Written by: Paul Gleason
If rock and roll has a Renaissance man, his name is Lenny Kaye.
As a guitarist in The Patti Smith Group, a co-writer with Smith of some of its most enduring songs, a pioneering music critic, a rock-and-roll conservationist (his 1972 compilation, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, helped reintroduce bands like The Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds, and Nazz to the public consciousness), a producer (Suzanne Vega, James, and The Weather Prophets, among many others), and an author (You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon and Waylon: An Autobiography, with Waylon Jennings), Kaye has seemingly done it all.
But you know this already.
When SEM had the opportunity to speak with Kaye, we wanted to focus on one aspect of his career: his collaboration with Smith. We wanted to get to the heart of how Kaye and Smith have worked together for over 40 years to create some of the most memorable, passionate, and honest music ever recorded.
Kaye was very generous and open with his responses. Indeed, his kindness and authenticity parallel the inclusivity and energy of the music of The Patti Smith Group. It was an honor to share an hour with him.
SEM: Thanks for chatting today, Lenny. Our readers would love to learn more about some of the best songs you wrote with Patti Smith. Let’s start with “Beneath the Southern Cross,” from 1996’s Gone Again album.
LK: That was probably the first song we wrote in the aftermath of Patti’s husband’s [Fred “Sonic” Smith’s] passing. She was alone in Michigan and trying to figure out what she would be doing in the future. One day she called me up and said, “Do you have any chords? I’ve written this poem, and I like to hear music. Do you have anything?” Coincidentally, I’d just come up with this little rhythmic pattern that I’d been playing in the basement, and my daughter came home, and I played it for her – she must have been about 11 or 12.
I was playing it, and sometimes you write these little patterns that you forget, so she sang along with me: I went to school today / I had a very bad day.
Patti had just learned a few chords from Fred on the guitar, and I told her over the phone, “Listen, you can play these things…” It’s basically a D chord where you lift one finger and put another one down – pretty simple pattern. And so that’s the seed of “Southern Cross.”
The actual lyrics expanded when our previous guitar player, Oliver [Ray] had a very serious accident in Guatemala a year or two before he joined us. He had broken his leg very badly, so it’s kind of a song about resurrection and his will to survive.
When we began work on the record that would become Gone Again, we worked on “Southern Cross” in the studio. Jeff Buckley was there. He came in and sang that beautiful, haunting melody at the end of the song. Then of course it was taken to live performance where everything expands outwardly. By performing it, we developed that whole middle section, which is usually a showcase for the other side of the stage, with Tony [Shanahan] and Jackson [Smith]. And then we take it out into the stratosphere, while Patti and I hold down that rhythm.
SEM: How did Jeff Buckley get involved? Did you guys invite him to perform?
LK: We didn’t really invite him; I knew him from the New York scene. I would hang out with him at a club called Sin-é on St. Mark’s Place, where we got friendly. Or we’d hang out at the Lakeside Lounge, listen to the jukebox, and talk about old doo-wop music. He became a friend. When he heard we were recording at Electric Ladyland, he just came down to say hello. He was a big fan of Patti’s, and he just stuck around. And, of course, having a beautiful voice like that, it was nice to get him on the record. He also played a stringed Indian instrument called an essrage on “Fireflies,” which is also on Gone Again.
“Southern Cross” is very meaningful, and it’s one of the high points of our live show. It has a lot of staying power – a lot of songs come and go in our live show, but it seems to be a touchstone.
SEM: Let’s switch gears and talk about “Radio Ethiopia,” the title track from The Patti Smith Group’s second album, which came out in 1976.
LK: The lyrics were totally improvised. What really came first was the title. We’d just met John Cale, and he’d come in to produce Horses . And we were going up to Woodstock, so he could see what we did. I don’t think John really knew too much about us, and Patti was an avant-rock poet, so we wanted him to see our live show. He flew in from England, and at the time we mostly listened to reggae. We had reggae on a boom box, just cruising up to Woodstock listening to some mix tape or something, and John said, “It sounds like radio Ethiopia in here.” We thought, what a great title!
So as the year progressed, we formulated a kind of feel – one of these things where we would start to play and see where it went. But by the time we got into the studio to do the album that would be Radio Ethiopia, it was destined to be our large, improvised piece – and we like to have one on each album – but we didn’t specifically have a structure or sense of where we were going, so we kept it free.
At one point, we were planning to do a track over which Patti would do poetry or some other spinning thing, but as it turns out, the track itself resisted that. There are no overdubs on that track – it’s pretty much the way it happened on the night of August 9, when there was a hurricane outside the studio. The Record Plant was on first floor, and we had to put towels under the doors in case the storm rose. We spent all night doing take after take after take. The version you hear was somewhere around the ninth take. Sometimes, the takes went nowhere, and sometimes they went everywhere, but this one seemed to have a good inner logic.
It came up on my iTunes random shuffle the other month. I don’t really listen to our stuff once it’s done, but I heard it then and I was comfortable. There’s a really interesting stream of inner narration, not only in Patti’s lyrics – which when you decipher them are actually kind of amazing – but there’s also an inner logic of how the song moves through its moments. I think of it as being as far out as we were able to move as an improvisational band.
