As musician, writer, and record producer, Lenny Kaye has been intimately involved with the creative impulse that marks the music. He has been a guitarist for poet-rocker Patti Smith since her band’s inception more than thirty years ago, and is the co-author of Waylon, the life story of Waylon Jennings. He has worked in the studio with such artists as Suzanne Vega, Jim Carroll, Soul Asylum, Kristen Hersh, and Allen Ginsberg, as well as his own solo muse. His seminal anthology of sixties’ garage-rock, Nuggets, has long been regarded as defining a genre.You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon, an impressionistic study of the romantic singers of the 1930’s, was published by Villard/Random House in 2004.
Lenny was born on December 27, 1946, in the Washington Heights area of upper Manhattan, New York, along the Hudson River in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. Growing up in Queens and Brooklyn, Lenny originally began playing accordion, but by the end of the 1950s, had dropped the instrument in favor of collecting records. His family moved to North Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1960 where Lenny attended high school, and later, college, graduating Rutgers in 1967. Though he majored in American History, his true avocation was musical, and it was there that he first began playing in bands, on a college mixer and fraternity circuit later immortalized in Animal House. His first gig, with the Vandals (“Bringing down the house with your kind of music”), was at Alpha Sigma Phi on November 7, 1964.
His uncle, songwriter Larry Kusik (“A Time For Us” from Romeo and Juliet; “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather) took note of his lengthening hair and musical commitment, and asked him to sing on a song he’d recently penned with Ritchie Adams, once of the Fireflies (“You Were Mine”). It was the fall of 1965, and folk-protest was in the air. Lenny soon found himself in Associated Recording Studios on Times Square, recording “Crazy Like A Fox,” along with its flip side, “Shock Me. ” The resultant 45, issued under the name of Link Cromwell, was leased to Hollywood Records, a division of Starday Records located in Nashville, Tennessee, and released in March of 1966. It garnered a Newcomer Pick of the Week from Cashbox (“A rhythmic bluesy folk-rocker with a pulsating beat”) and was issued in England as well as Australia; but failed to move in the charts. Though hardly a smash, it did give Lenny a sense of himself as a musician, and inspired him to continue performing and playing. His group at the time, The Zoo, worked a college circuit ranging from New York to Pennsylvania; this early experience has been captured on a live album issued by Norton Records, Live 1966.
Moving back to the city, Lenny began writing reviews for Jazz and Popmagazine; branching out to such nascent rock publications as Fusion,Crawdaddy, and Rolling Stone. He became the music editor of Cavalier, a men’s magazine that at the time was also publishing the early short stories of Steven King, and would write a monthly column for them until 1975; and the New York correspondent for the British weekly,Disc. As a free-lance writer, he would write for a wide range of periodicals, including Melody Maker, Creem, and edit such publications as Rock Scene and Hit Parader throughout the seventies.
While working at Village Oldies on Bleecker St. in New York, he met poet-singer Patti Smith. On February 10, 1971, he backed her at a reading at St. Mark’s Church on E. 10th St. When they resumed performance in November of 1973, their artistic efforts bore fruit as one of the major rock bands of the 1970s. Lenny produced Patti’s debut single (“Hey Joe / Piss Factory”), and performed as part of her Group throughout the decade, as reflected in four Arista albums: Horses(1975), Radio Ethiopia (1976), Easter (1978), and Wave (1979).
Following the PSG’s final performance in September of 1979, Lenny joined the Jim Carroll Band, as well as fronting his own Lenny Kaye Connection. He co-produced Suzanne Vega’s first two albums, including her 1987 hit single, “Luka,” which was nominated for a Grammy as Record of the Year. He has been nominated three times for Grammy awards in the liner notes category for boxed sets on the sixties folk revival (Bleecker and MacDougal), white blues (Crossroads), and progressive rock (Elektrock); and has co-authored a comprehensive hall of fame with David Dalton (Rock 100).
In 1995, he reunited with Patti Smith and has been a part of Her Band since, creating five studio albums, a retrospective, and celebrating the thirtieth anniversary release of their landmark debut album, Horses.