Punk pioneer Lenny Kaye reflects back on "the original sin of rock 'n' roll"

Salon talks to Patti Smith's original guitarist about the reissue of his New York punk pioneering compilation

Published November 29, 2015 9:30PM (EST)

  (AP/Chris Pizzello)
(AP/Chris Pizzello)

Punk in the Big Apple is a subject that has been exhaustively—and some might say exhaustingly—documented over the years, yet a new reissue by the venerable Chicago crate diggers Numero Group accomplishes the mighty task of finding a fresh angle on the late 1970s scene. The set gathers the entire catalog of the short-lived boutique label Ork Records, founded in 1975 by the Warhol cohort, film buff and would-be impresario Terry Ork. It was primarily a vehicle for a band he was managing called Television, but he soon released foundational punk and postpunk singles by Television, Richard Hell and Alex Chilton with compelling obscurities by the Erasers, the Revelons and Prix. Spread across two CDs or five LPs, this modest catalog totaling 49 songs reveals a scene as it was coalescing and figuring out a new set of rules for rock 'n' roll. It’s easily one of the best reissues of 2015.

So what is this guy Link Cromwell doing on here? His pair of tunes stands out among the gritty, grotty punk anthems: “Crazy Like a Fox” is a folksy protest song about rejecting workaday conformity, more “Eve of Destruction” than “Blitzkrieg Bop.” And “Shock Me” is a jittery volt of garage rock energy, much rawer than the A-side but still not exactly the sound you associate with CBGB. Their inclusion on this set, however, is crucial. Both songs were recorded in the mid 1960s by a musician who would later have a profound impact on punk rock and in fact on all subsequent rock. Link Cromwell was actually the stage name of Lenny Kaye, who is one of the most influential men in rock history, even though most people have never heard the name.

Kaye recorded those two songs for his uncle Larry Kusik, who had written “Crazy Like a Fox” with Ritchie Adams. Both were professional songwriters and musicians, the former penning “Speak Softly Love" from “The Godfather” and the latter a member of the Fireflies and later the Archies. Link Cromwell was their attempt to cash in on the popularity of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” although “Crazy” barely sold a handful of copies. Kaye continued making music, forming a band called the Zoo and writing for “Rolling Stone,” “Crawdaddy” and “Fusion,” among other publications.

In the early 1970s he started playing electric guitar while his friend Patti Smith recited poetry. Eventually, the project cohered into the Patti Smith Group, which self-released its first single, “Piss Factory,” on their own Mer Records. It not only inspired the music of New York but also the business by which that music would be disseminated. Power to the people, indeed.

Perhaps even more crucially, in 1972 Kaye assembled a collection of garage-rock tunes from the 1960s, tightly wound rock anthems full of bristly defiance and angst and attitude by bands like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Count Five, the Standells and the Electric Prunes. The psych explorations and hippie noodling of the late 1960s rendered that sound obsolete, but Kaye still heard something explosive and timeless in those Fuzztone guitar riffs and Farfisa organ rave-ups. He called his compilation “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968,” and while its initial pressing wasn’t what you would call a blockbuster, the right bands heard it.

“Nuggets” was the foundation for punk rock in New York City and college rock in Athens. It was expanded in the late 1990s and fomented the garage rock revival that gave us the White Stripes, the Hives and Reigning Sound. Even today acts like Ty Segall, Royal Headache, Thee Oh Sees and Total Control owe a debt to “Nuggets.” It’s impossible to overstate the influence of that compilation, which arguably invented the concept of the reissue and possibly even the mixtape. Punk wouldn’t have existed without garage rock, and “New York, New York” wouldn’t exist without “Nuggets.”

Link Cromwell ended up on Ork because Terry Ork asked if he could reissue it—a request that reveals the influence of ‘60s garage rock on ‘70s punk.

Recently Kaye related the story to Salon: “One day Charles [Ball, who ran the business side of Ork Records] said to me, Can we put out your old ‘Crazy Like a Fox’ single? And I thought, why not? That’s how I got included in their great discography. My song is an anomaly because it’s not really from the time covered by the new Ork set.”

That certainly makes the song stand out. It connects this new punk scene with an older sound and style.

