Lenny Kaye met his longtime musical collaborator Patti Smith at Village Oldies, where he was working at Village Oldies while also freelancing as a music writer and compiling Nuggets, an influential garage rock anthology that inspired many a punk rocker.
Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime musical collaborator, was also bitten by the rock ’n’ roll bug at an early age. Born in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, he moved around with his parents to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn before settling in North Brunswick, New Jersey, as a teen. “Growing up in New York,” Kaye said, “most of the music that came to me was seeing the older kids sing doo-wop on the corner, but of course you’re also very close to the cultural centers of Greenwich Village. Even though I was too young to go there, you felt part of the cultural crosstalk in the city.” Most doo-wop groups around New York during the Brill Building era were basically street bands—young men who sang on corners and in school talent shows and recreation centers. “I hoped that I would be a high tenor in a doo-wop group, and that’s what singing on the corner is about,” Kaye said. “But it was mostly for fun and we weren’t very serious about it.” This was also true of future Ramones frontman Joey Ramone (born Jeffrey Hyman) and his little brother Mickey Leigh (Mitchel Lee Hyman), who as kids heard the sounds of doo-wop street singers creeping into their bedroom. Their window faced another building across the alley, which created an echo, so kids would congregate there to sing songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens. Pointing out the affinities between doo-wop and 1970s punk groups, Leigh said, “Those teenagers who were singing doo-wop in the street, you could say that was the first manifestation of DIY groups. They didn’t really need anything. They just needed a bunch of guys, and they figured out who was going to sing which parts.” Kaye also believes that the appeal of early doo-wop had to do with its accessibility. “If you weren’t trained to be a classical musician, you could sing on the corner emulating the records that you heard on the radio,” he said. “It was a sense that I think punk would also access—that you didn’t have go through a conservatory to make the music.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Recalling Jackie Curtis’s Femme Fatale play at La MaMa, Jayne County said Patti Smith “played a mafia dyke with a mustache and a really ridiculous Italian accent, like ‘Heeeeeey, wassa matta, you fuck-a-wid me, I blow-a ya fuckin’ brains out!’ She had a big phallus hanging between her legs and she was always picking it up and waving it at people.” The ambiguously gendered Smith also shot-gunned lines like “He could take her or leave her. And he took her and then he left her.” At the end of Femme Fatale, the cast crucified Curtis’s character by stapling her to a giant IBM computer punch-card as one character said, “Christ, you’re hung!” While Curtis put on an unforgettable act, it was Smith who struck audience member Lenny Kaye as one of the show’s breakout performers. “It was pretty sweet,” the future Patti Smith Group guitarist recalled. “I immediately thought she was one of the most engaging persons I’d ever seen, and I didn’t even get to meet her that time. I just remember seeing her from afar. She was with Robert Mapplethorpe, and was a gloriously charismatic person with a lot of style.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith met her future musical collaborator Lenny Kaye at a downtown record store. After playing in garage bands during the second half of the 1960s, he was working at Village Oldies while also freelancing as a music writer. “You work in a record store, you’re surrounded by music,” Kaye explained, “and then you think, ‘Hey, it’s not unreasonable for me to try to make that music and be one of a hundred million records that we’re selling here.’ It makes it less mysterious in a certain way, and gives you a sense that you could perhaps participate. Those older records also provided me with the way that I met Patti, because I wrote an article about those songs for Jazz and Pop magazine around 1970.” Kaye’s article spoke to Smith about her own youth, when boys would gather to harmonize on doo-wop songs in southern New Jersey. She called him up and began dropping by Village Oldies, which sold vintage 45 rpm singles. “I’d play some of our favorite records—‘My Hero’ by the Blue Notes, and ‘Today’s the Day’ by Maureen Gray, and the Dovells’ ‘Bristol Stomp,’ ” Kaye said, “and Patti and I would just sit around and shoot the breeze.” They were attracted to not only classic group harmony records, but also artists like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and others who pushed jazz beyond traditional Western harmonics—an improvisational spirit influenced their later musical collaborations.
