Ask Lenny Kaye to describe himself and the first thing to come out of his mouth is “cultural historian.” That may come as a surprise to those who immediately know him as the longtime guitarist for the Patti Smith Band, but he was writer way before that legendary partnership evolved.
Of course, he’s been a musician since long before that — his dad taught him to play the accordion when he was six — although he does note that “piano would have been more useful.” He spent his early teen years in Brooklyn enamored with doo-wop, but by the time he was 16, living in New Jersey, he bought a guitar and a songbook (from — where else? — Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in the West Village) and set out to become a folk singer.
With a kick in the butt from The Beatles, it wasn’t a big leap from there to his first band, “The Vandals,” with whom he made his performing debut in November 1964 at a fraternity at Rutgers University where he was majoring in American history.
“I spent four hours caterwauling for bros who were more interested in beer pong and girls,” he recalls. “It was almost ego-less.”
The bullet points of his career are varied and well known, such as the first gig accompanying Smith at the St. Mark’s Church in 1971. It was supposed to be a one-time thing but, as Kaye says, “the rest is history.”
He’s recently been celebrating the 50th anniversary of a two-disc set that he titled “Nuggets (Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era),” a classic compilation of garage bands with a psych bent that he put together with the aid of a bunch of index cards and a few joints. A new edition of the set recently allowed him some closure, he reports: “I was finally able to get the rights to ’96 Tears’ — I couldn’t get it the first time around.”
In addition to a career in rock criticism that includes tear sheets from Fusion, Crawdaddy, Cavalier, Hit Parader and Rolling Stone, he’s authored several books as well, including tomes on subjects from Waylon Jennings to a study of the romantic singers of the 1930s as well as his most recent, “Lightning Striking,” which is subtitled ’Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll.”
It’s an ambitious work and Kaye manages an impressive feat: He brings to life historic moments in the creation of music when he wasn’t there and perhaps more impressively is somewhat subjective in his recounting of the NYC scene in the late 70s, in which he was smack dab in the middle.
Kaye doesn’t want to just convey the facts (although they are all in there); he wants you to know what it felt like to experience the music when it first hit and even to know what it felt like at the moment of creation.
“There’s never enough time to understand the entirety of music,” he muses. “I’m always curious to see what happens next.”
Whether he is writing or playing, Kaye is a combination of curiosity and ambition.
“I am a student of how creativity makes its way into the world,” he says. “I’m a very intuitive musician — I don’t read music … That’s why I play so well with Patti — I follow the thread of illumination to where it leads us creatively. We are both instinctual in the way the we move forward. I allow her total creative freedom and hope that I can help and assist her.”
Kaye is not averse to collaborating with other wordsmiths.
“I seem to have a predilection for poets,” he notes. He has found himself in the studio in the past with the formidable Allen Ginsberg and more recently onstage with East Village writer/performer Heather Littear for a Coney Island sideshow benefit.
Littear recalls the collaboration fondly as one of her favorite moments.
“Lenny and I had known each other for years from the Downtown music and East Village world,” she recounts. “I wrote a poetic valentine for those exact moments of Lower East Side nights into the morning with music arranged by Paul Wallfisch. With Lenny on guitar — Lenny pinned us the ‘L’Tears’— the three of us performed my poem ‘Manhattan.’ Being onstage with Lenny, nestled next to him breathing and speaking as he bends the strings was like electric honey! A night of music and words and long lasting friendships that I’ll never forget.”
Kaye’s latest project is a “goth jam“ band that goes by the moniker P714.
“Don’t ask me about the name,” he laughs. “The reason is too stupid!”
It certainly sounds intriguing though, as Kaye describes the music as “open-ended and slightly strange.”
“If it gets predictable,” he says, “there’s no sense of surprise.”
You can still spot Kaye wandering the streets of Alphabet City, although he has mixed feelings about the changes.
“When I walk down St. Marks Place, I am quite amused, the smell of ganja is so overwhelming,” he says, smiling. “But what I see are ghosts — my friends who were there and are no longer and all the great stores where I used to buy records and bell bottom pants. I would kill to go to the Kiev again at three am. I like John Varvatos but I’ll never go in that store. I want to remember walking into CBGB’s and seeing Hilly sitting there by the door.”
But, he admits, “You live long enough, it’s all going to change.”
Kaye’s upcoming gigs include shows with Patti Smith at Brooklyn Steel on Dec. 29 and 30, and a Hank Williams tribute with The Lonesome Prairie Dogs on Jan. 1, at The Bowery Electric. You can follow Lenny on Instagram at @lenny_kaye.