Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Lenny Kaye

Lenny Kaye is a gentle force. One of the most influential people in rock history, he’s helped usher punk in as guitarist of Patti Smith Group. He’s been called a punk pioneer and The Godfather of Garage Rock. He’s our heroes’ hero, and he’s an eloquent and brilliant wordsmith, humble and with an intuitive wisdom that manifests in conversation that reads like poetry. Here, Ace friend and DJ legend Justin Strauss sits down with Lenny Kaye to wax poetic on his current projects, the necessity of a future sound and the mystery of the Magic Mushrooms. Follow closely. 

Justin Strauss:
Lenny Kaye, where did you grow up?

Lenny Kaye:
I grew up in New York City. I’m a native-born New Yorker. I was born up by the George Washington Bridge and when I was a year old my folks moved to Jamaica, Queens. When I was eight or nine, we moved to Brooklyn, Flatbush, and then out to New Jersey. Then back to New York as soon as I could.

JS:
When did you realize that music would be something you’d be doing, something you’d want to do for your the rest of your life?

LK:
I still don’t realize it. It’s a miracle and a blessing every day — I wake up and realize that my job is to think about music, play music, find a record in my collection and participate in the wonderful world of music. I didn’t really decide. It’s the thing that happens as you get drawn closer to something. I always loved to collect records as a teenager and I had, what would later be known as a garageband, in the 60s. And I just kept being lucky.

JS:
Was there an artist or a record that you heard that made you say, “Oh, wow”?

LK:
I guess it’s kind of a cliché, but it started when doo-wop groups were big, so I always imagined myself maybe being in a street corner symphony group. But once I got a hold of a guitar when I was a senior in high school I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll be a lonely folk singer in the backyard.” And then, like many others of my generation, there was that seismic moment where I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and thought, “Oh, this is a whole new way to be in a band.” By late summer of 64 I was learning my first chords and had my professional (or semi-professional, or amateur, or whatever it is) debut in November of 64 at a local Rutgers fraternity house.

And I haven’t really looked back since.

JS:
I remember watching The Beatles when I was seven…and that was it. I just knew it.

LK:
It was a great role model. In New York, there weren’t a lot of bands because it was mostly singing groups. You couldn’t just look and see rockabilly on the corner. It was more like harmony groups. But to see a band playing, especially a band like The Beatles which was really a band of equals — it was really one for all and all for one — it was inspirational and about nine months later (I guess the actual gestation period of a baby) I had my first gig with The Vandals.

JS:
Did that band ever record?

LK:
No, no. It was purely a party band. Four sets a night, played for a fraternity. Everything from “What’d I Say” with all the risque lyrics like, “see that girl from Trenton State, that’s where they teach you to masturbate. What’d I say?” And covering some of the English Invasion and Four Tops. I don’t like to think of it, but when I went to college I actually learned my future.

JS:
You went to Rutgers?

LK:
Yeah, Rutgers. I was an American History major so I learned cultural history and that’s always helped me in my writing. And I was playing in bands. Those are the two poles in which I function these days.

JS:
Did New York City play a role in your rock n roll foundations?

LK:
Yes, it was the capital of the universe, especially at that moment in time. There also was a real explosion of band interest then. At the beginning of the 70s there was no local rock bands at all. It’s impossible to imagine this, but really it’s true. And until the New York Dolls poster went up on the wall at Village Oldies record store where I was working, there was no local band scene at all. And slowly, slowly it grew. Then out of the New York Dolls and the associated groups like The Harlots of 42nd Street and Street Punk, it took root at CBGB, which became an actual breeding ground for New York rock, and a great moment in time.

JS:
Were you going to clubs and seeing bands in the late 60s before the New York Dolls?

LK:
I did.

JS:
The Young Rascals ?

