Lenny Kaye: Of Nuggets And Moving Forward
by Daniel Coston
featured in the forthcoming issue 93 of the Big Takeover Magazine
Opportunities and new paths in life can be viewed as passing windows. Something that shows you the possibility of a greater life and perspective, if you’re willing to explore what you see through that window. The chance to glimpse something better can come in many forms. Your grandparents, a chance introduction to a record of movie, or finding an all night radio station that plays something that you’ve never heard before.
For many of us, the Nuggets compilation was a widescreen window that changed our perception of what the music of the 1960s was, and can still be. Curated by a young Lenny Kaye, the collection introduced many to the notion of what is now termed garage rock, and that music that changes your life is infinite. It doesn’t matter if it was created in the past, it just has to affect you now.
With Nuggets celebrating its 50th anniversary, Kaye is hitting the road for a few select shows this year, including a show at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC on November 12th. Over the years, music has taken Kaye many places. From over forty-five years in the Patti Smith Group, to music old and new that he still enjoys discovering, Kaye offers his thoughts about Nuggets, his upcoming show in North Carolina, and the influence that this music has had on himself and others.
Lenny Kaye: The thing about Nuggets is that they’re great songs. I have a sensibility about garage rock, and that’s its own kind of genre. I like songs that are beyond genres that are great records, essentially. That for me is why Nuggets has lived on. It’s not just a strange excavation of a moment in time, but they all are great records.
I think that you could make a Nuggets out of any slice of music. Girl groups, or reggae, any of the variety of hip hop. Just find the 20, 25 most accomplished records, and its a great listening experience. I think now they are called, playlists. (laughs) The fact is that I was really putting together songs that I thought were great, from a period of time. I guess the instincts came later, all seared in attitude, but I also thought that these were songs that need to live on. Amazing enough, a half century later, its still a signifier of something elemental in rock and roll.
I did one [Nuggets] show in Bethlehem, PA. I sang all of the songs there, which I don’t plan to do in North Carolina. Then we did the highly professional and well organized show in Glendale [CA] with the Wild Honey Orchestra. We also did one in San Francisco where Alec Palao led the house band. It was the other end [from the Wild Honey show]. It was funky in a cool rock setting. Then we did two nights in New York with a bunch of characters, including Bob Mould, Juliana Hatfield and a bunch of local stars. Now we’re coming to North Carolina. I like that a lot of people get up and sing songs they love. The North Carolina one is actually really great. A lot of friends will be there. Peter Buck, Kevn Kinney, Steve Wynn, Alejandro Escovedo. There are my brothers in arms, in the music universe, and its going to be a really great night celebrating great music.
Coston: Now that you’ve playing these songs live, what else have you discovered about the Nuggets collection? And what is it that makes this collection still thrive?
Kaye: In the end, there’s a core of why we play music. There’s a sense of yearning in them, there’s a sense of becoming who you can be, and the sense of desire. Which to me, is the root of any wish to make sense. I can only speak for myself, but in the early 60s, when I learned my first guitar chords, I’d hope to be a lonely folk singer in the garage. Then, seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, all of the sudden there was a new band model. You don’t have to be a doo-wop group and sing high tenor. It also happened at a formative moment for me, where I’m a mutant teenager in New Jersey. I’m not good at sports, I’m not a particular collegiate achiever. I’m looking for a way to understand who I might become, and at that moment in time, getting ann electric guitar, joining a bunch of your friends and howling at the moon is really a defining moment, especially for me.
Not that I thought that I’d be playing more than half a century later, but that I could become that, which I hoped I could become to be. That sense of identity, and learning one’s realization is at the core of any music that’s being made. There’s a sense of relief, and a sense of ecstasy about this music, because you’re turning it up, and trying to make yourself live up to the power of music. That’s a little abstract, but to me, there’s a sense of expressing these sounds. The very abstract language is one of the beautiful things about us being human. We see it all over the word, and how we go find way to express these undefined emotions within ourselves, and understand them.
There’s a lot of garage records where someone will come up and say, “This is a great garage record.” And I’ll listen to it, and it’ll have all of the tropes. The fuzztone, the yowling lead singer, and the banging drums. But does it transcend that? Is there more than what you would expect from a garage record? Some of these songs, I’ve been singing for as long as Nuggets has been out, and I never tire of them. I probably understand them far too well, at this point.
Coston: For me, there is still something beautiful about being able to play it loud, and let go.
Kaye: I don’t take the music that seriously. It helped form me. I don’t think that it’s better or worse than any other musical genre that you can choose out of the cornicopulatta (laughs) of musical manifestation. But the fact is that its fun to sing, and it’s fun for the audience to sing along. I’ve been so charmed by the response that these songs get. And if you go back fifty years from when these songs [came from], you’re in the era of Al Jolson, Mamie Smith. The microphone hadn’t been invented yet, so they’re still projecting to the far reaches of the balcony.
The fact that these songs are still honored, it’s a remarkable thing, and it speaks to their longevity, and a testament to a vital spark. I call it, the original sin of rock and roll. All of a sudden, there’s this blast of sound and noise, and it electrifies you. I feel that when I play these songs. They’re fun to negotiate, and they’re not even as easy to negotiate as people think. In all of these songs, if you started trying to understands how they work as a band, you’ll find lots of little strange hooks and sound effects, and ways in which the chords turn around on each other. They’re really fun to play, and at this point, I understand how to play them.
