Lenny Kaye on Reviving the ‘Nuggets’ Rock Spirit With an L.A. Concert

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There has never been a compilation album in the history of rock as influential as “Nuggets,” a 1972 double-LP that revived a period and style that was seen as having ended about five years before. It was nostalgia of a sort for the very recent past — as opposed to the very distant past that’s now being celebrated with fondness as “Nuggets” itself surpasses the half-century, arguably no less central to a certain rock ‘n’ roll ethos than ever.

Lenny Kaye, now best known as the guitarist for Patti Smith’s band, but then highly regarded as a rock critic, compiled the original “Nuggets” for Elektra and may have saved an early wave of garage-rock for the ages … although some would give the collection even more credit, for helping invent, or at least bring into focus, the burgeoning punk-rock movement in the 1970s.

Now, Kaye is participating in a “Nuggets” 50th anniversary concert Friday night at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, on the heels of his having produced a five-LP “Nuggets” boxed set that came out for Record Store Day last month. Tickets for Friday’s show may soon be as scarce as copies of that RSD vinyl release have turned out to be, so haste is advised in officially signing up for this five-decades-on nostalgia. Remaining tickets for the show, the annual autism benefit put on by the expert rock reenactors of the Wild Honey Foundation, start at $40 and can be purchased here. Scheduled guests include Susanna Hoffs, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Elliot Easton of the Cars, Peter Case, the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, the Alarm’s Mike Peters, the Go’Go’s’ Kathy Valentine, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Love’s Johnny Echols and Carla Olson, among the cast of dozens.

Variety spoke with Kaye about the long tail of “Nuggets” and how fortunate an L.A. audience will be to have it wagging its way in a tribute performance this weekend.

Let’s talk about the “Nuggets” show happening in Glendale and then work back to the original album. The Wild Honey organization is renowned for amazing tribute shows every year in L.A. Was this idea or yours or someone else’s?

When Patrick Milligan from Rhino and I first started talking about how to commemorate the 50th anniversary, he thought that it would be great if a Wild Honey show could be put together around the “Nuggets” concept. Over the many years, I’ve done other shows and they’re always great. I think in the year 2014, we did one at the City Winery in New York where, for a show a month for three months, we were able to do almost 50 songs. They’re really fun to play. It’s about garage-rock in a certain era in time and space, but when you actually listen to the tracks, they’re really still great songs to sing, to play, to enjoy. And so Patrick suggested that perhaps the Wild Honey people, who are very professional and very detail-oriented, would be a good match for this. And of course, a benefit for autism research is incredible. That’s one of the needs of this world. to find out exactly what is causing this and how to correct it and move forward from it. And then the Wild Honey people picked up the ball very enthusiastically and found great guest artists ….

Anybody in particular that you’re happy is on the bill?

I’m really happy Susanna Hoffs is on the bill. I know that she really likes “Nuggets” and of course is a big Patti Smith fan, and so it’ll be great to have a night hanging with her. I’m happy about Peter Zaremba, because if any band in America has carried on the “Nuggets” tradition, it’s certainly the Fleshtones — and of course, he’s one of my fellow disc jockeys on Little Steven’s Underground Garage on SiriusXM, so we share a kind of broadcast beam. And I’m looking forward to seeing who shows up from the Seeds or the Electric Prunes, or Dave Aguilar from the Chocolate Watch Band, who I’ve never seen live except in “Riot on Sunset Strip.” And of course, the Wild Honey Orchestra themselves, because I know they sculpt the arrangements to the point where you will really be able to feel how complex the music is underneath its reputation for three-chords-and-off-to-the-charge. This is not an unsophisticated music, as simple as it might appear from the outside. So I just think it’ll be a really fun night and a real immersion into the spirit of what makes a Nugget, which to me is all about desire, yearning and a sense of becoming, trying to figure out who you are and how you can make it happen through the magic of the electric guitar.

Wild Honey Foundation and Lenny Kaye’s “Nuggets” concert lineup

For many people, the five-LP “Nuggets” box that came out for Record Store Day was one of the vinyl events of the year.

