Thursday, September 16, 2021

Turning the Tide Review-Lightning Strking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll by Lenny Kaye

Lightning Striking brings together Lenny Kaye's considerable talents as a music historian and writer. Kaye’s words flow forth and lead readers through ten times & places that have been inextricably linked in the minds of listeners wishing they could have been part of these fleeting golden musical moments. The highly attuned scribe & musician witnessed many of the 10 scenes firsthand as they were unraveling in real time. Further, Kaye often played the role of a cultural catalyst helping to set off a ripple effect that often had a direct influence on the development of these scenes.  As a compiler, Kaye introduced Nuggets to the world in 1972, was the lead guitarist for the Patti Smith Group from 1975 to 1979 and even co-produced the widely-heard music of Suzanne Vega in the late ‘80s. Throughout Lightning Striking, Kaye expresses rock ‘n’ roll’s unbridled energy, while throwing in some well-placed stylistic flourishes and compelling accounts from his fieldwork. This one-two punch of reinforcing his research and writing chops with direct experiences sharpens the focus on the historical details-leading to a heightened awareness of the panoramic rock ‘n’ roll picture. In short, Kaye supports the traditional historical record at moments and then flips it at other times to provide readers vantage points from both sides of the record, the retail counter and the stage. Ultimately, Kaye is an adherent of the notion of letting the sparks fly where they may and possibly creating something new in the process or what Jonathan Richman called “Fly into the Mystery.”

Another View

Kaye begins by unboxing a stockpile of creation tales and origin myths, spurring the question: “How many times can one re-write this mega history and in how many ways?”  Bob Stanley attempted to do something similar with Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé in 2014 and received mixed reactions. By approaching rock ‘n’ roll history through mostly manageable bursts of 10 times and places, Kaye is able to present the scenes which had arguably the most impact on the direction of rock 'n' roll in the last half of the 20th century. Lenny does not strive to be comprehensive or exhaustive, just insightful, true to the music and wide-ranging. He is so conversant with this history, inside and out, that he can play it how he feels on a multitude of levels without forgetting to have “some kinda fun” with it, which should be the self-evident point of rock ‘n’ roll? Overall, his extraordinary versatility is on clear display as he has a vast repertoire and deep reservoir to draw upon.  Knowing his way around guitars, bands, recording sessions, mixing boards, record stores and live performances informs his perspectives and illuminates his writing.

Bringing out the Beach Boys singles-photo by Allan Tannenbaum

Trace Elements

For the better, Kaye frequently ventures off the conventional routes and explores the mean streets, street corners, the suburbs and subterranean stratums as he’s a believer in rock ‘n’ roll’s immediacy, infinite nature and enduring presence. As a musician, he also does not shy away from the music’s redemptive qualities as he frequently covers “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” by Gerry & the Pacemakers along with the spiritual dimensions which may be encountered in his work accompanying Patti Smith and Jessi Colter. While some of Kaye’s intriguing accounts have appeared in Ugly Things interviews and profiles over the years, his individual recollections are a welcomed companion-coinciding and bolstering his particular approach to the history. Readers get the opportunity to see it through Kaye’s watchful ears, street smarts, and vast experiences of seemingly being everywhere at once. It is in these accounts, wherein lies the book’s distinctive treasures. The scenes may be over and done with, but they are still reverberating and arguably as influential as the current times. 

Jessi Colter with Lenny Kaye-photo by David McClister

New York 1975

Kaye writes of his good fortune to be both at the epicenter and periphery of the New York street rock scene. I enjoyed encountering the fact that Sandy Bull once opened for Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye at Max’s Kansas City in 1974. Lenny recently expanded upon this experience in his appreciative piece on Sandy entitled “Sandy Bull: In a China Store” which appeared in Ugly Things #57. Would we expect anything less from a guy who assisted Waylon Jennings with his autobiography and included the fact that Waylon surprisingly played at Max’s Kansas City in 1973? He also mentions the sagacious roles played by streetwise label executives like Terry Ork (Ork Records) and Seymour Stein (Sire) on the industry side of things. All along, Kaye’s ethos has always been hovering somewhere between street level, the garage and those atmospheric nocturnal Bowery images offered by photographer David Godlis.