LK:
I did see the Rascals at The Telephone Booth on the East Side. They were one of the greatest bands I’d ever seen. I actually placed bass behind a folk singer named John Braden during the summer of 69. We were the house folk singers at Ungano’s, we opened for Junior Wells and the Amboy Dukes. One week the MC5…that’s kind of amazing to think of. But it wasn’t really. I liked to go see them and, at that time, I just about started writing about rock n roll which gave me another entrance into seeing bands and getting involved in the inner workings of music.

I’d get free records and maybe $25 and kind of started to see that this would be great.

JS:
Did you go to the Electric Circus club on St. Marks Place?

LK:
I did. I saw Tim Buckley open The Mothers of Invention at the Electric Circus. I remember that one. I mean, a lot of it I was still driving in from New Jersey, so it wasn’t as available as it might have been a year later. And then when I moved to New York, the Fillmore had opened and you could go down there every week and see the most amazing triple bills ever.

JS:
What did you start writing about when you started writing about rock n roll? Where were you writing about it at school?

LK:
I did a little bit for the school paper at Rutgers, just trying it out, pretending I was writing for Crawdaddy. But when I got here, my main gig before I knew anybody was at Jazz & Pop — a friend of mine was the boyfriend of the editor there, Patricia Kennealy (later to marry Jim Morrison in a Wicca ceremony. So now she’s Patricia Morrison). But yeah, I did my first record reviews there. I think my very first review was a review of The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, a great record still.

I’d get free records and maybe $25 and kind of started to see that this would be great. I wrote a review of The Stooges’ first album for Boston’s Fusion Magazine and Danny Fields (who signed the Stooges to Elektra Records) called me up out of the blue and he said, “Who are you? Why don’t you come to a press party,” and literally discovered me — like he has so many others. I went to the press party and I met the circle of rock writers that were in New York at the time.

JS:
Who were the big rock writers of the time in New York?

LK:
I would say Richard Meltzer. Lester Bangs was more west coast. It was mostly Richard Meltzer. I was kind of in the wake of Richard, Sandy Pearlman, John Landau and Paul Williams, all the Crawdaddy writers. I was a little bit in the second generation, even though it seems like splitting hairs now.

JS:
I might have seen those reviews as a kid. I don’t think you can stress how important magazines were to someone who was interested in music because this was the time of no internet, nothing. And that was the lifeline.

LK:
That’s how you found out about stuff.

JS:
That and reading liner notes on albums was how I learned everything I know, basically, about music.

LK:
You had to dig for it, which is good. By digging for it I remember, especially being a record collector, you had no information on who was in bands. When I put together the first Nuggets album I really had to do a lot of research into who’s who. I just couldn’t click on something and find out the personnel and where they’re from. And I still don’t know who The Magic Mushrooms are.

JS:
That was when I first became aware of you, when I got a copy of Nuggets album. And then I got a record by The Sidewinders that you produced. I was obviously a record freak, too.

LK:
Power Pop, yeah. It’s all making sense now.

JS:
The Nuggets record didn’t leave my turntable when I was a teenager for years and just turned me onto so much music. I guess it opened up a Pandora’s box of music.

LK:
A Pandora’s record 45s box.

JS:
The Nuggets things just went on and on. Many compilations came after.

LK:
That’s pretty much why I get all the credit for it. But I didn’t discover that music, and for me, I think one of the things that made Nuggets so popular is that it’s not just about garage rock. It’s about great records that are garage rock. Any of those records are just superb pieces of three minute great songs, or six minute, or whatever they were. They were very communicable. It wasn’t like you hear something and you have to work to get into it. These were songs, some of them were actually semi-hits. But I never really thought Nuggets would come out.

I always think producing is where the right and left halves of my brain come together. I have the analytical writerly side and then I have the musicianly side, which is pretty much all intuition.

JS:
What was the story behind it?