When Patrick Milligan called me up and thought this would be good for Record Store Day, we moved ahead with all possible speed, and they couldn’t been more encouraging. The boxed set is beautiful, far more than I could have ever hoped for when we first started discussing it. I was able in the liner notes to talk about the process of how “Nuggets” came together. It was nice for me to look back at a half-century and see how this album certainly has struck a chord all over the world. It seems to have found this place in the culture far more than I would’ve imagined back 50 years ago. I mean, if I would’ve thought I would be talking to you a half-century in the future about “Nuggets” and thinking about its repercussions, I would’ve fucked it up. I would’ve been self-conscious. I just thought this was a fun record to put together. I didn’t really think it might ever see the light of day, so I had a good time with it. And I’m just so pleased and inwardly proud that this sensibility that I put into a record so long ago has continued to make ripples in the cultural current. … Really in the end what “Nuggets” was about was making sure my favorite songs continue to live. It’s almost like the Mexican Day of the Dead: If they remember you, you’re still alive. And so I just wanted to make sure that my favorite records kept on living.

How do you define the music that was represented on the collection? “Garage-rock” gets used a lot today, but that term wasn’t prevalent as a genre of sorts in the early ’70s. The subtitle was “artyfacts from the first psychedelic era,” but these songs are almost all under three minutes and hardly what people think of now as psychedelia.

Well, I’m not a big fan of definition. I always remember what Mayo of the Red Crayola said on the back of their debut album: Definitions define limits. And when I look at my original “Nuggets,” at the time it seemed composed of wildly different musics, with the difference between a cut like, say, Sagittarius’s “My World Fell Down,” and music business professionals like the Strangeloves hopping on the English Invasion bandwagon, as well as bands that formed in the garage — they seemed very different to me. Now with the hindsight of half a century, I can see the similarities, in that it’s called “garage rock” now, but in that time, it didn’t really have a name. I think I even referred to it as “punk rock,” whatever that might mean then.

Lenny Kaye, member of Patti Smith’s band, performs live at Popload Festival on stage at Memorial da America Latina on November 15, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mauricio Santana/Getty Images)
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But the fact is that what you have here is a moment in time in which possibility kind of becomes manifest, that in the pre-“Nuggets” time, everything is pretty much a three-minute hit single. And of course there’s many Nuggets like that. But you can also see other musics in the sense of expansiveness and a sense that rock ‘n’ roll can be art… that strange sounds can coexist within this. It was a very experimental time. My subtitle, which was “Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era,” was meant to denote it from what would be happening in the later ‘60s when bands like the Grateful Dead would start expanding the consciousness of what the music could be, with improvisation, and free sound as in free jazz — a sense that you could lose the rhythm and the melody and exist in this kind of ethereal place. I called it a transition period because you get a sense that things haven’t figured themselves out yet. And that to me is really key to understanding all these movements. My most recent book, “Lightning Striking: 10 Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll,” talks about where you have these scenes coming together, almost like planets forming out of cosmic dust. And for the first year or two, nobody really knows what they’re about. That to me is the most exciting time, when anything can happen, when it’s unpredictable, when wild cards can have their day. A little bit later on, a year or two down the line, it gets figured out; it gets a name. It gets “garage rock,” which is kind of defined as a fuzztone and a yowling lead singer and a kind of sneering, frustrated delivery. And that kind of limits what it could be.

With the songs that I chose for the first “Nuggets,” I really didn’t have any agenda. I’m just gathering together a lot of these really great songs with the hindsight of maybe, you know, three, four, five years. I mean, these records were hardly off the charts before they got resurrected. But it was a time when you forget what just happened until you get a chance to see the historical perspective.

Even across the five LPs’ worth of material on the Record Store Day boxed set, through dozens of songs, there are only a few numbers longer than three minutes and only one longer than four. The material was very economical, as opposed to what we were about to see at the end of the ’60s and on into the ’70s.

One of the tracks that Jac Holzman initially suggested to me when he asked me to curate an album of this type was the Serpent Power’s “Endless Tunnel,” which is 13 minutes long, and one of my favorite songs of all time, and I wish I could put it on. But again, we’re talking the movement from the consciousness of a hit single to a more expansive art form that would be, say, the second psychedelic era.

