Perfect Sound Forever

Lenny Kaye

Interview by Neil Levine
(May 2006)

Lenny Kaye has been Patti Smith's musical collaborator since 1971. They both went down to CBGB Easter Sunday, 1974, to see Television, which had just started playing there two weeks earlier. The rest, as the kids say, is history. But wait: there's more! Lenny's been a bandleader (The Lenny Kaye Connection); producer (Suzanne Vega, James, Soul Asylum, Throwing Muses); journalist and critic; compiler for Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 and author of several books, the most recent being You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Art of the Croon.

I had visited with him while researching a book on Hilly Kristal and CBGB, and sought him out for his insight, recollections, and general sense of what fits where, in the big scheme of things. What follows is a small snippet of what transpired. His appreciation for what happened at CBGB, both for the Patti Smith Group and for all the other bands involved with that club, as well as his great feeling for the potential and promise of live performance ran very deep and was as heartfelt as anything I've ever experienced in rock. I'd like to thank him for his generosity, hospitality, and eloquence. He plays pretty good, too. Enjoy.

PSF: I'd like to hear your take on Hilly Kristal and CBGB and its place in the scheme of things, in the big sense. I'm also trying to recreate as best I can, one of THOSE nights in '75, when you had the seven-week run there, and then one of the nights, or THE night, when Clive Davis came in. I'm not sure it's fair to spring that on you.

LK: Well you can spring it on me, but you're not likely to get the kind of response you're looking for, because these things seem much more eventful in hindsight. Like, I don't remember Clive being there maybe more than once or twice, and, if he was, it wasn't like some big kind of Zeus-like descending on CBGB's. He might have been there. I remember auditioning for him in some studio. We played through a couple of the songs, but it wasn't any more or less than any of the other nights that I spent there, either playing on the stage or being in a band or being in the audience.

The thing which I always am amused about with CBGB's, particularly in the old days before it caught on fire, was how casual it was: the bands essentially playing for the other bands. Early on - when I started going there before we did our eight-week stand, or seven weeks, actually - it wasn't very crowded. We'd go down Sunday nights, when Television played, or see the Ramones, or whoever else was there early on, The Stilettos – it was very small, maybe 20-25 people in the audience, tops. It was people you saw around most of the time – people in bands, your friends, other hangers-out on the very small scene, this kind of avant-mixed-media rock scene - and it was happening in the wake of the New York Dolls kind of explosion, so it seemed almost like the waters had receded, and there wasn't really any sense of occasion. It was just a night out at your local dive, which to me gave it its charm, basically.

I'll recreate whatever I can, but there's nothing really overtly dramatic about any of those things. I remember more of the night Hilly's dog got hit by a car than I do about the occasional celebrity visit. I do know that when we brought our – it's not even the right word to say a "following", "the people who liked us" is more appropriate - we weren't even that developed as an act.

But we did have a reputation that kind of was more than a "CBGB's band," because we had certain things in the avant-garde art world and in the music world, and when we started playing there for those seven weeks it was more – the sense of expansion – the CBGB's thing was getting outside of CBGB's for the first time. It was so "inner," with the bands that played within it. We were able to bring a kind of an "outside" consciousness to it. And, again, as I vaguely remember it, really the only nights that were crowded were the weekend nights: the Thursdays and Sundays would be pretty much the local – the "hometown" people.

I think all the bands – Blondie, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and the Dead Boys came just a hair after, when "punk rock" was "PUNK ROCK!" But I mean ALL of them were part of a generation down there that helped move rock & roll that next step forward. And when I say that, I don't highlight it to give short shrift to the next 25 years of CBGB, because if anything, to me, CB's became more valuable AFTER its initial shockwave.

PSF: In what sense?

LK: Because it became more open-ended. They didn't go up a very narrow thing: instead of having three or four nights devoted to the same two bands, they have seven nights devoted to five bands each. That's 35 bands, roughly, a week. You do the math for the year, that's a lot. Figure an average of four people in a band, that's 140-150 musicians a week who are getting a chance to see who they are. That's REALLY valuable to me! And even if they didn't get known in that band, or that was all they had, some kid who's a stockbroker now in Minnesota now might remember that moment in time, when he was the equal of the Ramones.

PSF: And I can guarantee that he does! I'm finding so many of these stories as I talk to people about CB's.

LK: That's SO valuable. That kind of hands-on access and experience is really the secret heartbeat of rock & roll for me. Sometimes it's just a crapshoot whether you get heard or not. The fact is that instead of becoming more elitist, what Hilly did was become even MORE populist: he opened the door. And I would like to ask him, "Why, at a moment – and I'm sure he had his reasons … [no question followed] … part of it was just that's the way it happened. I'm sure he had ideas to do this or that or the other thing, but the fact is that by his actions he really did underline the secret history of rock & roll, which is the individual person. Whether or not you have success really is just where you're standing when the lightning strikes. I've seen as many great acts go nowhere as go all the way, but the fact is that he allowed CBGB to become the great gene pool from where many, many, many, MANY musical ideas, combinations, people, characters, and, for me, he caught a wave early on that set a certain moment in time, and believe me, all of the bands there are grateful, and perhaps if he wasn't there to give everybody shelter, who knows where everyone might have wandered? You NEED a melting pot!

PSF: I've read comments to the effect that if it [punk] didn't happen there at CB's, it would have happened anyway.