Absolutely. They all listened to “Nuggets.” In a weird way, “Nuggets” was a philosophical throwback to a time when rock 'n' roll was pretty open-ended and was still figuring itself out. I think that’s a good comparison to what was happening at CBGB at the time. Both were these interim periods when there are a lot of different stylistic things coming into the music and everybody’s having a good time putting them together in odd ways. So the bands that clustered around CBGB looked at the “Nuggets” album as a role model, I think. I grew up in that garage rock era, so I partook of that sense of experimentalism and excitement.

Were you surprised that “Nuggets” had so much resonance?

Well, the thing sold so few copies on its initial release! But it’s found a home among people who appreciated the spirit of the music. I suppose it was one of the templates of a kind of feeling within rock 'n' roll at the time that bands needed to rediscover their original motivations—why you make music in the first place. It’s not really to be professional musicians or to have a career, but to find a voice. Surely the bands on “Nuggets” and the bands at GBGB had that same spirit and were trying to return to what I call the original sin of rock 'n' roll. They were trying to find their own way.

Every generation seems to find “Nuggets” at a certain point, even now with the current wave of garage rock bands.

Two things about “Nuggets.” One, there is a sense of innovation and rediscovery within it. Second, it’s just great records. It’s not so much about the Fuzztone guitars and Farfisa organ as it is about these incredibly well-crafted and well-performed records. Even though they have a veneer of primitivism, they’re not as simple as they look. They’re unique. They come out of your speakers and they transcend genre. One of the things that I love about the Ork set is that it’s not as genre specific as people these days think of punk rock as being. When you say punk rock, the Ramones template comes to mind. But to me the bands on “Nuggets” were all over the place stylistically, and I think that’s true of the earlier bands at CBGB and the ones that Terry collected for his label. There are a lot of different kinds of music at work—a lot of people discovering themselves. And that’s what makes it worthy of its lavish presentation.

The Ork set definitely conveys a sense of community centered around Terry Ork, all of these bands orbiting around this very charismatic character.

It was a community. It was an underground collection of individuals who got to know each other and encouraged each other. That’s one of the things Terry was so good at—helping people become themselves. He certainly had that role in Television. He wasn’t much of a musician. He wasn’t even much of a businessman. For him to run a label was a stretch of his talent. But he took care of some of the practicalities, from finding his bands places to play to encouraging them once they got there. He was a good soul, a merry cherubic human. I never think of him as serious. When I think of him, I think of him as being somewhat mischievous.

And that seems to come through on the Ork set, even though he doesn’t play a note on it.

There was a certain playfulness, a sense of being far enough from the mainstream that you had no choice but to find your own path. All of these bands were essentially misfits, and that’s why the scene at CBGB could grow and develop unnoticed. No one was paying much attention, so people could take their time figuring out whatever new direction they wanted to follow or whatever new idiosyncrasies they wanted to adopt.

The focus is on these really intriguing bands, some of whom were caught in motion going on to the majors and some of whom would not be documented at all, like the Erasers. I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the Erasers had it not been for Ork. It’s great to hear “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Blank Generation” and to hear Richard Hell moving away from Television to his solo vision. It’s great to hear Alex Chilton between incarnations. But really, for me, hearing some of these other bands is a great thing, because otherwise they might be forgotten by rock history.

One thing about “Nuggets” is that it’s not your top-shelf groups. Maybe some of them became big, like the Standells. But a lot of them were the also-rans. That’s where I like my rock 'n' roll arrow of interest points—toward those bands that are off to the side. In a way they tell the tale of the scene much more than the successful bands.

I think that’s what “Nuggets” instilled in me: this idea that you didn’t have to be the Beatles to make good or important music. You could be nobodies and still have an amazing song.

Exactly. The Beatles are at such a level, they’re just the Beatles. In a weird way they’re disconnected from their times. But you listen to some of those Merseybeat bands and you get a real sense of what it was like in Liverpool at a certain moment in time. As a rock historian, I like to see the oddballs. I’m doing a little investigating into New Orleans in the late ‘50s, and I know Little Richard and Fats Domino and all those guys. But when I find a piano player like Archibald or this guy I’m really into now, Roy Montell, who has a song called “That Mellow Saxophone,” that’s really the fun stuff. In some ways they’re more revelatory and insightful that the major players in the scene.

You were in Patti Smith’s band at the time, and her first single, “Hey Joe”/”Piss Factory,” was massively influential, even from a business standpoint. Releasing it on your own Mer Records label showed that you could do this on your own and on a smaller scale.