A lot of these bands were mostly influenced by the English Invasion, where you have pop singles of a very determined verse/verse/chorus, and you’ve got the bridge, and then two choruses and you’re back out in the street. It’s moving toward a sense of rock ‘n’ roll as art, but it’s still unconscious. And I really like that sense of innocence and almost naivete — that they’re not aspiring to overthink what they’re doing; they’re getting there. You know, I spent a large portion of my life lost in the universe of the Grateful Dead, and even with Patti Smith, we have several lengthy, improvisatory tracks that are very much influenced by the possibilities of the music as it developed. But I like this little period because you get short, sharp, shocked blasts of musical ingenuity. And I find it very listenable. I didn’t choose only obscurities. Some of these songs made the midpoints of the charts; they were familiar. But they needed a new frame to show what they were part of as the ‘60s, which I consider kind of like the renaissance in rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock ‘n’ roll is kind of teenage before the mid-‘60s, and at the end of the ‘60s, it was an adult form of making art. And that transition always fascinated me — because I took part in it. I was in one of those bands. We didn’t make a record, but I had a band called the Zoo in central Jersey that started out playing Jerry Lee Lewis covers and traditional rock ‘n’ roll or whatever the British Invasion had to offer — and by the end of it, by the end of our run in ‘67 or ‘68, we’re sitting cross-legged on the floor playing raga-rock. So I was able to tell, in a weird way, my autobiography without really putting myself in the middle of it… to see that growth in the music and the exhilaration and the sense of invention that you were suddenly gifted. That to me is what makes a Nugget a Nugget.

Sometimes it’s hard to wrap one’s head around how quickly nostalgia developed once upon a time, like the fact that “Nuggets” was, in the early ’70s, nostalgic for the rock of the mid-’60s, kind of like how “American Graffiti” was nostalgic for the early ’60s… and how it all sort of becomes a jumble 50 or 60 years on, as clearly defined and distinct as all those mini-eras felt at the time.

What happened with my original “Nuggets” is that the timeline between the songs and the actual album was so short that they were in that kind of valley where you forget the recent past, because you’re not far enough away to see it in retrospect. I mean, “Nuggets,” when it first came out in 1972, hardly sold. It got some nice reviews in the rock mags at the time. But it wasn’t (popular) until Seymour Stein and Sire Records reissued it in 1976, and it spoke specifically to the next generation of rock bands who really would be labeled as punk-rock, whether they were or not. Sometimes you just need a little distance to see what happened in the past, and to see if it still speaks to you. I mean, I think 50 years back from when “Nuggets” came out, you were dealing with Al Jolson and [vaudeville singer] Mamie Smith and the beginnings of the flat 78, where (records were) not a cylinder anymore.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the “Nuggets” will be of some compiler when confronted with the music of the late 2010s. Because I believe music lives in the present. I’m not nostalgic. I’m a cultural historian. but I’m not one to say “Ooh, music was better then.” No. Music speaks to its present moment. That’s one of the beauties of music. And sometimes genres have a lifetime. Sometimes you really have figured it all out. As far as I’m concerned — and believe me, I’m a rock ‘n’ roller — I think rock ‘n’ roll as a creative force has explored itself so much that now it is part of the past as much as, say, romantic piano music of the mid-19th century or Dixieland jazz or bebop or the blues. I mean, there’ll always be great players, but now it’s a music of interpretation more than creation — or more than innovation, I guess is the word. Because I don’t want to be trapped in the past. I don’t want to think that music in the “Nuggets” era was as great as it’s gonna be and now it’s not. I hear that all the time from even my contemporaries, but I love music of the present. I may not be a part of it, but I always have my favorite songs that I hear over whatever streaming thing comes to me. On Sirius, I always listen to the TikTok channel… I like the fact that people don’t stop and they continually evolve and make the music for their time, whether I am a part of it, whether I like it — it doesn’t matter.

Truly, no matter the genre, when you get past style, music is always pretty much about the same things: Looking for love. She doesn’t love me. He doesn’t love me. Who am I? Who can I be? These are the essential things that music sings about. And that doesn’t change, no matter the instrumentation, no matter the way it’s disseminated, whether on a record or coming over a satellite or whatever. The human need to make music is very, very beautiful. And however it’s done, in hundreds and thousands of different ways all across the globe, I find this the most beautiful thing about being human is that we make music.

Back to the sort of mundane level of how this is presented…

Wait, are we too cosmic? Oh, no!

There was the original “Nuggets” in ’72, reissued in ’76, and then some semi-official sequels, but the most comprehensive collection before now was a Rhino boxed set that came out in the 2000s. How much does this new vinyl set duplicate or not duplicate what was on that one? This latest set includes a two-LP “Vol. II” that has never been specifically put together this way before, along with a fifth disc of outtakes.

