Wizard Wednesdays: Dancing Barefoot At Lenny Kaye’s
In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I had started what a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published by Jawbone Press. Order now!
I remind everyone that my book is not just about Todd Rundgren music, but it is more of anecdotal history of most of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So, Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of Badfinger’s Straight Up and his interactions with George Harrison.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and the week after that I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of New York Dolls (1973). Last week, I shared some of Todd fan Dave Gregory’s thoughts on the sessions for XTC’s Skylarking (1986).
This week, I wanted to share with you some of my background interviews from the chapter on the making of Wave, by The Patti Smith Group (1979).
You may recall, by clicking here, that I blogged in real time about my interview with Patti herself, and the emotions I felt sitting in a Greenwich Village cafe with her about two years ago. Today I want to tell you about one of the other most thrilling interviews for that chapter, Patti’s long time guitarist, noted producer and rock historian, Lenny Kaye.
An Afternoon At Lenny Kaye’s (abridged but largely unedited excerpts of a much, much longer conversation).
First a bit of background. At the point when Lenny Kaye agreed to talk to me about Todd Rundgren’s production of The Patti Smith Group‘s swansong album Wave, I had already spent a week talking to Todd in Kauai, and had talked on the phone with former PSG member Ivan Kral (co-writer of “Dancing Barefoot”). I had been negotiating for weeks with Patti’s assistant for an interview with Patti, which I was told was coming, but had not, as yet, happened. In the meantime, I had already arranged to be in New York and knew that I had better track down Lenny and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. Daugherty was in Brooklyn, so I had gone over there on the Saturday, after my Patti interview had been postponed. Again. Sunday, Lenny agreed to have me over to his pied-a-terre in St. Mark’s Place, where I could sit down and get his memories and observations. I was going to record the interview, as I did all the interviews on this project, using my MacBook Pro running Apple GarageBand recording software. I had my whole interview kit in a laptop shoulder bag, which weighed down on me on this particularly warm afternoon as I walked up from Soho to St. Mark’s Place, taking in all the historic sights along the way. Everywhere I looked, my mind darted with rock geek observations. I wondered if Joey Ramone had walked on this particular crack in the pavement, or if David Johansen had lit a cigarette on that corner. Yeah, I know, silly right? But I have to say that without these little passions and enthusiasms, there’s really very little romance in rock journalism. We just learn to keep it to ourselves, most of the time. Anyway, I finally found the address that I had scribbled on a Post-It Note™, and buzzed up. The door clicked and I was walking up the creaky wooden stairwell to Lenny’s place. He was standing in the open door as I rounded the hall, and welcomed me inside. I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the little stereo Sony microphone that I use in these situations. The fridge was humming and there was a radio on. But I didn’t want to be a bother. Lenny made us some herbal tea and we dispensed with pleasantries about the weather and Berkeley, where I live. Here are some excerpts from our two-hour conversation, edited portions of which appear in the finished book.
Paul Myers: I think we should start by talking about, before Wave it’s well known that, Todd said he used to come out to Patti’s shows. I gather you would have probably been playing acoustic, or was she only doing performance art back then…
Lenny Kaye: Yea, I don’t remember actually when Todd showed up, but I knew him from around the Max’s circuit, and uh, you know, I knew him from being in The Nazz, Uh, not knew personally, I was aware of the work and uh, you know I mean he was very local in many ways, he would hang out at Max’s, so you would see him and shoot the breeze, and uh I would see him play various places, I remember going to Central Park one day, when he recorded the double album.
PM: The Wollman Rink [in Central Park]?
LK: Yes, exactly, so I saw him there, and you know, a fan, and uh kind of a casual friend, I knew that him and Patti had had rhythms together, and I think that was one of the reasons that we decided to go with him as a producer, because of the personal connection and also I think because Easter, the one before it, in many ways, was a kind of masculine record. Not masculine in a complete gender sense, but it was a very strong focused, no blurry edges kind of album and I think we wanted to move in a little more of a, you know I think of it as feminine, but more of, like a little uh, experimental perhaps, a little stranger, something, I mean I think the difference in the pictures on the covers show it, you know, on Wave, Patti is wearing a dress and she’s very uh, girlish
PM: That would be the posing with the doves…
LK: Exactly, yes, the Robert Mapplethorpe picture. And you, know, we thought, plus Todd was hooked into Woodstock, which was close by Bearsville and also we’d never made a record outside the city, so you know, it seemed like a good move forward.
