Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Reading Matters: Lightning Striking - Ten Transformative Moments in Rock & Roll, by Lenny Kaye

Lenny Kaye may be best known as the guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, but he’s also celebrated for curating the Nuggets compilation of left field Sixties garage rock and psychedelic tracks.  Now he’s undertaken another historical project, with his recently published book Lightning Striking which explores, as the sub-title has it, Ten Transformative Moments in Rock & Roll.
Or to put it another way, Kaye sets out to describe a range of “scenes” – those times and places when the tectonic plates of popular music shifted, when circumstances combined to birth
Venerable rockn'roll history professor Lenny Kaye
Pic by Mike McGregor/The Observer
something that took rock’n’roll in a new direction.  And we are, in the main, talking about rock’n’roll here – the stuff with an electric guitar at its heart.
Kaye is a an ideal guide for this musical tourist trail.  Born in 1946, he was exposed to the early seismic shocks of rockn’roll, such as Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.  And then, as he says in the chapter on The Beatles and Liverpool 1962, “I’m watching that storied night of February 9 [1964], along with 73.7 million other curiosity-seekers,” when the Fab Four detonated the States on the Ed Sullivan Show.  “I’m in the sweet spot of adolescence,” he recalls, “just seventeen, you know what I mean.”  A few pages later he contemplates the full might of the British Invasion and writes: “They’re joined on the pop charts by ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Surfer Bird’, the ur-texts of garage rock.  Temptation took control of me and I fell.”
Those passages tell you a couple of things.  First, the chapter headings may identify specific years, as in ‘Liverpool 1962’ or ‘San Francisco 1967’, but Kaye doesn’t confine himself to those periods.  He recounts the evolution of these scenes in the periods before, and their full flowering (and withering, where appropriate) afterwards.  Secondly, Kaye gets it.  He’s a “fan with a typewriter” – but a smart, discerning and literate fan.  Here’s a guy who was playing in two-bit bands himself by the mid-60s, then a rock writer in the emerging music press, an occasional record label scout and an aspiring producer before, as an habitué of the New York demi-monde, he and Patti Smith started hanging out and doing their nascent thing in the early 70s.  And when Kaye wasn’t an eye-and-ear witness himself, he’s clearly done his homework.
Writing about ‘Memphis 1954’ he gives due credit to the catalyst that was Sam Phillips, but he’s also good weighing up the confluence of ingredients that triggered the sound of rock’n’roll: the jump blues tradition underlying Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88’; the R’n’B typified by Howlin’ Wolf; the hillbilly country music familiar to Elvis, shorn of fiddles and pedal-steel; and the boogie taken up from Western Swing by Bill Haley & The Comets, derided as Mr Kiss Curl may have been.  Just importantly though, even in hindsight Kaye feels it – the electric shock of it – as in this passage about Jerry Lee Lewis:
“ . . . it’s ‘Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On,’ Jerry Lee raking his fingers up the keyboard in his soon-trademark gliss, circling his index finger when he brings it real low and then lower and wiggle around just a little bit, almost giddy on theSteve Allen Show in July 1957, grabbing the bull by the horn, peroxide hair and piano stool flying, that explodes him, makes him a star.  And a target.” [Kaye’s italics]
He captures the sweaty, hairy, psychotropic craziness, typified by Ken Kesey and his LSD-fuelled Merry Pranksters, that sits alongside the love-and-peace-man of San Francisco 1967.  But he’s also there himself, in the audience to witness the out-there-ness of Big Brother & The
Lenny do-in' the do with long time amigo Patti Smith
Holding Company and become enthralled by Janis Joplin, “to dream about ways I could be there for her . . . if only to buy her records and witness her shows and remember her for ever.”
He’s good on the storminess of Detroit 1967 and its ambassador of raw power Iggy Pop, but is even more on the ball, naturally, writing about ‘New York 1975’ and ‘London 1977’, when he’s in on the action himself in the environs of those sibling punk scenes.  The New York Dolls, The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and others are all refracted through the lens of nights in CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City in the very long and comprehensive chapter on NYC.  His knowledge of punk London is bolstered by making a tape-swapping Transatlantic buddy in Don Letts, capturing its multi-faceted evolution into New Wave, Power Pop et al, and along the way noting the contribution to the Pistols of Glen Matlock in contrast to the disaster-in-waiting that is Sid Vicious, even as the latter “thinks he’s the only Sex Pistol living up to the founding principle, anarchy unleashed, the ur-zombie”.
A couple of chapters depart from the normal trajectory.  ‘Philadelphia 1959’ is less about a new emerging scene than the soon-to-be-eclipsed one of doo-wop, and the development of teenager TV with American Bandstand – and the dubious business practices of its Teflon-smooth host Dick Clark.  But the chapter on ‘Los Angeles 1984/Norway 1993’, conflating hair metal and black metal, feels like an ill-fitting makeweight.
As is often the way in accounts like this, Kaye sometimes gets bogged down in lists of singles that are the stepping stones of a burgeoning scene; or in the incestuous band-hopping of musicians and indie label bosses, skipping hither and yon in search of their own musical motherlode – Seattle being a case in point - until one can barely keep track of who’s who.  Now and then too, his wordplay slips from amusing to confusing.   Don’t come to Lightning Striking expecting to read about Motown, hip-hop or reggae either, as they don't fit the guitar rock-focused narrative arc of the book.
But if you want a big and joyous account of some of the seminal moments in rock’n’roll history, and the people and places that created them, Lightning Striking is just the ticket.  A book by someone for whom, to give Lenny Kaye the last word, “It is my blessing to wake each morning with music on my mind.”

Lightning Striking - Ten Transformative Moments In Rock & Roll, is available now, published by White Rabbit.

A 2-CD companion collection of tracks featured in the book is also available - Lenny Kaye Presents Lightning Striking, on Ace Records.

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