You’re talking about the Rhino four-CD silver anniversary one. This new set duplicates some, because a lot of that was drawn from my “Vol. II” list that was scheduled for 1973 that never happened for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that Jac Holzman left the company and the direction of Elektra changed at the time. So I never really had closure by making the sequel that Elektra had initially picked up the option for. That said, there were some things on the Rhino four-CD set that I kind of liked but they weren’t my favorites. This is more the songs that I personally have a stake in, emotionally and pleasurably. it’s more my vision as opposed to a general vision of what it is. The Rhino four-CD boxed set is amazing; that has to do with that wonderful producer-curator, Gary Stewart, who was so encouraging. But this is more of a personal vision of myself in the same way that “Vol. 1” was. And there’s things on each of them that are perhaps a little more self-indulgent on my part than might be. But again, I’m just seasoning the tastes. I have some songs on “Vol. 2” that weren’t on the boxed set, and some that should have been on the box.

I finally got the rights to “96 Tears,” which was something I’d wanted to get for the ur-text of garage rock. I’ve always wanted to get that for “Nuggets” and finally was able to achieve the licensing miracle. I mean, when you compile an album like this, it’s not only one’s personal taste, but you’re also trying to tell a story, and that’s what I’m trying to do on a new volume. There’s songs that are very familiar, like “Do You Believe in Magic” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, which I placed at the beginning (of “Vol. II”). Because the last liner notes of “Vol. 1” said: “Write us and let us know whether you think the music’s in the magic or the magic’s in the music.” It’s also a way of recontextualizing the Lovin’ Spoonful, who are not regarded as a garage band, even though they played at the Night Owl Cafe alongside the Blues Magoos and the Magicians.

I just tried to make it something that would make a disc jockey set. You’re spinning things together, and they all seem to have a thread going through them. And you’re telling a story, and I didn’t want the story to be overly academic; I didn’t want it to be cold in that way. I wanted this to be, as I wanted “Vol. 1” to be, a combination of kind of a fun golden oldies album, in the way that they used to have golden oldies albums in the ‘60s with motorcycle hoodlums on the front, and also more scholarly investigations like Yahoo Records, the blues label, did with the blues of southeast Georgia of 1927-33. I wanted to have both of those things because that’s really the way I listen to music: for pure pleasure, and to have a good time and “Here’s my favorite song,” and then also I like to know the context of what happened around it, so that you can tell the story of the time and a place. And that’s pretty much what “Nuggets” is. It’s got those dates underneath it, 1964 to 1968… or on the first one, I had ‘65 (as the starting point). But trying to tell the tale of a moment in time through its music and how it reflects the culture.

So “Vol. II” here isn’t exactly what you had set out as the track list for your planned second volume for Elektra in ‘73, but you’ve adapted it to sort of include things that, in retrospect…

It’s pretty close. Again, you’re dealing with licensing, so there were some things I was unable to license for “Vol. II” (now), so you make a judgment. A couple of songs, I have to say, when I looked at the original list, I thought, “They’re too well known.” I’d rather put something a little more obscure in there. A lot of those songs were not that well known in ’73, so there was that element of surprise… When the original “Nuggets” got to Europe, I realized nobody had heard of the Seeds over there, or the 13th Floor Elevators or some of the more obscure ones that were really a revelation. I think 50 years later, we’ve heard most of these records, sometimes far too much. And so I try to strike a balance between the familiar and the strange, which is how I listen to music.

If anybody is wondering whether this collection might have a different life … there’s already been one CD box set, so I don’t know if there’d be another. Is this pretty much what it’s designed for, this Record Store Day product? Or do you see anything else being done with it?

I think once the box sells out, they’re gonna release the album “Vol. II” as a stand-alone album. And beause we’ve had so much fun with it, Patrick and I were even speaking last night that there could be a “Vol. 3” somewhere down the line. Who knows? I mean, at this point it’s all a bonus piece, and I’m just glad to participate in it and to have this work remembered…

One last question, since you mentioned that “punk” came up in your original liner notes, as reproduced in the current boxed-set packaging… or did you redo them for the 1976 reissue, and the term was already in usage?

No, no. That’s the original (notes). In that package, I didn’t even change the interior of “Vol. I.” I didn’t even exchange the notes inside it about each band, of which there’s many mistakes and things I didn’t know 50 years ago. I just left “Vol. I” the way it was. I used that term, as it was kind of bandied about in the rock writing world to describe a certain type of music, but it hadn’t become the punk that it would. And that’s a kind of prophecy within those liner notes, beause the punk-rock bands — the Ramones, Television — they all did songs from the original “Nuggets.” It seemed like at that time, the music needed to get back to its basics, and so it definitely spoke to a new generation.

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