward, we did it. There's no way anyone can underestimate the contributions of J.D. or D.N.V. or Ivan; I really feel that we are the Patti Smith Group, that we've hardened ourselves in the fires of creativity and what we've gone through as a band-all of us essentially learned how to play within this group. So there's a particular enipathy that goes on onstage between us when we're really together that I can't imagine reaching in any other form.
CREEM: I remember when you guys performed at the rock critic panel discussion in Buffalo, in May of '74 [a weekend of nonsense and fun featuring myself, Joe Fernbacher, Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, Rob Tyner and a host of others], and that was a pretty critical time in terms of it becoming a real group.
KAYE: Yeah, that's when we really started to do it. During that year was when it dawned on us that we could actually have a group that could play, when we actually made the thought that we could play not only small dubs and art establishments but actually go to a place like the Palladium and reach all those kids. I think in retrospect It's not surprising that we have a rock 'n' roll band, 'cause from the first moment that's what we wanted, but to actually realize that, to plunge through the levels of subconscious and build a rock 'n' roll band out of this kind of deep glimmering, that's what's to me great about our whole development. And again, we had the patience because what we were working with was so special In some way. We knew the effect it was having on people, we knew the effect It was having on us, the spaces It would put on us musically. I guess it's what all art does, which is taking the human being in you and putting it in a form so it can be communicated to someone else.
CREEM: The new album seems to me to be concerned with a lot of allegiances to various things. Allegiances going from one person out- to another person, to country, state, god.
KAYE: That's interesting that you say that. It's true. It's one of the ways the band functions. I always say "When I signed on with Patti," but I do feel that I declared my allegiance to her at a certain stage. But yeah, there is a concept of that declaring of faith. I think that's what allegiance is, declaring your faith in the ideal of something. When we raise the flag onstage, we are declaring our faith In it, the same way as when Patti sings You Light Up My Life; we're not doing it as a parody, we're declaring our allegiance to the feelings In that song.

One night in Washington, I was playing the Star Spangled Banner and suddenly I thought about the weight of the symbol we were dealing with and how wherever you go in the world and you see an American flag and something just responds inside. It's my allegiance, my faith invested in becoming an American, and by extension, what is an American but a creation of man, of his idea of what he is. So it's like an allegiance to a belief in man. We declare allegiance to these symbols but we make sure of the freedom of choice in the declaration so that we're not trapped by them. I don't know, we're romantics in a way, we believe more In these things as symbols and ideals rather than their actual realities. I mean, when we do a song that has some reference to Algeria, we're not specifically referring to 1954-1962 and the FLN versus the OAS or whatever and the human consequences of that, which is a lot of people killed and tortured. What we're looking at are the noble virtues of it, and when we declare our allegiance to something in that respect, we declare ourselves to that which is positive, that which is good, in that which may be a little fuzzy-headed around the edges.

In some mays, we're a little out of step with the times, 'cause we're not calculating or cold. But then our experience proves that we can be right. We've gotten through with our ideals intact, which I believe is something tough to do and its often cost us fans and dissension within the band itself... We fight like crazy. But the fact is that by holding forth to allegiances and keeping them open-ended enough, you don't get stuck within the bounds of your own dogma, 'cause we're against dogma. There's allegiance to an idea and then there's the concrete shell that grows up around it and that's the dogma. Rock 'n' roll is important enough to take around the world like that. We did a TV show in Germany not long ago that was broadcast to eight countries in Europe, our entire set, an hour and a half. Broadcasted to countries that I'll never get to play in, like Bulgaria, Rumania and Yugoslavia. And that's carrying, the word of a certain type of life to people who might -not otherwise have that option open to them. Might help provide inspiration, and we're all aware of this, 'cause of Ivan's delicate non-citizenship status and why he left Czechoslovakia to come to America. We're not saying that America is perfect or even halfway successful, but I know that there's more freedom to create here than anywhere else in the world.

We've set ourselves up as a band whose job it is to work on the road and to continually progress beyond ourselves 'cause we owe that to ourselves and to our audience. Often the movement forward is painful and often boring, but we don't like to talk down to our audiences and we think that even if they see us at our worst, they'll be able to utilize the mechanics of out movement in some way in their own lives. If we reveal ourselves as human onstage, I think that's all to the good in the final analysis. It's too easy to set up something in which there's only safety.