PM: I guess the isolation too, not just the fact that it’s out of the city but it’s in an isolated environment, and that Todd was hugely comfortable with in terms of being able to whip sounds out right?
LK: Yes, it made it easy to record because Todd worked a lot at Bearsville and lived down the street. We’d had a very public year and I don’t think we thought it was a bad idea to go away for a few weeks and make a record.
PM: Do you mean it was a public year due to ‘Because The Night’’ being such a big hit?
LK: ‘‘Because the Night’’ was such a big hit, we seemed to tour on a whole new level. We were back after our year of Patti’s rehabilitation so we were in a particularly strong ‘prove it to yourself’ mode, and really feeling our strength as a band. I always think of the third album as the one, if a band reaches it, that you truly come into your own. You know, you’re learning who you are in the first record, and the second record is usually a reaction to the other end of it and you get to the third and you’re confident and you know how make a record and you’ve been through it. Jimmy Iovine who produced Easter really worked very deliberately with us so it was a good experience, and we grew a lot as a band on that thing and then it came time to make the next record. We began somewhere around Thanksgiving of ‘78, if I remember, and spent a good portion of the winter making the record. We recorded most of it in December and early January, and then we mixed and remixed until it came out.
PM: Yea, there were two mixes right? What’s the deal there?
LK: Todd’s very quick in the mix mode, and the band left me up there to oversee the mix and I remember sitting down the first day we worked on “Frederick” and Todd set up everything, took a couple hours, we were patient. Then he did a pass, and, he turned to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ I had my laundry list of well, you know ‘Push this here, push this’ and he said, ‘You wanna mix it again?’ I thought, huh. So maybe I got one more, two more mixes and the rest of the record was mixed over the weekend. I brought it back to the band, and the band, predictably, flipped. You know I’m not sure whether there was, there was just difference in what everyone was expecting to come off the tape and not, so we went into I believe it was called Blank Tapes, or something, on 23rd street. The only song I think we kept from the first series of mixes was ‘Revenge’ because Todd said something happened on the drums that he wasn’t sure he could get again. Of all the mixes, the one, you know when we got the new set of a mixes, they were all great. We always thought the drum in ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock n Roll Star” was a little loud. But then, Keith Moon had just died so we were able to have a good rationale for that.
PM: Do you enjoy the mixes that ended up on the released album?
LK: Actually, listening to it with the hindsight of the years, it’s a very interesting sounding record. The acoustic guitar that open up ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ really interesting tones, Todd had a lot of ideas and they were good ideas. He helped construct the kind of circular bass line in ‘Frederick’ that I played where there’s really not any starting or stopping to it. When it came time for Patti to do the stacked vocals on ‘Frederick’, he put her in the control room and he just said, you know, ‘Sing here, then sing here, sing here,’ you know? He created a vocal harmony section that was, truly amazing, four five parts, double tier he just did it. He just put his head down, and went for it. It was truly amazing to watch. That was, I would say, his hardest piece of work on the record. He really did an amazing job, and listening to [the vocal parts] swirl around, today is quite remarkable to hear how he did it.
PM: What other things stood out as very Todd inspired?