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith had been interested in doing public poetry readings, though she was wary of many of the poets’ staid, practiced delivery. In the early 1970s, Beat poet Gregory Corso started taking her to readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a collective based at the same church where Theatre Genesis was located. It was home to A-listers like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, but Corso was less than reverent. He heckled certain poets during their listless performances, yelling, “Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!” Sitting at Corso’s side, Smith made a mental note not to be boring if she ever had a chance to read her poems in public. On February 10, 1971, Gerard Malanga was scheduled to do a reading at the Poetry Project and he agreed to let Smith open for him. Her collaborations with Shepard taught her to infuse her words with rhythm, and she sought out other ideas about how to disrupt the traditional poetry reading format. For the St. Mark’s event, Sam Shepard suggested that Smith add music—which reminded her that Lenny Kaye played guitar. “She wanted to shake it up, poetry-wise, and she did,” said Kaye, who recalled that it was primarily a solo poetry reading, with occasional guitar accompaniment. “I started it with her,” he said. “We did ‘Mack the Knife,’ because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces.” Setting chords to her melodic chanting, Kaye recalled that she was easy to follow because of her strong sense of rhythmic movement. “I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.”
Reading poems to an unruly Mercer Arts Center audience that was waiting to hear the headlining rock ’n’ roll act schooled Patti Smith in the art of crowd control and stage presence. “I read my poems, fielded insults, and sometimes sang songs accompanied by bits of music on my cassette player,” she recalled, and by the summer of 1973 she was hitting her stride. “I took to ending each performance with ‘Piss Factory,’ a prose poem I had improvised, framing my escape from a nonunion assembly line to the freedom of New York City.” Lenny Kaye described these early shows as being very loose; they were still not thinking in traditional rock band terms and instead just followed their instincts after he began playing with her again later in 1973. “You’re right next door to where the loft jazz scene is taking place, you’re in an area in which experimentalism is encouraged,” Kaye said. “That experimentalism was so far off the mainstream that you didn’t really worry about it—you didn’t think you’re going to suddenly have a hit record. You’re doing it for your peer group, essentially.”
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When CBGB shifted the downtown’s center of gravity to the Bowery, the longtime hipster venue Max’s Kansas City had to play catchup. “CBGB was definitely in the forefront,” Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye said. “When Max’s started booking the local bands, they did it in emulation of CBGB. They borrowed all the bands and the concepts because they knew that’s what was happening.” Enumerating Max’s various cliques in the early 1970s, Tony Zanetta recalled, “I was part of the underground theater freak tribe, and there was also the Warhol people. And there was another group at Max’s, which was Danny Fields, Lisa and Richard Robinson—the rock writers, which then led to more of the rock and rollers going there because they were the most influential rock writers in the United States.” Patti Smith recalled that the scene at Max’s began shifting by the start of the 1970s. “One could still count on Holly Woodlawn sweeping in, Andrea Feldman dancing on the tabletops, and Jackie [Curtis] and Wayne [County] spewing cavalier brilliance, but increasingly their days of being the focal point of Max’s were numbered.” Kaye also began hanging out at Max’s during this time. “I started going there when the Velvet Underground played upstairs in the summer of ’70,” he said, “and that’s when I was able to establish my ‘regular’ credentials—so I could just walk in there.” Back when the Warhol crowd dominated Max’s back room, future CBGB regulars Joey Ramone and his brother Mickey Leigh didn’t really feel welcome there. “It was also not exactly a ‘We accept you, you’re one of us’ kind of thing with my brother and our friends,” Leigh said. “They were the beautiful people and we were us, from Forest Hills, Queens.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“Television had been percolating around for awhile, and then they started playing at CBGB on Sunday nights,” recalled Roberta Bayley. “I was living with Richard Hell at that time and their manager Terry Ork said, ‘Do you want to sit at the door and take the money?’ So that gave me something to do. Then later I started to do it full-time at CBGB.” Hell invited Patti Smith to one of their shows during the band’s CBGB residency in spring 1974, and Lloyd invited Lenny Kaye. Before heading downtown that night, Smith and Kaye attended a glittery, star-studded premiere of the Rolling Stones’ live concert film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. (Hibiscus, his sisters, and other Angels of Light had been hired by the theater to add even more sparkle to the occasion, performing a short vignette before the film.) “The first time I went to CBGB was on Easter Sunday 1974,” Kaye said, “when we left—symbolically, amazingly—a Rolling Stones movie uptown at the Ziegfeld Theatre and took a cab down and went there for the first time.” Television’s raw, jagged music reminded Smith of the first time she heard Little Richard as a girl, or seeing the Rolling Stones when she was a teen. It was electric, and transformative. In the pages of Rock Scene magazine, she waxed poetic about Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound (like “a thousand bluebirds screaming”) and described the tall skinny musician as “a languid boy with the confused grace of a child in paradise. A guy worth losing your virginity to.”