LK:
I was hired by Elektra Records. Jac Holzman, the president, liked rock critics because he had an intelligent label and he liked when people wrote intelligently about them. He came upon me and he asked if I wanted to be an independent talent scout for Elektra. And I said, “Oh, sure.” But I never really found any bands that they appreciated. I know I tried to get them to keep The Stooges on the label for their third album, which didn’t happen. But one of the ideas he had was an album called Nuggets which would get the songs off of albums that had one good song. My theory about it is this: he got one of the first cassette players and wanted to clean out his record collection.

But he gave it to me, and in my willfulness and hubris, I got together all my favorite records and presented him with a list and kept asking for the moon. “A double album, let’s do a double album” and “You know, I don’t like that cover. Let’s get this cover.” And the best thing about Jac — he had that mark of being a great record company president — once he trusted you, he’d want to see where you would go with your instincts. He wasn’t trying to say, “Well, you know, we need more hits or we need less hits.” He just went with it, which actually in retrospect seems unbelievable.

JS:
In this day and age.

LK:
I can’t believe I got away with it. And I only lasted at Elektra for about three months and I’d given him this list over that time. About six months after I left the company they called me up and they said, “We have all the rights to X number of songs. What are we doing with them?” And I thought, “Wow. This project is still going on. I can’t believe it.” So it got completed and now it’s 45 years later and it’s still buying me beers. I’ll go to some weird city in the middle of Europe and there’ll be a Nuggets fan there who’ll say, “You changed my life,” and I say, “No. Nuggets changed my life, really.”

Lenny and Patti Smith at CBGB

JS:
Did they get all the songs you wanted?

LK:
Oh, no. Some of them have shown up on later projects. Like when Rhino did the box set, they had the list of what I wanted for the second volume…had there been a second volume. But I always wanted “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians on it. I thought that should be there. I wanted “I See the Light” by The Five Americans. I couldn’t get the rights to that. I couldn’t get the rights to “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine, even though I still think it’s on there for some reason, on my original one. A lot of weird records. And of course as soon as I did it, people started flooding me with their suggestions. And their suggestions, Blackout of Gretely by the Gonn, I mean that’s an insane, crazy record. Question of Temperature by The Balloon Farm. The Sonics from Washington, great, great records. I knew that was going to happen because as soon as you open a genre, people start digging.

I noticed this with the new series of albums that have just started coming out called Brown Acid. Songs from the American Come Down which gathers early 70s proto prog metal, these weird little singles by groups in the midwest. They all sound somewhat like Grand Funk, somewhat like Deep Purple and somewhat like Black Sabbath, but they were all crazy. And I realized this is a genre I never conceived of. It’s what Detroit would have gone to if the MC5 could have stayed together. There’s something really elemental about it, and now there’s five volumes of it.

JS:
I think the internet has changed the whole way of people finding records.

LK:
But a lot of them you can’t find and that’s what makes people go out and dig. I’m sure you’re on Instagram. There’s so many crazy vinyl people showing off albums, showing off their equipment, getting out there and digging and keeping everybody in communication.

JS:
I mean, it’s a great thing. As great as it was to be digging in a dirty record store and finding that record that no one ever heard of. Nowadays you just type it in and you can pretty much find a lot of stuff.

LK:
And you can drunk bid on it on eBay. “Oh, I don’t know, what’s another few dollars?” And then you wake up the next morning —

JS:
“What did I do?!”

LK:
“Oh, my God!”

JS:
How did you go from writing to being in the studio with the Sidewinders and start producing things?

LK:
Well, I think when you write about stuff it’s kind of like Jean Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. You want to start trying your hand at it, especially if you have a hand to try it. I always thought about being a producer. You need the opportunities, of course, and my friend Richard Robinson was working at RCA at the time and we found the Sidewinders and gave it a shot. It seems like a natural progression from writing and analyzing and looking at bands from the inside out to seeing what makes them tick and trying to help them make their record by being essentially their best friend in the studio. Sometimes the better you are as a producer, the less people know you’re there, which is a tricky balance wheel. But I kind of like it. I always think producing is where the right and left halves of my brain come together. I have the analytical writerly side and then I have the musicianly side, which is pretty much all intuition. I don’t read music, I hear it deep in my head and try to feel it. And I think producing is probably the combination of those two worlds.