LK: Things like instead of having a guitar solo he had Richard Sohl do a synthesizer solo. Todd kept moving us in directions, and if we didn’t want to go there… to me the central thing about Todd as a producer, I learned the first night we went up there, we had no pre-production. We go we visit him in his house the night before we start setting up and the ferret is running around, and there’s a record playing and I said to him, I said, “oh is that your new record?” He said, “hmm…that’s interesting.” Well it turned out to be The Tubes record [Remote Control] he had just finished. Then I learned his philosophy which is, and something I’ve repeated many a time to any band I’ve produced with, it’s a great aphorism which is: ‘If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you. If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.’ And that’s pretty much the job of a producer, and producers like it when artists have ideas. That said, if we had ideas that we wanted to chase on our own, like for instance, we were very firm about recording things live. You know, there are some moments where you want to make a record, but there’s also moments that we wanted to see how it turned out live, things like ‘Radio Ethiopia,’ We had for Wave there were a couple songs like that, uh, primarily ‘Seven Ways of Going.’ What Todd did, he says okay, he didn’t feel like he had to sit there and even direct us. He gave us the keys to the studio, the engineer, you know, block of hash, he said, you know, ‘When you get a take you like call me’ and skated down the hill in the ice. It was very instructive into how to be a producer when you’re needed and when you’re not needed to not get in the way.
PM: A few of the artist’s in this book found Todd’s manner…. let’s just say they didn’t get hugs of affirmation from him…
LK: Todd never had a great deal of patience, you know, because he’s so smart. I think you can see it in his solo work, sometimes with all the minor 7th diminished 12th chords, you ache for a major chord, something that is direct. So sometimes, he can be just a hair smarter than the song requires.
PM: I have to admit, before I started researching this project, I used to believe that your cover of “So You Want To Be A Rock N Roll Star” was… a kind of a reaction to the success of ‘Because the Night’. I thought it had to do with the rock industry, and the whole corporate pop machine.
LK: Are you kidding? We were really up on the rock thing. We had a top 15 single, for a band as out there as us, we you know, the industry worked for us. We had a hit. You know, we got to play great places at a time, after Patti’s injury, where, in a weird way we weren’t as confrontational. Wave is not a confrontational record, by any means. If anything it’s a healing record. I mean I look at Patti’s long trail from the opening words of Horses, ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,’ to that beautiful walk on the beach with The Pope at the end of Wave, this is conciliation. I always figured that when Patti fell off the stage, [prior to Easter] that was the height of our like, you know, if the universe is expanding and contracting, then that was like the expansion of our angst. After that Easter is a healing record and Wave is certainly, not only a healing record, but a farewell record, because Patti is on her way to Detroit, to ‘the land of love,’no way shape or form.
PM: It’s all in there in the lyric
LK: As they always are, Patti is a forthright writer.
PM: Todd told me that he’s subtractive when he produces other people, but on his own records he’s additive because, he’s just adding and adding and adding. But he said that his role as a producer is to try and simplify and get people to just be themselves more. Yet, the conventional wisdom is that he’s like a hands on, megalomaniac producer, who comes in changes you, makes you sound like Todd.
LK: No, he, he’s very wise, He guided me through a really good solo on ‘Rock and Roll Star’ and he came up with the idea of in ‘Revenge’ instead of one of the two guitarists in our band, me or Ivan, taking the solo that we kind of have a little strange guitar duel where one takes the first phrase, the next one takes the second phrase. And I always get a great deal of pleasure out of that. I think the only thing he might have played on the record, and I’m not positive about this, is the bass on ‘Dancing Barefoot’ which he played with us live when we played in New York a couple of times. Todd has a good sense of sound.
PM: How would you sum up Wave and its place in the career arc of The Patti Smith Group?
LK: Wave s a good record. I really think that of our quartet of records in the seventies, they all tell, it tells a very complete tale. It’s almost like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you know, you see the same thing from different view points. You know they’re very different from each other, and each of them in their own way seems to have accomplished what we wanted out of them, so I feel very satisfied. Todd had a great spirit of adventure, and uh, you know, the record was definitely made in his reflection. Todd is Todd. Nobody sounds like him, nobody comes up with the whacky ideas that he does… I learned how to produce a record from Todd. I mean, you learn from all your producers. I think when I became a producer, that dictum of Todd’s, you know ‘If you know what you want, I’ll get it for you.’ That requires a lot of creativity. Todd is somewhat visible on Wave, but he could have been a lot more visible.