CREEM: So much of what goes on now on stages at concerts is so put and thought out that it's hardly human at all.
KAYE: Total predictability. And it's not hard to set up a stage show that pops the cork every time. But to me one of the blessings of this group is that it's led by a woman. There's a very male orientation towards shows, that kind of one response, whereas with Patti at our helm, we tend to move more wave-like, building to a peak, then failing back, then building to another peak. So the final peak isn't like this big explosion with the roof failing in. You should feel twice as drained 'cause you've been through it all. Often that's harder to regulate; it requires more of a sense of the moment. One part of us likes to be concise, but the other part likes to relax onstage, to explore the interplay between musicians. Though some people might say it's self-indulgent of us, I know I've gone to free jazz concerts that go on for three hours, unaccompanied saxophone or something, and you can't tell me that in three hours this guy's gonna be fantastic all three hours, there's gonna be a lot of stuff where he's building himself up to something, like running in place or doing stretching exercises in order to take a leap that he's never taken before. I know that the tolerance level that we ask from an audience is, not that much, but in terms of rock'n'roll it is. But we're trying to construct a kind of staging now where we have the freedom and the space and the time to settle into what we're doing and instead of going for the quick applause or taking the easy way out, to actually try in each show to get someplace new. It's something we have to do.

At each stage of our career, we probably could have stayed at that stage and gotten successful. People always have the one perfect way in which they see Patti succeeding and becoming queen of the universe and we've outlived them all, we've been all of them. I mean, we want to do this for a long time; we don't want to be a footnote on Nuggets Vol. 12. Instead of being part of a genre or a time, we want to be our own genre and often the demands of our movement piss people off. I mean, Radio Ethiopia -despite the fact that it's provided practically all of our most beloved songs like Ain't It Strange and Ask The Angels and, of course, the classic title cut which everyone loves (ha ha) - was completely a shock to people, 'cause we had dared to be what we always were- which was a rock 'n' roll band. I don't think we changed so much between Horses and Radio Ethiopia. With Wave, we wanted an album whose edges were a little blurrier. So concise was Easter, so to the point, that our natural rambling instincts weren't given enough room. So out of that grew such things as Seven Ways Of Going and Wave.

CREEM: Wave seems the most even-keeled album you guys have done.
KAYE: A lot of people think we're either too crazy or too accessible, but I think, on the whole, we're really neither of the two. As a band, we're pretty listenable all the time. On Wave there are good songs here, improvisations there, jokes. I like all our albums- I mean, they're all us. In many ways, Radio Ethiopia is my favorite. On the title cut we got to a place musically that I think is very special. I still listen to it as a piece of music and enjoy it as such. But look what you're dealing with, look what you gotta be played over. You go into a discotheque ... I mean, no wonder you're gonna go through a lot of changes of sound. Horses may be a great artistic album but it doesn't sound good to me. For better or worse, you're dealing with technology; I'm glad I learned to play guitar when I did 'cause given my own technological capacities, in another ten years I don't think I'd be able to do it, to handle the electronics. I still have trouble plugging myself in every once in a while.
CREEM: How do you and Ivan work out who's going to be playing what on songs?
KAYE: It sort of suggests itself; it's a pretty even collaboration. We like it 'cause both of us came to the band as bass players so there's a certain instinct that makes us enjoy holding down the bottom. Plus, our styles are significantly different, giving us a lot more range in which to roam, and the scope opens up the band.
CREEM: When did Patti start playing clarinet?
KAYE: Last summer. And I'll tell you, she's great for playing such a short time- I'd play with her anytime. It's great for her 'cause now she can explore not only the sonic possibilities, but also the melodic possibilities. She's very musical and the clarinet fits both manually and in terms of dexterity. I'm also happy as hell about it 'cause it's put Poppies back in the set and that's one of my favorites.
CREEM: Has your own relationship with Patti changed much over the years?
KAYE: Me and Patti, we're like two old people on a park bench. We know each others quirks and idiosyncracies. Half the time we're grousin' each other and the other half we're really working brain to brain. It's great. I really treasure the years we're working together. From the first moment I saw her in some play on the Lower East Side, I always thought she was like a magnet, and it's nice to feel that same way about a person after you get to know them. I feel privileged and honored; she has a vision which I almost feel she's loaned me that helped me focus my life, to be able to do what I always wanted to do, which is always anyone can ask for. I know what I'd do on my own. Everyone in the band knows what they'd do on their own and what we can do as the Patti Smith Group. And there's no comparison.

Copyright © Creem 1979

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