JS:
I mean, there’s producers like Phil Spector.

LK:
Who is their artist.

JS:
Right.

“When an engineer listens to a record, he looks at the frequency responses. I don’t do that. I listen to the feel, parts and performance, that’s my thing.”

LK:
I mean, they’re the artist and the group is there to serve them. As a producer, I was very lucky that I wasn’t the artist. I worked with really quirky, strange, idiosyncratic artists, Suzanne Vega, Soul Asylum, Allen Ginsberg, Pussy Riot. I got to work with people where you’re just trying to make sure they can make the best record they can. And whatever their next record will be, you find the groundwork within this record to give them a lot of expansive power, enhance the vibe, let the creativity flow.

JS:
More of the George Martin approach, or Rick Rubin.

LK:
Absolutely. Try to find the right settings and give advice. I always think that if I make a suggestion and we’re in the same ballpark, and you don’t like it, well you’re telling me who you want to be. If you don’t like anything I say, I’m going to let you do it yourself, or find someone who’s more empathetic.

JS:
When you were doing the first one, did you know your way around the studio?

LK:
With the Sidewinders?

JS:
Yeah.

LK:
No. I still wish I would have turned the dial on the reverb a little bit more. I was pretty conservative.

JS:
You were working with an engineer, I assume.

LK:
Working with an engineer who says, the first time I walk in, “What kind of mic do you want me to put on the bass drum?” I still don’t know, to be honest. But that’s why I like engineers.

I think when you listen to a record you each have your role. When an engineer listens to a record, he looks at the frequency responses. I don’t do that. I listen to the feel, parts and performance, that’s my thing. I once went to Greg Calbi, the great mastering engineer at Sterling, with two mixes of a song that I had  been going back and forth on. One of the snares was a little louder, I just didn’t know which one. So I said, “Greg, what do you think?” And he says, “You know, I don’t listen to records like that. I can tell you whether it needs a rounder bottom, but I can’t tell you which is the more effective mix as a listening experience.” He said, “That’s your job.” And I thought, “Hmm

JS:
I’ve produced stuff too, and people ask me to describe what a record producer does. In some instances I liken it to a director of a movie who sees the big picture and works with  other people who are great at their jobs. I mean, some people do it all themselves. Some work with a great team of engineers, editors, programmers or whatever. But the vision at the end of the day is between the artist and the producer.

LK:
I think it’s like being a mirror. The artist looks at you, at your sense of aesthetic taste, and they want to know if their hair is in the right place. “How do I look? Does that hat make me look better or not? How about if we try this?” It’s the old, “What do you think?”

Sometimes people want you to tell them exactly what you think, if you can be honest. And sometimes a producer has to be a cheerleader. “You’re great! Aaaand I think this next take could be a hair greater.”

JS:
It’s part psychiatrist.

LK:
Oh, yeah.

JS:
There’s a lot of psychology involved.

LK:
It’s a psychodrama in there. Especially younger artists or artists that are making their first or second records. There’s a lot of paranoia. I’ve had so many discussions, “Let’s over-dub this part or let’s double this.” “Well, I don’t know if that’s taking away from the artistic integrity.” But my feeling is that a record is an illusion. It’s not live. Groups always come to me and say, “We want to record live and take the best track,” and I say, “Well, you can do that and you can sit there and choose the best track. I’m not exactly sure what I would do.” Because record making is not like playing something in a club to a number of people who are freaking out in front of you and you’re on 10, you got the atmosphere, you got the inebriations. That’s not a record you’re probably listening to at home far removed from a live show. So you have to create the illusion of live performance.

