Lenny Kaye: “Music exists in the present tense”

The Patti Smith guitarist, Nuggets compiler and venerable rock scholar talks techno, Tom Verlaine and his own ‘lightning striking’ moment

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“It’s a house full of rabbit holes,” grins Lenny Kaye, rummaging around in his basement to show off his latest purchases: four crates of Detroit techno 12”s bought at auction and a boxset of obscure Philly soul. Surrounded by books and records, not to mention a 1965 Ludwig drumkit and a vintage sheet music collection – “even though I don’t read music!” – Kaye admits that it’s not a bad place to be locked down.

Still, he describes his recent return to the stage with Patti Smith at the Royal Albert Hall as an “ecstatic” moment. “I love playing live, I love the excitement in the air and the way the audience sends it back to you. Music exists in the present tense.”

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Kaye and Smith’s first tentative steps towards poetic rock’n’roll sublimation, breathlessly recounted as part of the chapter on New York’s punk awakening in his new book Lightning Striking, which documents the explosion of 10 epochal music scenes from Memphis in 1954 to Seattle in 1991. It confirms Kaye as that rare creature in rock: both instigator and chronicler, an instinctive guitarist as well as a compelling storyteller. “A great sentence has rhythm and melody, and a guitar solo has a narrative arc,” he suggests. “When those things fold in together, that’s who I like to be.”

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Did you become a writer because you were a frustrated musician, or did you become a musician because you were a frustrated writer?

– Nick McCain, Scarborough

I was never frustrated! My parallel lines as a musician and writer have moved forward together. Sometimes one gets ahead of the other, but the way they interact within me makes me a whole personality. I started writing around the same time I started playing music. At college I had a band that played weekends at mixers and fraternity parties; at the same time I was writing for the college newspaper, and each medium seemed to inform the other. Patti came to me because she’d read something I wrote in Jazz & Pop magazine about the afterglow of doo-wop, so she met me as a writer. She also knew I played a little guitar. So we embarked on this thing that has a lot of literary influences but is very musical. As a writer I can be very analytical, but my gift as a musician is that I’m not analytical at all. When I play, I feel the music – I’m a pretty good dancer, I must say!

What are your own favourite books about music?

– Jack Walters, via email

I love Paul Morley’s Words And Music, I think that’s a totally genius book. I love all of Nick Tosches’ writings: Hellfire, his Jerry Lee Lewis biography, and Dino, are capturings of the way music and musicians should be written about. I love Bob Stanley’s Yeah Yeah Yeah. And I’m reading Bobby Gillespie’s book now. A lot of memoirs are more self-serving than they need to be, but Bobby’s is highly psychedelic! He understands the feelings that music brings out in you.

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