Lenny Kaye is a writer, producer, and guitarist, best known in some circles as the guitarist for The Patti Smith Group. But he oughtta be canonized for compiling and annotating Nuggets, the original double-album collection of "Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968." This was virgin territory in 1972, and Kaye's pioneering work on Nuggets paved the way for Pebbles, Boulders, and every one of the countless '60s garage compilations that have followed in the decades since then. Nuggets also, almost incidentally, presaged '70s punk (a movement Kaye himself helped build with The Patti Smith Group), inspired the garage revival fad in the '80s, and generally invented a critical ethos that recognized and embraced the transcendent, swaggering brilliance of three chords and an attitude at 45 revelations per minute.
In 1998, Rhino Records released an expanded version of Nuggets, a four-CD boxed set that contained the complete, original 1972 Nuggets on one disc, supplemented by three more discs of compatible (and irresistible) cantankerousness. It remains one of the most essential various-artists boxed sets ever released. On July 29, 1998, I interviewed Lenny Kaye about all things Nuggets. The interview was conducted as research for my history of Nuggets and the reappraisal of '60s garage music, originally intended for Goldmine magazine. Alas, things changed, and the article was never completed. This is the interview's first published appearance.
You're getting set to tour with Patti?
She came back to live work in the middle of '95. And, you know, we're not out there like some get in the van and spend eight months slogging around, but we have been going out there and saying "hey" to the people. And this time is pretty exciting, you know, we're going to Australia with Bob Dylan, and doing a couple of Euro festivals, and playing New York City, which in some ways for me is my favorite, because I do celebrate the local band tradition. We are a local band.
"Stuck in the mud" seems to describe the milieu into which Nuggets appeared in 1972.
I subscribe to the notion that there's never been a bad period in rock 'n' roll. There's always something going on.
And there's still garage music.
The historical retrospective doesn't have much, if any, manifestation in rock 'n' roll before Nuggets.
What were you doing with your life prior to Nuggets? Had you been in bands?
Some of the song choices were very interesting. In some cases. you bypassed a better-known song by a specific act in favor of a more obscure track. I'm thinking of "Moulty" by The Barbarians, for example, or The Amboy Dukes' "Baby Please Don't Go."
Which brings us back to the point that this wasn't just an oldies collection, but a serious attempt to create a historical retrospective--the first such thing, I think, in rock history.
Yeah. But really, in thinking about it, I was given more freedom than probably any anthologizer up to then, and I just kind of put it together without a lot of specific thought. Because I was dealing with music that had that element, of chance, of just instinctual drive. And, like all great projects--and I think, if nothing else, the tribute paid by Rhino, beyond anything I had to do with it, proves that Nuggets was a concept that worked and lived on--like all hit records, accidents of fate. Like, all of a sudden, the project tells you what to do. I just really, in some ways, followed it along. You know, everything worked well. The right cover artist came along. We had gone through a couple covers, and I looked at 'em and I'd go, "Ehhhh--it's not really it." And, of course, Elektra said, "Okay, they're not it. Let's go to the next guy." And the next guy. Then, all of a sudden you get Abe Gurvin, who did such an incredible visual for the cover, that, you know, now he's lived on, too. What I love about the Rhino collection is that you've walked into an alternative universe where the Nuggets albums continued. It's like the covers, the song selections, the way the song selections move through the different CDs--I mean, all credit to Rhino. They understood whatever it was I was trying to get at in the original Nuggets. I can't say that I could verbalize it that much. I mean, how did I put The Mojo Men next to The Seeds? What would make me do that? But they kind of got the parameters of what it is and expanded on it. They took it to the next and ultimate step.
I would say I was a hovering presence (laughs). They took the list of what I'd gathered for the second Nuggets, which was about 25 or 30 songs, including a couple I couldn't get for the first one, like "I See The Light" by The Five Americans, and some weird ones I'd found, like The Elastik Band's "Spazz," records that I just thought were as weird as "Moulty." And a bunch of other stuff. And they used that as a working model for the remainder of the record. And then they put in a lot of records that perhaps I might not have put in because I wasn't that big a fan of 'em, like Strawberry Alarm Clock, which probably should be there, and expanded it with a bunch of collector obscurities and weird songs and, you know, other songs by the same groups, because I didn't want to repeat songs [on the original set]. So they were able to put in "Journey To The Center Of The Mind" as well. They just kind of expanded it within the sensibility of what the original Nuggets was. It's just a very, very remarkable job. Very, very true to whatever I did. It really is remarkable, I have to say.