JS:
I remember when my band Milk ‘N’ Cookies got signed to Island Records and we were put in the studio with Muff Winwood to produce it, and we were playing him all these records we loved, all the glam records, which had a very specific sound. He kind of took a different approach. As much as we would push him, he kept it more organic and more straightforward. And at the end of the day — although at the time we were very upset about it — he was right, because it’s lasted. It wasn’t a gimmicky sound or something that was a fad.

LK:
Exactly.

JS:
It was something that people, kids today still relate to. I think it was a testament to his no-nonsense approach.

LK:
You guys are one of the founders of power pop.

JS:
Sometimes you need to listen to people.

LK:
And sometimes you don’t need to listen to people.

JS:
We did push him in, “Listen to these drums,” or whatever. There were little battles.

LK:
Sometimes even in conflict, when people have different ideas, like John Cale…we thought when he came in to do Horses he’d be all about the art and the spontaneity. And no, he was into his Beach Boys period. He wanted to layer this and layer that, and we wanted to go out there and look for improvised, live moments. And betwixt and between, that record got battered out. You’re all in the same band. A producer joins the band for that album and he can be the frustrating bass player or he can be the genius orchestrator. Everything is different now.

JS:
Are you still producing?

LK:
Very little. Actually I did a beautiful record this year that took me quite a long time to do with Jessi Colter, Waylon Jennings’ wife. It’s called The Psalms, and it is what it is. When I was working on Waylon’s book, I came into the living room one day and there’s Jessi — who is a very spiritual person — with the bible open in front of her, singing away. Just putting her hands on chords, letting the melodies flow where they go. And I just thought, “Man, this is about as beautiful and illuminating experience as I’ve ever had.” And so one day after Waylon’s passing I was speaking to her and I said, “You know, Jess, there’s a record I would like to hear, which is you singing the Psalms like I did in your living room.” She came to New York, just about 10 years ago, and I got a studio with a nice piano and met her up there. We had no rehearsal, no discussion. We chose a psalm, set the bible on the piano, and she would sing it. One take, two takes, sometimes I went out there and we played together. It was very spontaneous. And at the end of the two afternoons, I had seven in the can.

JS:
Wow.

LK:
She came a year later and we did another five just like that, no rehearsal or anything, and I had the other five, including the hit psalm, the 23rd. And over the years I tried to differentiate them a little bit texturally. I got Al Kooper to play on a few tracks, Bulgarian singers on another one, Jenni Muldaur, and Bobby Previte drums on a few. I tried to retain the intimacy, but make them a little… In one track she’s just warming up, singing, and she plays four minutes of this beautiful thing. I was able to get a double bass on there and a harp. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful record and SONY Legacy put it out this past March.

JS:
Congrats.

LK:
I got to say, it’s one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever been part of.

JS:
Now I need to listen.

LK:
Oh, you really got to, especially during the holidays. Her voice is beautiful. Her interpretations on these sacred poems are so great. I tried to keep it non-denominational, to kind of take away the church part and move it toward the light. And yeah, it’s just a gorgeous record.

So I guess I still produce.

JS:
Good. You mentioned the New York Dolls. For Milk ‘N’ Cookies, that was the band that made it seem like, “Hey, we can do this.”

LK:
Totally.

JS:
It always seemed like The Beatles or Rolling Stones was too far away. It didn’t seem like it could be possible. When I stumbled upon the New York Dolls my life changed.

LK:
Oh my god. That must have been a great moment.

JS:
It was quite something. You were involved with this magazine called Rock Scene. It was like the bible of that whole scene.

LK:
I wouldn’t call it the bible. I would call it the high school yearbook.

JS:
High school yearbook or bible, it was informing everyone about all the New York bands. We were lucky we lived in New York, but for some kid out in OshKosh or wherever, it was a way for him to find out about things he could never have dreamed.