I understood how to do it. I loved the a cappella doo wop labels that record stores in the tri-state area were doing at the time. That was where independent labels began. You don’t have a route to the major labels, so you might as well put it out yourself. It’s not so different from today when people are making their own CDs and selling them at gigs. You can see what you sound like and figure yourself out. Out little Mer Records didn’t have any other releases, because we weren’t businesspeople. It was an experiment to try to create, if nothing else, a rare record of the future.

You’ve talked about artists coming into their own at CBGB, but it sounds like you had come into your own a bit earlier than most of the people on Ork Records. Did that give you a different perspective on punk?

I was probably four or five years older than most of those people, which is enough for a generation. I did serve my rock 'n' roll apprenticeship in the ‘60s. I was in what would be known as a garage band, and it was called the Zoo. I played mostly on the fraternity circuit, which stretched across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. If you saw “Animal House,” then you saw the type of band I was in. We were playing “Shout” for 20 minutes while the fraternity brothers swam in beer. You played four sets a night. I remember when I played the Delta Kappa Epsilon house—the D Kaps, which was the football players’ house at Rutgers, where I went to school—they would give us an extra $25 if we didn’t take a break. So we were up to $125! It’s a great way to learn your craft and a good way to go through college. I always think of rock 'n' roll as my true major.

To play in the ‘60s, when the whole playing field was changing so radically, was amazing. My first band started at the end of ’64, and when the Zoo broke up in around ’67, there had already been quite an evolution in how the music was regarded. I think the same can be said for the early ‘70s into the late ‘70s. The whole sensibility of what rock 'n' roll could be and who could play it changed radically. I have to laugh when I remember when the Zoo started. There were a couple of British Invasion songs in our repertoire, but mostly it was songs like “What’d I Say” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” By the time we broke up, we were sitting on the floor cross-legged playing raga rock. That’s a pretty large leap. I never thought I would be continuing it after college, which is why my subsequent career is so amazing to me.

Was there a moment when you realized that you could make a career out of music?

Yeah, about a year ago. You just keep doing it until you realize you’ve made a life of it. It’s really something to have this Ork box come out. You realize what a long life it’s been. It’s quite a commemoration. I certainly didn’t see Ork Records as such a thing. It’s like somebody putting out records with your friends, people helping themselves. But now you look back and it’s really quite a body of work.

When Ork put the “Crazy Like a Fox” single out, how did it do? Did it sell particularly well?

The single has been released on so many compilation albums and has been rereleased many times, so it’s just amazing how little impact it ever makes. It’s a cool single, though. I just performed at the Ponderosa Stomp under the name Link Cromwell, and it was his first appearance in 49-and-a-half years. I’m pretty amazed by his longevity. The single has never been a hit, but it continues on. In a weird way, it’s my own tale. It’s the theme song that tells the story of my life. “While they’re working on the inside, I’m having fun on the outside.” The song gave me a sense of myself as a musician, as a performer, as someone who could be that “Crazy Like a Fox” person. And I’m grateful that Terry and Charles helped move it along its lifeline. And in retrospect, I think it’s just a good song—a tribute to my Uncle Larry, who was a great songwriter. “Speak Softly Love,” the theme from “The Godfather.” “A Time for Us” from “Romeo & Juliet.” He was a great encourager of me at a time when I needed a little bit of encouragement.

Did you ever consider “Crazy Like a Fox” for “Nuggets”?

No. I never would have been so self-serving as to put it on. In a way it’s not really a Nuggets-y song. It’s not a band coming out of nowhere. It hasn’t got a great Fuzztone guitar solo, which is probably de rigueur for “Nuggets.” But it’s still a very hooky song. I especially have an affection for the flip side, “Shock Me,” since the bass playing on it is my first instrumental appearance on record. I didn’t play on the A side, but I played bass on the B side while my uncle tootled along on harp. It ‘s just a great little slice of folk protest.

Now that you’ve dusted off Link Cromwell for Ponderosa Stomp, do you have any further plans for him?

I have no idea. Sometimes in my imagination I invent a little lifeline that Link Cromwell might have had, had that song been a hit. There would have been the lost years in the desert, and then he would have tried to stage a comeback and re-create that hit. But to be perfectly honest, I’m happy with the way things have turned out. If the song had been a chart success, my whole life would have been written differently. Everything happens for a reason.

By Stephen Deusner

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