SEM: It sounds like a precursor to Sonic Youth.
LK: It’s funny you should mention that because when I went to see Sonic Youth in their early days, I could feel the same textures – not so much in the way we approach music, but the textures were very much like “Radio Ethiopia” in the sound they created as a whole. It was an interesting cross-reference.
SEM: “Radio Ethiopia” was partially inspired by Arthur Rimbaud, right?
LK: Yes. He’s a great poet whose impetus comes from Patti, whereas mine is more musical, although I have a strong background in literature. She understands poetry, and his sensibility and inspiration pretty much come from her. I read him because of her.
SEM: What is his influence on the lyrics?
LK: He lived in Ethiopia for a while. It made the concept of Ethiopia not just Rastafarian for us. Rimbaud lent a kind of European filter through the Ethiopian culture for us, so it was a two-pronged thing.
SEM: How do The Doors impact the band’s approach to improvisation? I know that Patti is a big Jim Morrison fan…
LK: I think that obviously they do, but I think Patti is influenced psychically but not specifically. Their poetry and their approach is very different, and as a band they are also very different. We were much more influenced by things like free jazz, than The Doors thing. But obviously there are ties in some ways – in the long-from aspects of what The Doors did and what we attempted to do.
SEM: Who are some of the free jazz players who influenced you?
LK: John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Sun Ra. What we felt in this concept – what we would call “out there,” as jazz musicians would – is that there comes a time where you loosen the bounds of not only rock, but jazz. What they would do is move into pure sound upon sound – the music of the spheres, where it’s not jazz and it’s not rock –it’s just sound interacting with itself.
And The Grateful Dead as well (laughs). These were aspects of music where the farther out you got, the less you were tethered to the music that you began with. There’s a certain sense of the interstellar. Bands like The MC5 explored it. The Stooges explored it. The Velvets absolutely explored it. You get to a point where it’s beyond music, and you’re dealing with pure, abstract building blocks of sound and frequency.
The MC5, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges are my holy trinity of rock bands.
SEM: Going back to The Velvets, do you think that they were influenced by free jazz?
LK: I think so. But you’re dealing with New York avant-garde as well. John Cale came out of LaMonte Young’s universe. These were not ideas that were isolated from each other. There was a certain sense of the loosening of bounds, of moving past formal structure, of moving past the three-minute pop song, of moving past musique concrète, of borrowing from Stockhausen and found sound, which gave the1960s a sense of expansive possibilities. It was kind of the farthest outré of culture, and the last 50 years move back into a more structured form of music.
I think the evolution of Jackson Pollock’s abstract art bled into music, poetry, and literature. Even movies were very hallucinogenic. In a sense it opened doors. It was a very expansive time in which we grew up, some of it expanded into Nuggets. Some of the sounds that were suddenly available, the ability to break past the barrier of the three-minute song, the sense of open imagination that was constructed – that any sound beyond scale, beyond accepted form of structure could be broken apart and put back together – made a lot of what we would do and still do possible. We partook in that sense of freedom.
SEM: So maybe that’s a good transition point into the your most recent album , and one of the great songs on that record is “Constantine’s Dream.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about it.
LK: Well, it was a long journey. A lot of it centered around Patti’s investigations into the binary lives of St. Francis and Pierro Francesca.
SEM: The painter.
LK: The great painter. And putting together for me beyond the lyrics, a place in which she could follow their journey. The building blocks of it came from two separate songs that I wrote, pieces of music, which Patti took the A section and the B section from separate songs and kind of scissored them together. Then we played them in studio as a band. At first we attempted to have Patti there, but she was more interested in seeing where we would go, and how we could provide a sonic space for her to follow her poetic instincts. So what we did was go to the studio and jam, and then I put the pieces of the puzzle together. At this point we were in Arezzo, and the original painting, Constantine’s Dream, is in the church, but we didn’t know that. Before we found it, Patti had a postcard that somebody sent her, and she found it very evocative.
Then when we played in Arezzo years later, we walked into the church, and there was this painting. It was a beautiful synchronicity. And, of course, it was a church that was very close to where St. Francis began, where all of this began.
Then I took the kind of long, basic track that I put together from our jamming in the studio, and Casa del Vento played along with it and did their beautiful thing. Then I was able to layer their improvisations with our improvisations and create this long-form track, which again while “Radio Ethiopia” had a mind of its own, this track was not really as improvised as it begins at Point A and goes to Point Z. This was more a modern way of improvising where we scissored things together as jazz records have done for years – Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew essentially was like that.
Many times the magic of editing the things you do in the studio, like the scissors thing – and how much easier it is now than when you had to cut actual pieces of tape together – is exciting in a strange way because it makes it more literary because the kind of things you can do while writing are now much more available to you as a musical artist. We had this long, semi-improvised track that we were able to enhance in some ways, and then Patti went in, gathered all her notes together, ran through two takes of it, told the story, and that was “Constantine’s Dream” – an amazing, amazing journey. We had talked about it for much of two or three years, and the research and sense of build that we placed within it until it became what it is, which is certainly an amazing travel log that encompasses the discovery of America and St. Francis and the possibilities of how we can either save or destroy this planet.