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
With no major labels interested in signing an androgynous poet-singer, Patti Smith decided to do it herself. Lenny Kaye had produced an album by the Sidewinders for RCA Records and previously played on a single as a teenager, so he knew his way around the studio. “We recorded our single in June of 1974,” he said, “mostly just because I knew that you could make records easily from hanging out in these record stores.” Robert Mapplethorpe loaned them the money to press a seven-inch single, which was recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios on West Eighth Street. The Patti Smith Group performed the Hendrix staple “Hey Joe,” along with one of her original songs, “Piss Factory,” to which Tom Verlaine added guitar. The group began distributing the single via mail order, at local bookstores and record stores, and during Smith’s shows—where Jane Friedman sold them out of a large shopping bag. “The DIY way of working in the poetry world was completely assumed,” Richard Hell said, “so that idea leaked into the music world when Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye pressed their single.” Hell also pointed out that this independent route was a continuation of what Warhol had done when he produced the first Velvet Underground record. Instead of waiting to sign to a major label, he paid for the sessions himself so as to avoid being constrained by record company executives.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye noted that the early CBGB scene was quite small. “It was the same twenty-five or thirty-five people in the audience,” he said, “and you would get up onstage and play, and then go offstage and hang out and watch your friends play. Everybody had a sense of the destination, but the fact that this destination was so improbable allowed you to develop at your own speed.” Doorwoman Roberta Bayley also recalled that CBGB was practically deserted in the beginning, noting that only people they didn’t know ended up paying the two dollar cover. “1975 was the best year,” said Paul Zone, who would soon join his brothers as the lead singer for the Fast. “It really was, because no one was signed and everyone was there. Every single night you could see the main characters.” The bands sounded quite different from one another but were united by a sense of spirit and discovery. “We weren’t competing with each other,” Chris Stein said. “Television, Talking Heads, the Ramones—we all shared equipment and had each other’s backs for the first year, when everything was starting to come together.” Debbie Harry acknowledged that there was certainly some animosity between certain people, “but in a pinch, if you asked nicely, you could borrow an amp.”
Talent and stage presence are obviously important, but a good manager also goes a long way in building a career. Jane Friedman was a supporter of experimental art within the downtown scene, and she began taking on managerial duties during Patti Smith’s solo performances at the Mercer Arts Center, sometimes supporting the New York Dolls. In late 1973, guitarist Lenny Kaye rejoined Smith for a successful show at the West End Bar, then Friedman secured them a gig opening for protest singer Phil Ochs at Max’s. It was their first residency, two sets a night for six nights, and it led to other opportunities. By this point they had added Richard Sohl on keyboards, allowing the group to segue from Smith’s poems to some musical numbers played on guitar and piano. “Soon enough we started getting a thing together,” Kaye said. “We didn’t start out to have a band. What we wanted was to have a musical element in the performance and we let it grow into the band it would become, so it didn’t sound generic or get too ahead of itself. … After a while, we felt like we needed another instrument because both myself and Richard Sohl, the pianist, were kind of having to do too much work.” After placing an ad in the Village Voice, they found Ivan Kral, who was currently playing guitar for the scene’s ne’er-do-wells, Blondie. After performing as a four piece at CBGB for about seven weeks in early 1975, the Patti Smith Group expanded their lineup to include drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who jumped ship from Lance Loud’s band the Mumps. “It was allowed to grow very organically,” said Kaye. “So by the time we had a drummer we sounded like ourselves, instead of like every other band.”
