It's Friday afternoon and I caught Lenny Kaye in the middle of a composing session. He is working on a Christmas song called "Santa's Knee." He briefly sings the chorus, and I can't help but wonder why, year after year, new Christmas songs are released but the same tracks from the '90s keep playing on the radio.
Kaye's studio is located in the basement of his house in northeast Pennsylvania. It looks like a comfortable place to let creativity run wild: dim lighting; crates of vinyl; music gear; books; folders; and many pictures and posters on the walls. The ephemera remind you of his career as a prolific musician who is best known as the guitarist of the Patti Smith Group and a gifted writer. Both of his passions have come together in his most recent book, Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, which Kaye will present at the Miami Book Fair on Saturday, November 19.
As he mentions at the beginning of the book, Kaye was born, grew up, and grew old with rock 'n' roll. One of his first memories was listening to Little Richard on the radio while living in Brooklyn. He and his sister danced and rolled on the floor, laughing and enjoying the frenetic melodies. He never wanted to write a memoir, but Lightning Striking gets somewhere close, serving as an insider's take on the critical moments of the music that shaped the last century: Memphis 1954, New Orleans 1957, Philadelphia 1959, Liverpool 1962, San Francisco 1967, Detroit 1969, New York 1975, London 1977, Los Angeles 1984, Norway 1993, and Seattle 1991.
"I was an eyewitness and a participant in the growth of this music," Kaye explains. The book tells the story of rock 'n' roll's evolution through his sensibilities. "The music I was attracted to, the music that affected and influenced me. The music I attempted to make my own within my own sense of being a musician, being a performer, and most of all, being a fan," he adds in a tone both assertive and humble.
After all, Patti Smith Group's music is considereda pillar of what we know today as rock music. Smith's 1975 album Horses, which he helped co-write and played lead guitar, is often regarded as one of the greatest records of all time. The book's New York chapter highlights that same year, when bands such as Blondie, Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, and, of course, Smith came together at venues like CBGB. It's only one of many instances in Lightning Striking where a parallel line is traced between geography and music history.
"When I look back over the large soundscape of the music, I could see that there were moments when things changed — when a new generation was heralded. When the music underwent an evolution that I felt could be charted through these local scenes. In a time when local scenes really seemed to embody this moment of transformation," he says.
Kaye didn't focus only on the bands and musicians during the six years he spent researching and writing. He also paid close attention to all the elements that had an influence in making those talents flourish, such as venues, audience, and sociopolitical conditions of those cities, to name a few. It's what Brian Eno calls "scenius," similar to genius, except that he attributes that talent to a scene rather than to a single person. "It's a whole ecology of the ideas that go into making a moment of change happen," Kaye adds.
The book is written from the perspective of someone living down the street from the iconic venues and bars where history was made. "It was really pleasurable to immerse myself in each of these moments in time and space. I could immerse myself within the music, understand how these changes happened, who were the major characters and who were the minor characters because, in some ways, they're the most interesting." Kaye highlights the conditions that were happening before the scenes coalesced to the moments where the players were trying to figure out their roles. "Most of these scenes take place before they have an idea of what direction they're going to; they're trying to understand their new impulses. And that's the moment I like. I'm not so crazy about when the scene has a name," he explains.
Kaye also focuses on the reactive nature of music. A great example is Detroit, a city that gave birth to both Motown and the Stooges, music that at first glance might not have much in common but that was deeply influenced by the sociopolitical conditions that impacted all the scene players. "If you go through the book and look at each chapter, it's both reactive and pointing forward to what needs to be to keep the music alive."
According to Kaye, one of the reasons why we make art is to reflect who we are at a moment in time. When asked why the book ends with Seattle 1991, he says, "That to me is because rock 'n' roll has explored all of the ways it can be rock 'n' roll, and then it's time for something new to take it into the future. Hopefully, my book provides a jumping-off point for the future to know that this is done. Let's do something different in the same way that Patti and I gathered in CBGB and wanted to play a different kind of music than what we were hearing. This is how human creativity continues to move into its next plateau."
Lenny believes in movement, change, and progress. "I'm, of course, always curious to see what the next generations do. Patti has a beautiful motto that says, 'Progress isn't the future. It's keeping up with the present.'"
Patti Smith With Lenny Kaye: Songs & Stories From A Book of Days.8 p.m. Friday, November 18 at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, Second Floor, Room 3210), 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Tickets cost $35.
Lenny Kaye With Rachel Felder: a Conversation. 1:30 p.m. Saturday, November 19, at Miami Dade College Auditorium (Building 1, Second Floor, Room 1261), 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Admission is free.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE...
Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.