SEM: On another record, Trampin’ (2004), there’s another improvisational song, “Gandhi.” It’s almost like the band wants to educate people about these great figures and what they stand for.
LK: I think they’re very represented. I always think of our 70s’ albums as very personal, charting Patti’s journey from “Jesus died for somebody’s sins” to the final song on Wave (1979), where she is walking with Pope John Paul I on the beach. There’s a sense of spiritual discovery and transformation, of becoming one with herself. From Dream of Life (1988), as a mother and as a socially aware person, her interests and concerns have moved more towards the social and not so much the political, but the moral and the sense of humanity’s responsibility to itself.
SEM: And maybe the spiritual? I’ve noticed that from Gone Again on, the records are very spiritually uplifting.
LK: But I would also say that that would be true of our 70s’ work. Easter (1978) is really about the sense of resurrection, making oneself whole, and one’s relationship to the universe.
SEM: Let’s talk a little bit about Easter, especially about “Rock N Roll Nigger.” You sing on that track. How did it come about?
LK: “Rock N Roll Nigger” emerged from “Radio Ethiopia”; it started out as just a part of “Radio Ethiopia” but as we improvised upon it, its sense of “outsiderness” seemed to fit that song. It’s got a certain element of pride and confrontational energy and a sense of claiming – reclaiming the word [nigger] and its definition for those who struggle and just to take a sense of pride in being outside of society.
SEM: So what was your role in writing that track?
LK: Just helping it along…A lot of our music was created communally; especially in the 70s, whoever had the initial impulse or the initial chords would get the actual writer credit, but we also create communally as a band in terms of improvisation and in terms of arrangement. But we always contribute communally.
SEM: So how many takes does a track usually take? I ask this because all the records have this vitality to them, like the songs are done in just a couple of takes…
LK: Records are an illusion sometimes. It’s like what Flaubert used to say, “This sentence was very spontaneous – it took me all day to write it” (laughs). You’re in the studio; you’re playing to a machine as opposed to a live audience; you are very much aware of the recording process; you’re making an idealized record…When I was a working producer, bands would often come to me and tell me, “We essentially want to do is record live in the studio,” and I’d say, “Well, you don’t need me, because it’s just a question of choosing the best track and the best energy.”
But recording is an illusion of that, and there are things you do within recording – doubling instruments, copying and editing vocals, creating textures and atmospheres – that create what could be an ultimate performance. Sometimes you get something that is very, very live, and sometimes have to work to get something that sounds live but is very layered and textured. It’s hard to say… A lot of the times you’ll do takes and realize that the second take was the one with the magic before people started getting self-conscious of their parts. And sometimes things happen that you can never re-create. That’s why I never really encourage bands that I work with to do demos because you’re always trying to re-create the spontaneity of the demo. It’s a very hard thing to measure: sometimes songs take a while to grow in the studio – two tracks, five tracks…
Other times you know what you are doing – you’ve been playing it for two years, and you just go in there and just lay it down. There’s no hard and fast way in which to go about anything. Sometimes we’re looking for a live thing: on our version of “Are You Experienced” on our Twelve album (2007), you can hear that we’re pretty live – we’re totally live, actually. We were in Electric Ladyland, and I went to kick my wah-wah pedal on, and in doing so, I kick the cord out of the pedal. And then – you can hear this – I kind of shovel it back in. There was some thought, what do you do with that? It was a really great take, and all of a sudden this mess happens, and you can hear me stick it back in there. I thought it was Jimi fucking with me (laughs).
You don’t know when the studio is going to give you what you need and how you can take it and make it your own.
“Birdland,” off Horses, was really a three- or four-minute poem accompanied by music before John Cale wanted us to prove that it was improvisation and drove us further and further and further until it became the classic that it became. That was a song that grew in the studio.
SEM: Speaking of Horses, what’s going on with the 40th anniversary tour?
LK: We’ll play all of Horses, and then we’ll have a second set, in which we’ll play a bunch of other stuff because Horses is only 40 minutes long. We’ll just celebrate the longevity of this album.
SEM: What musicians will be joining you and Patti on the tour?
LK: It will be our core band and a special guest or two depending on where we are. But there’s nothing really planned for that.
SEM: Do you know when and where you’ll be playing?
LK: We’re going to be playing it all over Europe this summer, and we’ll probably play it in America. But nothing has really been set. We will be playing a big show in New York and keep on going – really since the anniversary is in December, we can keep on playing through next year. It’s a nice little touchstone and salute.
SEM: Is there any new music forthcoming?
LK: We’re thinking about it. Patti’s been involved in her books and her touring and stuff like that. But we always do her music. She and I were up for a Golden Globe for “Mercy Is” [from the film, Noah], which is very gratifying, and we’re always doing something. But there’s no urgency to do an album. We might start thinking about it because that is what we do. Hopefully, over the next year, we will embark upon some new music and see what comes up.
Transcription by Zoë Loos and Katie Gleason.
Edited by Katie Gleason and Paul Gleason.