LK:
To see what life was like backstage at CBGB. Now when you look at an issue it’s got to seem really weird and historical. I wish we had a Rock Scene for when the bebop scene happened over at 52nd Street. Like Bebop Scene. I would have been great to see Charlie Parker in a rare pensive moment.

JS:
It was very, very candid shots. You did it with Lisa Robinson.

LK:
And Richard Robinson.

JS:
What was the inspiration behind it?

LK:
It really stemmed from Richard. When I first met him in the 60s, he was doing five magazines. He was doing Hit Parader or he was doing Go Magazine. He was a real media generator and got me and Lisa into that thing where “yeah, we’re newspapery. Here’s what’s happening, let’s have some fun with it.” Richard had the contact with this guy who had worked at Hit Parader and spun off and did Rock Scene. And Rock Scene lasted six, seven years. It’s amazing. I don’t think it ever broke into the black.

Lenny Kaye outside CBGB

JS:
I think there’s 50-something issues.

LK:
Yeah, it’s quite amazing.

JS:
Bowie was on the first one, if I remember.

LK:
Yes, that’s right. Good memory.

I spent more time at CBGB out on the sidewalk chatting someone up than watching The Ramones inside.

JS:
No one put the New York Dolls on a magazine before you guys did. Do you remember seeing The Dolls the first time?

LK:
Yes, I remember going over to the Mercer Street Art Center out of curiosity and seeing The Dolls, just thinking they were so great, and dancing to “Bad Girl” with Miss Elvis and Miss Ohio, wherever they are today. It was a great scene. There couldn’t have been more than 20 people there to start, but it grew exponentially because there was a need for it. And then once that grew, there also came places to play, even though there was a real shortage until Max’s restarted and CBGB started. I remember Patti Smith and I mostly opened up for weird folk singers in folk clubs on West 4th Street when we could get a gig because we never could break into the Club 82.

JS:
I remember seeing The Dolls at Club 82 and Wayne County and The Fast.

LK:
Just Another Pretty Face, I remember them. They were great.

JS:
I saw Iggy and the Stooges do Raw Power at Max’s Kansas City. Mind blowing.

LK:
Oh, yes. I remember that’s the one where he cut himself.

JS:
That was a life changing experience, being three feet away from that.

LK:
It was very small scale.

JS:
Everything was very intimate.

LK:
It didn’t seem so, but it was very private and I think that allowed all the New York bands enough space and time to get to where they wanted to. I must have seen Television dozens of times and it took them a year or two to play in-tune. Of course, this was before tuners, and I suffered from that, too.

JS:
Was this before CBGB?

LK:
No, it was kind of contiguous. I think it was kind of end of 74, so CBGB was definitely happening.

JS:
And Television, were they the first band to play CBGB?

LK:
I’ve heard that Eric Emerson was first. It’s a little bit shrouded. Everybody claims to be first, but certainly by spring of 74 it was underway because I remember going with Patti. We went to see the movie Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones up at the Ziegfeld Theater uptown. After that we went down in a cab to CBGB because she had been invited by Richard Hell, and I’d been invited by Richard Lloyd who I knew under the name of Crossfire (that was the name of his earlier band). We went to CBGB and hey, saw the beginnings of what would become the central gathering spot of the New York scene.

Debbie Harry in The Stilettos, 1974.

JS:
And Television was playing that night?

LK:
Television was there that night. If there was a Sunday night, they just would play. I think before The Ramones ever played there. Maybe Blondie had played there under the name The Stilettos. It’s so nice. It’s nice when these little loci become a touchstone for the universe. It’s hard to believe, and when they’re growing you don’t really think of it because it’s just your local scene. It’s just a place you go to. I spent more time at CBGB out on the sidewalk chatting someone up than watching The Ramones inside.

David Johansen, Lenny Kaye, Dee Dee Ramone + Andy Paley, NYC 1977. Photo by Bob Gruen.

JS:
I remember going to see The Ramones. And when did you and Patti Smith decide to play there as a band?