Coston: When you originally put Nuggets, my understanding is that you weren’t sure that [Elektra] was going to release it, so that the root of that original collection was, “I like these songs the way they sound together. Let’s see what happens.”
Kaye: At the time, all of the songs on Nuggets sounded wildly different from each other, and they still do. Back then, garage rock had yet to be defined. For me, as Mayo [Thompson] from the Red Krayola once said, “Definition defines limits.” If I had thought, “Oh, this is garage rock,” they all would have sounded similar. But then you have Sagittarius, which is symphonic rock. You have proto-punk like the Seeds. You have sophisticated musicians blending the blues and psychedelic [music], like the Blues Project. You had weird things like the Third Rail, which was two Brill Building writers creating a novelty record.
They sound very different to me, and its only with the passage of years that I see how it all fits together. Much more so than I did back then, and all credit to Jac Holzman and Elektra Records for letting me play in the fields of the Lord. Jac had this idea of an album that gathered together these orphan tracks of a one hit wonder, or a deep track on another album. He gave me hardly any direction, and let me put it together and trusted me. That was a great aspect of them as a creative record company. In the 60s and 70s, Elektra was the most forward and progressive record company of them all. Folk music, and then the Stooges, the Doors, and Clear Light. They also had Nonesuch Records.
Jac is a total visionary, and he gave me this project. I worked with them for about six months as a talent scout, and nothing I suggested to them took hold, and nothing they wanted me to get interested in took hold. So I had given them this list of random songs, many of which I was familiar with from working the Village Oldies record shop, in the Village. For a while, I thought that this was gone with my tenure at Elektra, but then they called up two months after I was at liberty, and they said, “We have the rights to all these songs.” And I said, “Let’s make this as good as we can.”
I turned down two covers, before that incredible Abe Gurvin cover came across the transom. It was like a weird accident. The record came out in the winter of 1972, and was not a commercial success. Rock critics liked it, but it found its place. especially in Europe. In America, we knew who the 13th Floor Elevators were. We probably even knew who the Seeds were, but in Europe that was quite a shock to the nervous system to have it over there. And then Seymour Stein with Sire reissued it in 1976, and then there was a new generation of bands who were having to reconstruct from the bottom up.
It just seemed to have a lifeline of its own. I can’t tell you how many times, I’m somewhere overseas, and someone walks up and says, “Nuggets changed my life. Can I buy you a beer?” And I say, “Well, it’s gonna change my life in about thirty seconds, when I enjoy a nice cold beer.” (laughs)
Coston: After that release, Elektra decided to pass on putting together another volume of Nuggets. In that gulf, a wave of independent garage rock compilations came out, and pushed that whole movement forward. Were you aware at that, at the time?
Kaye: I actually predicted it in the liner notes to volume one. I knew that there would be dedicated archeologists spreading out and finding all of these more obscure records. Ones that I would not have had to put in the original Nuggets.
[Elektra] did want to put the album out, but in the interim, when they picked up the option, Jac Holzman had sold the company to Warners. On the first album, we had a lawyer who, at a time when licensing wasn’t as easy as it today, now there’s departments for licensing, he was just chasing rogue people who owned the rights to these songs, and tried to figure out who to get them. He was dogged, Michael Kapp. And the new person, at the end of a year, they only had three clearances, so it faded.
But in the end, I felt like it was Johnny Appleseed. Planting seeds, and collectors being who they are fan out and find more. Its like the Gold Rush, “Oh, we’ve found a strike here,” and all of a sudden, hundreds, if not thousands of records are unearthed. Some are generic, and some are shot through with genius. I love that, because to be honest, I felt like I’d done what I needed to do with Nuggets.
Rhino wanted to recreate what I’d wanted to do with Volume 2 [for the 1998 boxset]. I got to put some songs that I’d discovered in the intervening years. I also took some songs off that as the years had passed, they were not needing revelation. Nuggets is kind of in the middle ground. There’s some hits on there. On Volume 2, it opens with the Lovin Spoonful’s “Do You Believe In Magic”, because the Lovin Spoonful ultimately were a garage band.
My last notes in volume one was to have people write in and say if the magic was in the music, or if the music was in you. That was my concept, anyway (laughs), but the truth is that a lot of the songs on Nuggets are more familiar. It’s not like its a record designed for obscurest record collectors. It’s a listening above. For me, Back To The Grave, Pebbles, Boulders, all of them are for the cognoscenti. I’m still like a popularizer, in a certain way.
I always say that I’d known that I’d be talking about Nuggets fifty years in the future, I would have f—ked it up, because of the pressure and the weight of history. “Oh, am I being conceptual enough?” In a weird way, I was just indulging my fancy, and putting a lot of my favorite records out there. I can’t say that they’re the best of everything, but it definitely seems to have struck a chord and paved the way for, if you’re a fan of sunshine pop, there’s sunshine pop on there. If you like gritty, straighter-ahead two-chord mania, there’s that, too. Or sophisticated arrangements.
I feel like I opened the door and suddenly, everybody had a realization and flipped through it, in the same way that when I discovered the series Brown Acid a few years ago, it almost opened up a genre that I had not been aware of, which is proto-metal of the early 70s. I’m just happy it lives on, and at the Cat’s Cradle, it’s gonna be a real fun time.
We’re just going to have a good time, all the time, like they say in Spinal Tap.