Before Debbie Harry appeared on the cover of major magazines like Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone, her first-ever cover story was in New York Rocker, shot in Blondie’s loft on the Bowery. Publisher Alan Betrock launched his DIY paper in early 1976, right around the time Punk magazine debuted on the scene. When Lisa Jane Persky joined New York Rocker as a founding staff member, she had been dating Blondie bassist Gary Valentine and had already taken several rolls of film at the band’s loft on the Bowery. So when Betrock said he wanted to put Harry on the cover of the third issue and was looking for a photo, Persky realized, “Oh, I’ve got the perfect one.” Other small-scale zines had already started covering what would become known as punk music—such as Teenage Wasteland Gazette, started in 1973 by the Dictators’ primary songwriter Andy Shernoff. The same year, Lisa and Richard Robinson launched the photo-heavy magazine Rock Scene, which employed Lenny Kaye as an associate editor and Lance Loud as a contributing writer. Several other little publications existed, such as the Anglophile zine Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, but it was New York Rocker that struck at the right place and right time. “Alan kind of invented the scene with New York Rocker,” Kristian Hoffman said, “because it made it seem like, ‘Oh, all these bands are in the same magazine,’ so it all coalesced into a scene.” A symbiotic relationship between local indie media and the downtown scenes had deepened since the early days of the Village Voice in the mid-1950s, Ed Sanders’s Fuck You during the 1960s, and a host of smaller mimeo publications.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The word punk had previously been used by a handful of rock writers, such as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Lenny Kaye, but it hadn’t yet circulated widely as a music genre name. “Nobody in New York wanted to be called ‘punk,’ ” said Ramones producer Craig Leon. “There were no real tags except ‘New York Rock.’ ” By early to mid-1976, just after Punk began publishing—and could be purchased at CBGB’s bar—mass media outlets located in midtown began taking notice of this subculture that was brewing nearby. “I think punk,” Kristian Hoffman observed, “the name that got attached to our bands, happened because Punk magazine existed.” Punk magazine’s John Holmstrom added: “Punk rock didn’t really start with Punk magazine, but we really put it on the map. We brought media attention.” Even though some on the scene hated Punk—or at least thought it was sexist, knuckle dragging, or just plain clueless—they still hoped the magazine would write about their bands, because media coverage was hard to come by. Unfortunately, this eventually had the effect of flattening the diversity of New York’s underground rock scene, reducing punk to a one-dimensional parody of itself. “I think Punk was more about the cartoon aspects of the music,” Kaye said. “It was not a lot about the music. It was mostly a caricature of the music, which is somewhat valuable, and somewhat limiting.” The British punk band the Sex Pistols never had a Top 10 hit in the United States, but their media presence was substantial. US news outlets latched onto the sensationalistic, violent aspects of the British punk scene—which were then projected onto groups like the Ramones, much to their chagrin. This attracted boorish types who thought that being ‘punk’ was about starting fights, so most American record companies kept their distance from the scene. “Once the Sex Pistols and the British music scene embraced the word punk, it was very, very bad to have that word associated with the New York bands,” the Fast’s Paul Zone recalled. “It was hurting all of the New York artists to be called punk, because it was associated with the whole Sex Pistols fiasco.”
New York Rocker covered a wide variety of bands on the scene, much like the music weeklies Melody Maker and New Musical Express did in Britain. “New York Rocker definitely attempted to look at the personalities a little more deeply and to see how the music was put together,” Lenny Kaye said. “Whereas Punk magazine was very specific in terms of what they considered ‘punk.’ ” Many took a rather dim view of that magazine, which Kaye described as a bit “Johnny-come-lately” (Punk cofounders Eddie “Legs” McNeil, John Holmstrom, and Ged Dunn Jr. didn’t start their publication until the scene was in full swing). “Punk magazine, although I was friends with those guys, that never had much appeal to me,” Blondie drummer Clem Burke said. “I just really liked the New York Rocker. It was like our version of New Musical Express or something. They wrote about the music more in-depth, and they covered lots of different bands. Punk didn’t really deal as much with music. It was more like a lifestyle.” To build buzz for their new magazine, Holmstrom and McNeil plastered punk is coming! posters all around downtown in early 1976. “When those posters went up around town,” Gary Valentine recalled, “everyone thought it was some band from New Jersey coming to play in the city.” While Punk had its detractors, others—notably Chris Stein and Debbie Harry—became fans. “People went nuts for that first issue,” said Holmstrom, who attended the School for Visual Arts in Manhattan with Stein.