LK:
It just happened organically, we never set out to be a band. What we were doing was out of the mainstream. We didn’t have a drummer.

JS:
Were you already doing things pre-CBGB?

LK:
Yeah. We did our little poetry reading in February 71, and then we didn’t do anything again because it was meant to be a one night happening. But then we started again. She had a piano player. She was singing standards and she’d do her poems, and I’d come up and play something like “Annie Had A Baby.”

JS:
Was she playing with keyboardist Richard Sohl then?

LK:
It was before Richard. There was a guy named Bill and then we had a different piano player every gig until we got Richard. Richard came in March of 74 and we started really cohering as a band. Originally, I would just come up and do things and then she’d do something with the piano, and pretty soon I’d be on the stage the whole time and she’d do a poem. Then we’d segue into a song like “Gloria.” You know, a little poem thing and then we’d go into “Gloria” or “Land of 1,000 Dances.” We improvised and we didn’t know quite what we were having. At each show we could feel, “Okay. We’ve gone as far as we can as this weird little trio. We need another bass/guitar player.” And then we got Ivan Kral. When we went to CBGB to play with Television for seven straight weeks, we were just about a band. And that’s where we met JD. He became our drummer and the rest is history.

JS:
How did that go from playing in CBGB to getting signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records?

LK:
Well, he came down to see us because Patti is an incredible performer and we generated a lot of interest.

JS:
Seymour Stein of Sire Records was signing Ramones, Dead Boys, Talking Heads.

LK:
I think this was before. It was really just us and Television as I remember. If we could play for seven straight weeks, four nights a week, it probably meant there were no other bands there.

JS:
Two shows a night?

LK:
Two shows a night, and we would switch off with Television Thursday through Sunday. You know, it was pretty great, and then the ball started rolling and it became a scene. I mean, the English Papers and NME and Melody Maker would write about it, and all of a sudden people started coming down to check it out. And Clive came down. I think he might have even known Patti from Blue Oyster Cult…

He signed us and allowed us to do whatever it is we did, which was probably the point. I think we got an offer from him and an offer from ESP-Disk. Sometimes I regret not being on the same label as Albert Ayler or Sun Ra.

JS:
Is she still recording for Arista?

LK:
She records for Columbia now. We shifted to Columbia. I don’t even know if Arista still exists. I think we’re on Columbia at least for the last three records.

JS:
The first album was 1975?

LK:
1975, amazing. Just about this time of year we were on tour with it for the first time.

JS:
And never could you have imagined that you would still be doing it?

LK:
I can’t imagine that still, you know? It really is remarkable that the work you do keeps on circling around and paying you back. I know a lot of it has to do with the fact that we have a very unique leader. Patti is so frontal on so many different levels, artistically, different mediums, and is such an incredible performer. A lot of that has to do with our longevity and the fact that we’re not really pigeonholed as any kind of music. We’re associated with the punk scene, but a lot of our stuff has as little to do with punk rock as anything else. We’re as much a progressive jazz band sometimes. We have a lot of long songs and a lot of involved poetry. We’re all over the place, and sometimes that’s good if you can’t be classified. I mean, lord I love The Ramones, but they had a very specific one-note sound. I think Patti’s always been hard to categorize. It’s kept us at a good level in the musical world. We’re not playing arenas and we’re not playing dumps. We’re playing nice theaters, and that’s always a good thing.

JS:
Do you think something like that is ever possible again in New York? A scene where something came out of nothing?

LK:
Well, I don’t know what’s happening out in the wiles of Bushwick. I’m sure somewhere there’s a collection of people who are doing what they need to do in this universe.

You form a band and two days later your video is on YouTube, everybody could see it. That’s a different path to people’s consciousness. 

JS:
Because people are always saying, “Oh, New York’s dead. It’s not like it was.”