Photo by David Godlis

Kay offers plenty of other opportunities for readers to stumble upon the previously unknown details. He mentions the fact of Mickey Ruskin’s unsuccessful attempt to expand his Max’s Kansas City nightclub & restaurant enterprise when he opened Max’s Terre Haute. The second location did not catch on and quickly fizzled out, proving that the chickpeas were not magic beans. Interestingly, only about half of these scenes generated a high proportion of hits, but all of them went on to arguably change the course of history.  Musical acts emerging from Memphis 1955, Philadelphia 1962, Los Angeles 1984 and Seattle 1991 did top the charts of the times. In addition, Jefferson Airplane was able to briefly bridge the newly emerging AM & FM divide in San Francisco 1967. The Beatles (Liverpool 1962) and Blondie (New York 1975) would obviously go on to break through to mega-success on a global scale a few years later after putting in their Gladwellian 10,000 hours and Warholian 15 minutes of fame. The Ramones soldiered on to become highly influential and fondly remembered in the process, while Talking Heads didn’t breakthrough until the ‘80s music video-era when they were able to utilize their design school-influenced visual component.

Memphis 1954

Like the seemingly extemporaneous explosion of graffiti on a railcar that has already been sketched out on cardstock, Kaye gives credence to the notion that Sam Phillips was working along similar lines at the Sun Studio in Memphis.  Kaye conveys that Phillips knew enough to be dangerous and in the process helped rock ‘n’ roll blast off the Tennessee ground and become all the rage. Kaye details, “Where Les (Paul) is precise, pinpointed, Sam wants it pinwheeled; a blurrier sound, live and spontaneous as if it’s being made up right in front of the speaker.” (p. 22)

He also encapsulates the long green, quick cash, cut-rate schemes of R&B economics and logistics or the business of suspending platters:

“R&B is now a sales hierarchy with its own star system, rewarding the ability to get a record on the streets as soon as possible, before the next disc ships and the returns start to come in.  No room for error, it’s cash in motion, like the title of that other music trade magazine, Cashbox, which gets the flow of capital right. Nickel and dimes into the slot. You have to make them want what you're hawking before the next record plays.”  (p. 29)

I can picture a wide-eyed Seymour Stein, working as an apprentice for Syd Nathan of King Records, learning the tricks of the trade mentioned above.

Philadelphia 1959

Kaye illuminates his text with abundant local color and regional lore. The Mitch Thomas Show is mentioned as playing a groundbreaking role as well as being a direct influence on American Bandstand and later Soul Train when the discussion turns to rock & roll as presented by Philadelphia-area television stations. This treatment of early ‘60s Philadelphia, demonstrates Kaye is fair and balanced with his coverage. He does not short either or Dick Clark, Mitch Thomas or disc jockey & local Philly legend Jerry Blavat when recognizing and evaluating their notable contributions and influence on that scene. To his credit and for those who first consult the index before buying or checking out a book, Kaye stays generally neutral to positive on everyone he mentions. Kaye understands how hard it is to sustain a musical career even if your material starts to landslide after the ‘60s (e.g., Bob Seger). Overall, he demonstrates the quality to be able to step back and deliver a fair assessment with equanimity when it comes to evaluating the historical significance and influence of both overexposed and unheralded musicians.

San Francisco 1967 and the Embryonic Journey from Los Angeles

Kaye also bestows his first-person accounts of directly encountering and experiencing 1967 San Francisco when it was attempting to translate its experimental and ornate international ethos to the national stage.  Again, don’t let the chapter tiles fool you because he explores several more connected scenes and cities within. For instance, in San Francisco 1967 he also covers the gloriously sprawling Los Angeles/Sunset Strip scene 1965/66 of the Byrds, Love, Leaves, Bobby Fuller Four, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Doors, Turtles, etc. who emerged (boss) radio ready from Southern California’s surf, folk and R&B scenes. These leading Angeleno bands made each other better and even the average bands still had their moments in the sun because of the high standards set by the aforementioned world-turning groups. Still, the limitations of these grand sweeping accounts is that you cannot include everyone and everything due to the requirements of being selective. I wonder if there is an expanded bonus cuts version of the manuscript which might include Athens 1983, Manchester 1989 and/or Berkeley 1993?