LK: Oh, the idea was bubbling up. It was time for a next generation of rock & roll, and you could look and see it. I'm talking about it in the Nuggets record, and I wasn't even there yet, in '72, but you could feel a new generation, because the old generation had kind of investigated itself, and so the moment was right. But that doesn't mean A) that it's gonna happen or B) that it's not gonna be diffused or it's just not gonna be able. But the fact that the people had a club, and a city, and a scene to see it all within, and for accidents of fate, luck, and skill, and acumen, and all those other things, Hilly allowed this Petri dish to coalesce. And he encouraged it. He didn't try to be smarter than it. He let it happen and kept his door open so that it could. This open door, THAT'S the key, y'know? He didn't make it Country, Bluegrass, or Blues; he let this amalgam find its home. His is the kind of club that I always believed in – the kind of club that I like.

PSF: That's what Hilly said about it too. He wanted to have a place that he wished he could have had as a performer himself. I think that's a good ethic, an EXCELLENT ethic: what you would wish for yourself as a performer - providing that. Maybe with a little less urine smell, but otherwise...

LK: He kept CBGB – it never gentrified, really. And he kept the borders really blurry. You can always be too smart for yourself: you can always say, "Yeah, this ‘punk rock' thing is really happening. I think we'll only have punk rock bands." Well, then you last as long as punk rock lasts. But the fact is that he had all kinds of bands: he kept this open style with which he actually began and he kept it! I've seen every type there, from the most depraved to the most…three kids from Long Island with their first shiny guitars up there, trying to do their version of the Byrds or the Beatles or the Cyrkle, or whatever. He kept it open.

PSF: The Cyrkle?!

LK: Yeah, I was gonna say The Cyrkle first, but I figured I better put it into context.

PSF: Hilly has talked about how passion is what has captivated him more than anything: seeing that in artists who wanted to play there was paramount. He needed to see spark like that and belief in what they were doing, and then he would come along. He thought that Television somehow believed in themselves. He didn't really care for what he heard, initially. He thought even less of the Ramones. But he didn't say that about Patti at all: he was kind of taken with her from the start.

LK; Oh, we were further along in our development when we got there, just because Patti, for one, is such an astonishing creature intellectually and performance-ly, and all of the above. I've even seen videotapes of us in '74 where I – I think of that as fairly primitive in our development, yet we were pretty far along in terms of the structure of what we were dealing with. We were somewhat music-biz sophisticates: I'd been a writer for four years, and we had been close to the bands and so we understood a certain level. We weren't starting just from scratch: we had a certain level of intellectual and music-biz sophistication. Not that we let it get in the way of the music [laughs]. I mean, we were a little further along than, say, the Ramones, who were kind of learning from scratch, and Television, who were dealing with a music that was very complex and they were learning how to play it.

PSF: And doing it at the same time.

LK: Yeah, and see if they could play it – they'd bitten off the biggest musical chew. The Ramones, all they had to do was just get harder and faster. Television really had to corral these incredible guitar symphonies together, and it took them a long time. I remember seeing very many just CHAOTIC Television shows, and then they'd play a great one. It was just a larger thing. I think Blondie, too, was also learning as they went. But Hilly, he responded to that passion because I think he might have felt that without it, you got nothing. With it, it might be a mess onstage, but at least the sense of performance, and honor one pays to that performance is real. So he saw that, and, again, didn't try to get in the way of it. It's very hard. That's why when bands come to me with their demos and ask if I want to produce I generally say "No," because I don't want to put my personality on something, because then it's going to start sounding like me. If I want something to sound like me, I can pick up a guitar and be me anytime. I give Hilly a lot of credit for not getting in and start messing with things that were still shaping themselves. By the time everyone got to their first record - and some took longer than others, Television longest of all - by the time they got to that first record there was something unique happening there. And I would suspect that somewhere along the way, that Hilly's tastes are a little more Catholic than most of that stuff he saw on that stage.

PSF: Absolutely, they are.

LK: But he didn't try to pull it back, he didn't try to clean it up. He didn't even try to make it happen MORE. It was very laissez-faire there. Aside from that ad that he took out in the Village Voice, there was no promotion, there was, really, if you didn't do it yourself, it didn't get done, and into that vacuum the bands were able to place THEIR personalities. It had that sense of "underground," which was kind of disappearing, because everything that had been "underground" in 1967 was kind of way, way OVER-ground, so it appealed to people who want to, I mean, today, you gotta figure there's 50 years of rock history you're fighting against: everything has been pretty much tried. I think probably the energy has moved on from rock music, per se, though there'll alsways be people doing interesting things. But you had a moment in time there where rock hadn't played out some of its spirals in the staircase. It was a good time to open a club, like I said. There were no other places for people to be. I believe Max's was closed; the Bottom Line had just opened, but that was completely different.

PSF: It was incredible how few clubs there were. The Mercer Arts Center was gone.

LK: Yeah, Mercer was gone. The only place people hung out on the rock scene was Ashley's, on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue, that became the Lone Star Café, but that had elements of "posh." I remember that in '74 we'd open up for Happy and Artie Traum at the Metro on 40th Street, or we'd play the Bitter End: just kind of random places. Hilly gave it a home. [BIG PAUSE] And it was also on the Lower East Side, which was not quite as well known. Hilly was able to put a flag in the Lower East Side and say "It really begins HERE!"

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