LK:
Well, it’s not like it was, but it wasn’t like it was when it was. I mean, I got sheet music from the 1930s that says, “New York’s not the place it used to be,” bemoaning the fact that the lobster place in Times Square or Rector’s isn’t there. I mean, things change and I’m all for change.

I don’t even think it should be “New York.” In my book I traced the evolution of these scenes, as I call it, from Memphis in 54 through New Orleans in 57, Philly in 59, Liverpool 62, San Francisco 67, New York 75 and on and on. It’s interesting to see them all gather the energy. Whether this is possible in the age of instant communication, that’s a question I think the 21st century will answer. I know one of my favorite places that I desired to go to see bands was San Francisco in 67. I had that Fillmore poster with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service on my wall, waiting to get in the car so I could actually hear what they sounded like. I had no idea. I had no idea what Big Brother and The Holding Company sounded like, and I couldn’t hit a button and just go.

JS:
There weren’t records out?

LK:
They hadn’t put records out but you were hearing about them in the “underground press” and you just want to hear them.

JS:
Did you take that drive?

LK:
Yeah. 1967, me and my buddy Larry got in a 56 Ford with $80 and just kept going. And we arrived there and I got to see The Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park, Big Brother at The Avalon. They’re just amazing.

The desire to be where it’s at. Like how a lot of people migrated to New York when they heard about CBGB. Whether they need to do that now, I don’t know. I haven’t heard of a place that everybody wants to move to all of a sudden. Maybe the internet has made it too easy to get your message to somebody. You form a band and two days later your video is on YouTube, everybody could see it. That’s a different path to people’s consciousness. I don’t know. All I know is that I really like when geography, time and space meet.

JS:
Milk ‘N’ Cookies was living in LA around 76, 77 when the whole UK punk thing exploded and the Sex Pistols played their last show at Winterland. And we all got in a van from LA with a couple of the Go-Gos and Brett Smiley and Legs McNeil and went to see the Sex Pistols for what turned out to be their last show ever.

LK:
That’s amazing.

Maybe it’s happening somewhere that I don’t know about, and more power to it. I’m sure all those bebop jazz guys from 52nd street, when they heard about CBGB, would think, “What are those kids doing? They don’t know a Flatted 5th if it fell on them.” I like musical progression, and I think we’re now getting distant enough from rock n roll that it’s almost like rock n roll is enclosed in its own parentheses. And I’m sure people will be playing guitars from now until kingdom come. But at this point, just about everything that you can do with a guitar has been done and maybe it’s time to make room for the next type of music to take over.

JS:
Have you seen any newer bands that you think are exciting or inspiring?

LK:
I actually just go see my friends play, I got to say. I’m going back home to continue writing. I’m trying not to do anything because I have a really bad deadline that I’ve blown already. Just happy to get this interview done with you.

JS:
Thank you. I appreciate it.

LK:
Just enjoy it because we’ve been friends for way too long.

JS:
You were high on my list when I started this thing, and I know between touring and my DJ stuff it’s been hard to make it happen.

LK:
There’s no wine before its time.

JS:
But it’s great to sit down with you because, like I said, when Nuggets came out it was one of the records that was so inspiring to me, just finding all those songs. I knew some of them of course…

LK:
Some of them were weird. You know what, we love music. I still find myself buying records and adding to my increasing piles.

JS:
You still dig for vinyl?

LK:
Yeah! I just got a vintage Marantz receiver so I’ve been getting my records out and enjoying how great they sound. I just love music. It’s really fun to be able to justify being immersed in it. I feel very whole in my consciousness, which is a great blessing in my golden years.

JS:
It’s a beautiful thing when you get to do something you love.

LK:
And you’re able to keep doing it. I’ll do anything within the world of it. If I’m not playing and I get a chance to take my records to DJ somewhere — actually enjoy listening to them as well as seeing people get wild out there — that’s a great thing. It’s great to play the music. It’s great to write about it. It’s great to look for whatever that next record is going to be. And we don’t know yet, do we?