Yeah, or wrote an article about it, I would say, especially for Nuggets. I think with Nuggets it was a little easier to get it out there, because you didn't actually have to hear Nuggets. You could hear a Seeds album, and the word "Nuggets," when you're getting your mental definitions together, The Seeds would kind of like poke in there. You could hear an Electric Prunes record. I imagine that a lot of people who use the term "Nuggets-type bands" never had a copy of the record, because they had a bunch of records by these people. You know, they had the Count Five record, they had a Shadows of Knight record. So in that way, its influence and its kind of sensibility pervaded the entire concept of '60s garage. Which is a pretty potent concept, because it embodies a lot of the reasons that rock 'n' roll was invented. I'm just glad that people can see what it is now. And again, I feel like it's almost like it stands apart from me. You know, I feel almost like this music was channeled through me; I was there, I grew up on it, you know, in a lot of ways it's the story of my growth as a musically thoughtful person, and how it helped guide me through life. But it's not as if I produced any of the bands, or was in any of the bands. I was a fan, and it's a fan's album. And so I just feel like it flowed through me. I don't really take a lot of responsibility for Nuggets. I have a sense of perspective on that.
There were sequels planned originally. What became of those plans?
How does Nuggets dovetail with the emergence of '70s punk?
They had their own take on it, you know, even The Lyres. These bands may form in the mold of Nuggets, but you can't erase ten or twenty years of history. Just like a band like The Stray Cats, who participated in the rockabilly [revival], they weren't really...they might have looked the part or dressed the part or even sounded a little bit like the part, but you can't erase the fact that the sound of a drum has changed in 15 years. They sounded like an '80s version, I guess in the same way some of these swing bands, even instinctively, partake of the last 40 years of musical technology and consciousness.
Yeah, I mean I like The Chesterfield Kings, I like them quite a bit. But there's something odd to me about such note-for-note revivalism. I'm a very present-oriented person, even though I am an historian in some ways. I'm not one to have a nostalgia for the way things used to be, because the way things used to be, nobody really remembers. Life is never that simplistic; even though I like a good Carnaby Street shirt myself, you're not gonna back to the 1960s, either in sound or vision. One of the things I like, for instance, is seeing a band like ? and the Mysterians today, because they rock. It's not like, "Oh man, let's remember those golden times from the '60s, when we were all young and free." They speak to the energy level of today. That's basically what I'm interested in. And in terms of the Nuggets style, I'd much rather, personally, see a band build on the inner strengths of the Nuggets sound rather than the trappings. I mean, I loved The Fuzztones, I thought they were a great band. But all these bands, you know, it's like The Cramps--they were crazier than The Shadows of Knight. The Fuzztones might have thought they were The Shadows of Knight, but they weren't. They were like an '80s New York band who were taking the inspiration, but kind of standing on the shoulders, in the same way that maybe Cream stood on the shoulders of Muddy Waters--or Freddie King, I would be more specific in Goldmine [laughs]. But I'm not a revivalist--I appreciate the instinct, and I'll go out and have a good time with the bands, but I'm much more to see what things can be cobbled together with a more futuristic slant.
What you were saying about ? and the Mysterians reminds me, oddly enough, of The Monkees' reunion album, Justus, which was at least an attempt to be contemporary. It didn't sound at all like The Monkees' '60s work. I don't know if you've heard it....
The Chesterfield Kings seemed like they were going to break out of that trap. Their third album wasn't a garage revival album. It didn't rely as much on '60s covers. There was a song written by Dee Dee Ramone. And it seemed like they were going to evolve.
Did you see That Thing You Do!, the Tom Hanks film? Gary Stewart mentions it very specifically in his introduction to the boxed set. What do you think?
No, I don't think so.
We went with lowered expectations.
Well, that's the vintage thing. I mean, I never liked the way a Volkswagon looked, and then about five years ago I saw an old one cruisin' around and I thought, "Hmmm, that looks kinda nice."
I tell ya, it won't last. Because on the radio right now they've been havin' '80s Nights, and there's a lot of great songs if you can past the waves of reverb that they surrounded everything. It's interesting how different textures define a decade. But people are always making great pop music--that's why it's pop music. And if you like choruses and hooks and stuff, you can turn on the radio every minute of the day and there's great shit. And I like it. It's just what part of the continuum you focus in.