Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Best of Acapella

Lenny Kaye (b. 1946)
From Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z

View inside Times Square Records, Manhattan, early 1960s. In his essay Kaye writes, “If Slim was a world in himself, his store was a veritable universe. Records lined the walls, sparkling in all manners of color.” Photo by American photographer Jack Robinson (1928–1997). Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Fifty years ago this fall, Lenny Kaye was writing a piece about a short-lived doo-wop–inspired musical trend of the early 1960s. He would have had no reason to expect that the essay’s publication in the December 1969 issue of Jazz and Pop magazine would completely change his life. In the memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith recounts what happened when she came across a copy of the 1970 anthology The Age of Rock 2: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, which included Kaye’s essay in a roundup of the best of recent rock music criticism.
What most touched me was a warm yet knowledgeable piece on a cappella music by Lenny Kaye. It spoke to me of my youth where the boys would gather singing R&B songs in three-part harmony. It also contrasted with some of the cynical, holier-than-thou tone of much criticism of the time. I decide to seek him out and thank him for such an inspiring article.
Kaye worked at the record store Village Oldies in New York. “She just started visiting me,” Kaye told a writer for The Guardian forty years later. “We’d sit and listen to records we loved, like ‘My Hero’ by the Blue Notes.” Smith recalls that “if there were no customers, Lenny would put on our favorite singles, and we’d dance to the Dovells’ ‘Bristol Stomp’ or do the 81 to Maureen Gray singing ‘Today’s the Day.’”

It was a short (if arduous) path from the record shop to making records. “She asked me to accompany her on a few poems. I just went over to the loft she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, and did these chordal riffs under Patti’s chants.” Kaye accompanied Smith on guitar at her first live performance, a poetry reading at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on February 10, 1971. Three years later, Kaye produced Smith’s first single (a cover of the rock standard “Hey Joe”), and he was a member of the band on her first four albums, including the landmark debut, Horses. They perform together and collaborate on projects to this day.

A few rock musicians have dabbled in critical writing and a few critics, like Robert Palmer and Lester Bangs, have moonlighted in bands. But none of them approach the unique accomplishments of Kaye, not only as sideman and co-songwriter in The Patti Smith Group but also as the leader of his own band, The Lenny Kaye Connection, and producer of albums by Kristin Hersh, Suzanne Vega, and Soul Asylum (among others). Before the article that changed his life, Kaye had already distinguished himself as a writer for Crawdaddy, Creem, and Rolling Stone, and in 1971 he was the “token rock critic” (as he described the honor) on Esquire’s annual Heavy 100 list. In the role of pop archivist, Kaye put together the celebrated compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, which built a bridge between the “garage punk” of the Sixties and the punk revolution a decade later in which he was himself a participant. Kaye is also the author of You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon and co-author of Waylon, the autobiography of Waylon Jennings.

“The Best of Acapella”—the essay that permanently entwined the careers of two legendary musicians—is our Story of the Week selection. Kaye describes a now-lost subculture in which independent record shops not only became hangouts for local fans but also founded their own labels to issue (and sell) vinyl recordings of songs performed by community artists.

Portions of this introduction have been adapted from the headnote to Kaye’s essay in Shake It Up, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar.

Notes: Kaye’s mention of “the curse of Marcuse’s One-dimensional Man” is a reference to the 1964 book by Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, which posits that the controlling classes of industrial societies invent “false needs” that result in “prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole.”

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