At Village Oldies-photo by Allan Tannenbaum

Detroit 1969   

It is well documented that Kaye has long been a dedicated and devoted enthusiast of vocal group harmony.  I’ve always enjoyed those his ‘n’ her (Patti Smith in Just Friends) accounts of Lenny working at Village Oldies record store on Saturday nights in the early ‘70s where he first met poet Patti who dug reading one of his pieces on the acapella revival for Jazz & Pop Magazine. Elsewhere, Kaye twice mentions the seemingly illustrious Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit as it was the setting for the afterparty, courtesy of Clive Davis of Arista Records, for the Patti Smith Group and where Patti Smith first crossed paths with future husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5.

Initially, I had a high interest in Detroit rock ‘n’ roll as mentions of the proto-punk of MC5, Stooges were prevalent in the late ‘80s, but the records of these Ann Arbor/Detroit groups were not readily available in the hinterlands.  I once met a guy along Grand River Blvd. in East Lansing who recalled people jumping up and down and walls shaking at a MC5 concert held at Michigan State University’s Student Union ballroom. I still felt the high energy emanating from this guy and his account still riveting even if it was 20 years after the fact (1990).  Another person told me he saw the 5 live and declared it was not his scene with all the American flags (upside down or otherwise). That same guy later told me the Modern Lovers was pretty much the only record he listened to in 1976.  Mileage may greatly vary when it comes to the MC5. 

My interest greatly waned with the ruse and fiasco of DKT/MC5. I recently became appreciative again after reading Wayne Kramer’s The Hard Stuff and seeing how frequently they played in their heyday through concert listings on the internet.  These listings revealed these road warriors played almost every night and most everywhere in the upper Midwest (including three of the colleges and universities that I attended). It has also been a revelation to re-realize what a hotbed the entire state was in the ‘60s by reading the outstanding history compiled on “Michigan Rock and Roll Legends.” Kaye’s writing and praise for the MC5 goes into overdrive. The spark plug collector powerfully and aptly details their rama-lama sound by bringing fitting descriptors such as “assembly plant rhythms“ out of backstock.  He’s effusive with his praise when it comes to the Detroit sound and you can see his passion for that once incendiary scene poured out on the page. Julian Cope might be the only contemporary who can match him in his enthusiasm for these motorvatin’ Detroit sounds. 

New Orleans 1957-The Missing Links

Throughout his interviews and writings, Kaye has consistently acknowledged and championed the forgotten forebears who created the Urtext like Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (“The Twist”) and the Gladiolas (“Little Darlin’”). The rough edges of these ramshackle records were later rounded off and taken up the charts into glory by the acolytes who became the recipients of the recognition.  I’m still surprised at myself that I didn’t know “Land of 1000 Dances” was written and first recorded by New Orleans’ Chris Kenner.  I’ve long assumed that the song originated somewhere along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles.  

London 1977

The Sex Pistols are given abundant space on the page to the point where these derelicts seem to overstay their welcome. While it was a good refresher on the filth and the fury previously documented and unleashed in England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage, I veer towards the line of thought that the Sex Pistols were an off-the-rails rock and roll circus that quickly descended into orthodoxy in no small part to Malcolm McLaren’s Anarchy straightjacket and schtick.  When it comes to UK Punk, the Clash, Buzzcocks, the Jam and the Undertones should be commended for their balance of purpose, passion and pop-art (along with intelligence, design sense and melodic ‘50s and ‘60s sensibilities). These bands were said to be largely influenced by Kaye’s Nuggets.  In fact, the Undertones covered “Let’s Talk About Girls” by the Chocolate Watchband, which was originally recorded by Tucson’s Tongues of Truth (aka the Grodes). Shifting readers away the current vantage point, Kaye reminds us that punk as rendered by the Sex Pistols was truly up against the wall by the time ‘77 ended.  Steve Jones did go on to have a brilliant Los Angeles radio show, Jonesy's Jukebox, in the first decade of this century. 


