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Rock and Roll Book Club

Book Review: Lenny Kaye's 'Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll'

It wasn’t Lenny Kaye’s music, but his writing, that first caught Patti Smith’s attention.
It wasn’t Lenny Kaye’s music, but his writing, that first caught Patti Smith’s attention.Jay Gabler/MPR
  Play Now [6:23]

by Jay Gabler

January 13, 2022

Unless you’re a fairly serious fan of rock music, chances are good that you don’t recognize the name Lenny Kaye. It seems that’s fine with the artist, whose new book takes a personal view of rock history without making it all about him.

You do probably recognize the name of Kaye’s multi-decade collaborator: Patti Smith. Kaye admits that he developed an “instant crush” on Smith when he first saw her: onstage in an “off-off-Broadway” play circa 1970. “She plays a tough-talking speed freak, all bones and slashed black hair and unfettered attitude, no distance between her role and self.” Although Kaye would become the pivotal figure paving Smith’s transition from punk poet to punk rocker, there was never any chance that their band would be called the Lenny Kaye Group.

It wasn’t Kaye’s music, but his writing, that first caught Smith’s attention. The December 1969 issue of Jazz and Pop contained Kaye’s article “The Best of Acapella,” a tribute to doo-wop that Smith appreciated. The strange magic of the music the two would create sprang from combining Smith’s absorbing incantations with an eclectic stew of artistic influences; the two were less interested in originality for originality’s sake than in providing the most impactful platform for her ideas.

Kaye has also done serious time as a record collector, and in that avocation he’s responsible for one of the most acclaimed, influential anthologies of the rock era: Nuggets, originally released as a 1972 double album and ultimately spanning over a dozen records, with a 1998 box-set release that confirmed its importance. Kaye’s liner notes included one of the first uses of the term “punk rock,” and the ‘60s garage rock the set contained helped set the template for what punk rock would become.

Given that legacy, a straightforward memoir would have been entirely justified. That wasn’t what Kaye was interested in writing, though. The author flits into Lightning Striking as much as an audience member as an artist; the new book makes an apt companion piece to the recent autobiography by Stevie Van Zandt, a fellow self-effacing rock aficionado.

It’s a good thing that Kaye brings such sterling credentials to this project, because as a work of music history it doesn’t exactly tread unexplored ground. Lighting Striking is organized into 11 chapters, each centered on one time and place (or, in one case, a heavy metal twofer of L.A. and Norway). It starts with an Alan Freed showcase being shut down by fire marshals in Cleveland, circa 1952: “a newborn’s first cry,” the infant in question being rock and roll itself.

Subsequent chapters take us to Memphis with Elvis (1954), New Orleans with Professor Longhair (1957), Philadelphia with American Bandstand (1959), Liverpool with the Fab Four (1962), San Francisco in the Summer of Love (1967), Detroit with the MC5 (1969), New York City with the downtown crowd (1975), London with the punks (1977), the aforementioned locales with metalheads (1984, 1993), and of course Seattle with Nirvana (1991). That’s it. The last three decades? Another story.

Although the book’s subtitle is Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll, for programming purposes the last three words could now be swapped out for two that are much less cool but possibly more precise: classic rock. Kaye’s history is a sort of B-side to Twilight of the Gods (2018), in which critic Steven Hyden argues that the end of the 20th century was also the end of an era in which (as I summarized in my review) “Serious Albums by guitar-based bands were the lingua franca of music criticism and, to a varying extent, consumption.”

Kaye acknowledges that it was the electric guitar (his own instrument, as it happens) that provided the singular spark for rock and roll as we know it - though he appropriately makes an extended detour to New Orleans, where the keyboard reigned. In addition to highlighting punks over progs, Kaye’s book importantly underlines the importance of the Crescent City alongside Memphis and Detroit in the pantheon of rock’s cradle cities.

Like his fellow CBGB’s veteran David Byrne in How Music Works (2012), Kaye is fascinated by the notion of a music scene. The NYC downtown scene in the ‘70s was one of the quintessential scenes in rock history, uniting iconic groups like Blondie, Television, the Ramones, and of course Talking Heads and the Patti Smith Group. Detailing that scene, Kaye draws connections that are sometimes missed - not just to the earlier New York proto-punk era (Velvet Underground, New York Dolls) and to the Detroit proto-punks (Iggy Pop, the MC5) but to the later U.K. punk scene by way of Malcolm McLaren.

“Despite their flagship song, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.,’ Sex Pistols music hews to familiar tropes,” writes Kaye in his accustomed present tense. “What sets the group apart is their cheek, baring bottoms, daring the audience to kiss their ass.” That’s one of the gems of critical acumen Kaye drops in a book that also contains this marvelous description of the Beatles - a band about whom tankards of ink have already been spilled.

“What is it about the Fabulist Four, the perfect quartet, that sets them apart, beyond their peers, their generation, even the idea of pop music itself? They sound more randomly weird as we get equidistant from their time frame, untethered from the progression of genres that mark their contemporaries. They lead by example, and yet the results hew to no predictable landscape, blending instruments and style and overreach. That still, after these many years and maddening familiarity with each of their songs, they are capable of surprise; the revealing scope and sophistication of their musical imagination; the way each personality jigsaws together for an all-too-brief decade, and then the inevitable solo albums, individual brilliance showing how much they relied on each other to make a four-ever magic.”

Kaye’s Beatles chapter, though, isn’t just about the Beatles: it’s also about Billy Fury, the charismatic Elvis figure of the skiffle scene. It’s about Joe Meek, “an obsessive maverick” producer who was a contemporary of Phil Spector but six times as prolific. (Of course, the fact that Meek’s best-known song is the Tornados’ “Telstar” suggests that the Wall of Sound may have been worth the extra time investment.) It’s about Rory Storm, the pompadoured “Golden Boy” who set the Beatles’ first showmanship bar to reach. It’s about Bill Harry, who created the music magazine Mersey Beat. It’s about Brian Epstein and George Martin and Pete Best and Gerry Marsden and Cavern Club owner Ray McFall; Kaye will have you know that the Cavern you can visit in Liverpool today is technically a recreation of the original, “demolished in May 1973 for a railway ventilation shaft that was never built.”

Suffice it to say that Kaye is an encyclopedia of rock, but buyer be aware: Lightning Striking isn’t. It’s a journey through some pivotal scenes, including an unexpected detour to Oslo (Kaye is into Norwegian black metal). It’s for fans who know a lot about rock, but don’t know it all. As for Kaye, he comes pretty close.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club Picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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February 3: Prince and Popular Music: Critical Perspectives on an Interdisciplinary Life, edited by Mike Alleyne and Kristy Fairclough

February 10: A Sick Life: TLC ‘n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins