By the time Kenny the sound guy texted me about Lenny Kaye’s 70th birthday party at the Bowery Ballroom it was sold out. But lucky me – Kenny put me on the list. While I was at the downstairs bar waiting for the doors to open I noticed a lot of gray-haired men and women and there were lots of Patti Smith t-shirts and jackets. At some point, I realized I’d forgotten my cellphone so there would be no photos of the concert. For this show, Kenny would be doing the sound (most acts bring their own sound person).
I stood leaning on the railing behind the soundbooth. Both sides of the balcony were taken up for VIPs plus there were barstools further out into the crowd because there were so many VIPs. On stage, the bass drum had a black cover and in white letters it said “Happy 70th Birthday Lenny Kaye.” The drum was also covered with flowers. Kenny invited me to sit in the soundbooth. There was another friend of his there also. So it was four of us, including the lighting guy.
Lenny Kaye is a musician, writer (songs and music magazines), record producer (Suzanne Vega), author (You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon), and archivist. He was one of the original members of the Patti Smith Group and he produced her debut single. His anthology of 60s garage rock Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 is a major influence on punk rock.
Lenny started with his first band the Lenny Kaye Connection (formed after the Patti Smith Group broke up in 1979) – Charlie (CP) Roth (keyboards/synthesizer), Paul Dugan (electric bass), David Donen (drums), and Lenny (electric guitar). If you hung out at Danceteria, the Ritz, or Peppermint Lounge then you may have seen them. Donen also played in another of Lenny’s bands, Reality Sandwich. Lenny joked that he lived a good life, was home by 11, and didn’t go to the Lower East Side to hang out. The songs had a new-wavish feel to them and included “Luke the Drifter” and “Tell-Tale Heart.” Lenny also played guitar for the Jim Carroll Band (“we had stage divers then”) and the band played “Still Life.” “I’ve Got a Right” was written in 1982 when Reagan was in power. Roth said, “Remember when that was your worst worry?” During a very 80s synth break, Lenny called it the synth from hell.
The band left and Tom Clark joined Lenny. Both were playing acoustic guitars. They perform as a duo (Slim Bean and Tom Collins) at places like the Treehouse or the Cabin Down Below at 2am. They played a medley of songs – “Poor Little Fool,” “A Teenager in Love,” “Bristol Stomp,” “Coney Island Baby” (Lenny included a talk about high school dances), “Last Kiss” (Clark talked about crying), “Tears on My Pillow” (Lenny did the background vocals), “Hey School Girl,” “Earth Angel,” and “A Teenager in Love.” It was an incredibly fun singalong.
Many times, Lenny talked about growing up in New Jersey, his love of music and how it’s given him the opportunity to work with so many artists in so many different music genres.
Tony Shanahan (electric bass), Andy York (electric guitars), Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) of the Patti Smith Group joined Lenny (electric guitar). He said the band had no name and jokingly called them the Bowery Ballshrooms. Lenny said, “Fifty years ago,” which caused him to laugh out loud and throw back his head and all his hair at the absurdity of it. His uncle, who knew he was into music asked him to sing on a record. His uncle Larry Kusik wrote “A Time for Us,” the love theme from Romeo and Juliet and “Speak Softly Love,” the love theme from The Godfather. He’d written “Crazy Like a Fox,” which Lenny called his theme song. Lenny recorded the song under the name Link Cromwell. Lenny was glad it wasn’t a hit because then, instead of performing at the Bowery Ballroom, he would be on PBS with others singing their folk/protest songs of the 60s. The band played “Slaves of New Brunswick” a song about growing up in New Jersey and “No Jive.” Lenny said that what he loved about working as a record producer in the 80s was that the artists allowed him to see the world through their eyes. All the songs were special but he loved this one in particular by the Weather Prophets – “Naked as the Day You Were Born.”
Lenny loves living on the Lower East Side no matter how many buildings they put up. You used to be able to find him at Coney Island High. He likes seeing his friends play anywhere. He doesn’t go uptown to see the successful bands because his friends are all successful downtown. The band played a song about a local watering hole that I liked a lot but I can’t find the name of it. The next song was dedicated to Billy Miller and Kenny turned around to look at me since earlier in the evening he’d mentioned that every band playing Bowery Ballroom for weeks has been dedicating songs to Billy Miller. Lenny said, “Yes, I’m a record collector,” and we laughed. The band played “The Things You Leave Behind,” which has a delightful twangy sound and was a perfect memorial song.
Patti Smith came out and she and the band immediately went into “Jesus is Just Alright.” Patti was dancing a lot and recited a poem at the end. Albert Bouchard (drums/percussion – Blue Öyster Cult) came out on electric guitar and shared vocals with Patti on the band’s “Astronomy.” Lenny was on bass and Fox on keyboards and Shanahan was gone. Patti said she saw Blue Öyster Cult play that song in 1974 with Bouchard on drums. Sandy Pearlman (producer – Blue Öyster Cult) gave the band his poem, which was used for the lyrics. Patti was partners with Allen Lanier (keyboards/rhythm guitar – Blue Öyster Cult) for some time in the 70s and co-wrote songs for the band.
Then Bouchard left and the band performed “Free Money,” one of the first songs Patti and Lenny wrote together. Lenny was back on guitar and York was on bass with Fox still on keyboards. Patti mentioned that is was Oliver Ray’s (one of her former guitarists) birthday. Someone yelled out, “Hey Patti! Tell us a story about Lenny from the old days.” Patti answered, “Those were the new days, these are the old days. It’s one continuous story.” Then it was just Lenny and Patti performing a song written for Noah, “Mercy Is.” Requests were yelled out and the band (Shanahan on keys, York on bass, and Lenny on guitar) performed “Pissing in a River.”
Kenny said that both Patti and Lenny hadn’t been feeling well. Lenny seemed to be in good voice and Patti sounded great. During “Pissing in a River,” she had a coughing fit and grabbed the water bottle but before she could open it, the band was back to the point where she had to come in and she threw the bottle down and sang with such power and force – I think it was pure anger getting her through the song.
Then a cake was brought out and everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” Patti announced that this would be the disaster section because Shanahan wanted her to sing a song that she always screws up. Patti reminded us that she wasn’t going to turn 70 until the 30th and the band (back to their original places and Fox off the stage) performed the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “If 6 was 9.” At some point she told us that we are the thorn in the sides of those motherfuckers and we should keep poking. We are not going to accept what they throw at us for the next four years.
Patti said that wasn’t a big enough disaster so they’d slide over to a nice song for a nice girl, “Capitol Letter.” Their last song was dedicated to Patti’s mother – “she would vacuum the whole fucking house to this fucking song” – “Rock N Roll Nigger.” Patti took off her jacket (she was wearing a t-shirt with no bra – how may 70-year-old woman can do that?) and took an electric guitar and one by one she pulled the strings off the guitar. I’m surprised she didn’t cut her fingers. She left the stage saying, “I hope you lose and lose and lose again and lose again and lose again and stand the fuck up again and fight.”
Lenny said, “The concert’s over. Now it’s a party. Get out the bottles and the bongs and soon we’ll be good.” Just your neighborhood bar band would be playing. We heard a bunch of songs from Nuggets like The Strangeloves’ “Night Time,” The Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” The Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” The Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night), and other old songs. Lenny – “Turn your radio to WNEW and it’s Scott Muni.” “Hey, Lenny, how do you spell New York?” “A knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork. That’s how you spell New York.” Lenny – “I was a mutant kid in New Jersey. Not on the football team and not academic. Then I found rock and roll and I knew who I was.” Lenny then named people who were gone. And then for Abby Jane, who loved the New York Dolls, the band ended with “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”
During the evening one of the Bowery Ballroom managers was in the booth and behind his back he handed Kenny’s friend and me VIP passes for the after-party being held upstairs. It turned out to be the shortest after-party ever. Lenny went around and said hello to all his friends and collected gifts and then he left and so did everyone else. I hung out for a bit to watch the load-out and talk with Kenny and have a proper goodbye. Kenny gave each of us one of Patti’s guitar picks.
It was an incredible evening full of great music.