It scared me how much metal I knew simply by osmosis from growing in a place where this particular music reigned supreme over the flatlands-filling the buses, gyms and corridors. Holding a hegemony over the heartland, this music was the sound and order of the day. I had to laugh when Kaye gets out his metal detector and describes Mötley Crüe’s drums recorded “As if in Carlsbad Caverns.” 

Seattle 1991

The final chapter contains too much Nirvana and their grunge brethren for my taste, but we live in a pop culture age where the trio has been regulated to a logoed “lifestyle accouterment” t-shirt to be bought at Target (next to ones for NASA, Ghostbusters, Polaroid and Thrasher).  Maybe the grunge overload is to reflect the excessive nature/orientation of the music? However, I was happy to see my all-time Seattle favorites the Fastbacks along with the Young Fresh Fellows receiving honorable mentions along with acknowledgment of the Pacific Northwest region’s progenitors: the Ventures, the Wailers, the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Sonics.  

“Do You Believe in Magic?”

Ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll is about a feeling and sound that cannot be contained. Kaye is able to present the sound and spirit with astonishing clarity as the cross-cultural-currents sweep over the sound. In no small measure, Kaye also gently reminds readers not to neglect those equally important and mostly invisible influences of the underlying collective unconscious. The musician’s calling of tapping in and articulating the intangible and expressing elusive feelings affixed to an uplifting or descending melody for the ages are arguably the ultimate artistic peaks to work towards.  

Photo from SiriusXM 
Bubbling Under the Surge of Creativity

Kaye understands that records emanate from vibrant scenes and cultural capitals  These scenes cannot be forced to happen as with MGM Records’ disastrous promotional/marketing campaign of the Bosstown/Boston sound in the late ‘60s being a perfect example. On the other hand, Columbia Records greatly benefited from having a recording studio on the teeming 52nd Street jazz/bebop scene in Manhattan during the late ‘40s and early 50s. Kaye reveals a common denominator beneath all these scenes is the elusive something (aka lightning striking) entering the mix along with musicians and an audience allowing things to unravel in order distinguish it from what has become before. All share the collective desire to make something happen and in the process elevate art & life to a realm that is more inspiring, illuminating and more engaging than the necessary, but repetitive work-a-day version. Factors stack upon factors, facet upon facet and events begin to take on a momentum of their own and add up to more than the constitutive parts to become a movement.  Things groundswell on the local and then the regional levels and in the charged air many remarkable events happen in a compressed amount of time. The emerging scene ultimately defines a new sound or vice-versa and then achieves musical lift-off into unexpected realms and anything seems possible-even transcendence.

Dissolution & Disintegration

Conversely, there is the inevitable downward slide and eventual fallout of the scene into apathy, factionalism, or absorption into a larger subculture or the mainstream culture. Internecine clashes, conflict and missed opportunities are also all part of the aggregate story.  I still have to accept the fact that Kim Fowley was indeed a prime mover and shaker in the Los Angeles scene of ‘63 to ‘70. Would we have ever heard the wonders of “Popsicles and Icicles” by the Murmaids without Fowley?

Sifting through for Gold Nuggets & Eureka Moments Many times, when I was much younger I subscribed to the face value notion that art just happened like a bolt of lightning without understanding all the work, commitment, and unseen efforts leading up to the gestalt moment. Kay provides ample evidence of both the optimal conditions and sense of possibility (or in some social milieus, the sense of desperation) required to set things in motion on a collective level. Kaye has certainly expanded and enriched the world as he has provided the monumental Nuggets, Waylon Jennings' autobiography, doo wop dissertations, documentary appearances on the glories of the Fort Worth ‘60s garage scene, and the foreword to the definitive book on Fortune Records. He also sets an inspiring example to keep searching, exploring, listening and bringing things to fruition. Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, one never knows the direction in which Kaye will go. Charged particles of creativity surge through Lightning Striking as it has throughout the work of Lenny Kaye. There is a bit of whirlwind cyclone in Kaye as he seems centered and calm at the eye of the storm, but his artistic expressions can be as unpredictable, flashing and boundless as the remarkable music he collects, documents and plays.

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