What Lenny Kaye Learned From the Year-Long, 40th-Anniversary Celebration of ‘Horses’


Few albums come galloping back through the dimensions the way Horses has. The iconic record by Patti Smith turned forty this past December, but its return to the public consciousness truly came years before, when Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids renewed it for young listeners, musicians, and fans. This year, Smith and her band celebrated the record by playing it to audiences around the world, including a triumphant private performance at the place it was born: Electric Lady Studios in New York.

“All of the songs have been burnished by the glow of playing them for forty years, of seeing the audiences respond to them,” says guitarist Lenny Kaye, Smith’s quiet stage-left stalwart. Horses was recorded in 1975 in Electric Lady’s cavernous basement portal, Studio A. Jimi Hendrix designed the Greenwich Village lair, envisioning a place where everything was curved and soft, intended to divine creativity and foster encounters that would color the recordings made there.

“Mystical things happen in the studio, and as a musician, you rely on these spikes of serendipitous inspiration,” says Kaye, who also recorded Gone Again (1996) and Banga (2012) there with Smith. “You know that Jimi Hendrix stood in a certain corner. You can feel his vibe, and you can feel all the records, especially all the ones we’ve made there, coming back at you. It’s almost like the walls are breathing.”

Kaye speaks the way Smith writes: purposefully, poetically, and for long, uninterrupted stretches. He recounts a particularly eerie moment during the last take of a cover of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” “I stepped on my wah-wah pedal for a little bit of Jimi-ism,” he recalls. That accidentally disconnected him, and the strange scratching sound that resulted became a notable facet of the tune. “I listen back to it, and I think, ‘That’s the sound Jimi wanted on the record,’ ” Kaye says.

‘When you’re a young band heading into a recording studio for the first time, it’s kind of like holding up a psychological mirror to who you are.’

The Village scene beyond Electric Lady’s double-mirrored panels on West 8th Street was handed down to Hendrix from the Beatniks of the Fifties and Sixties, having been bequeathed to them by the abstract expressionists of the Forties. Lately, the studio and its environs have welcomed new artists — everyone from Kanye West to U2 to Adele — and that convergence of past and future is what inspires Smith and Kaye to continue recording there. They also enjoy the Village enclave for its practicality. “Patti loves the fact that she can walk to it, and I like the fact that I can leave there at 4 a.m. and stop for a nightcap at my local,” Kaye says.

In 1974, when Kaye, Smith, and pianist Richard Sohl initially came to the recording studio, their futures were uncertain. They were a self-contained skeleton of a band, to hear Kaye tell it: None was yet a recording artist, let alone a rock musician. But Kaye believes it was the ambiance at Electric Lady, its plush interior and interstellar murals, that finessed their vision. “When you’re a young band heading into a recording studio for the first time, it’s kind of like holding up a psychological mirror to who you are,” he says. “You suddenly realize the chasm between the way you sound in your head and the way the unforgiving machines show you who you are.”

In the end, it’s about capturing lightning in a bottle. Or, as Kaye puts it: “I thought of us as kind of young ponies suddenly let out of the corral. What do you do? Do you run off a cliff, or do you control these horses? A lot of what we did was so intuitive. We had a strange band and material that didn’t fit into any organized categories…all we could do was allow it to tell us where to go.”

The winding, jazz-infused “Birdland,” for example, started out as a track that barely reached four minutes. Recalls Kaye, “[Producer] John Cale kept saying, ‘Well, if you want to improvise in the studio, let’s see some improvisation!’ ” Per Cale’s decree, “Land” was completely ad-libbed, with Smith overlaying vocal takes to otherworldly effect; the interlocked voices formed the album’s ethereal heart. “You’re not in control of the process, no matter what people think,” says Kaye. “I rely a great deal on how everything feels. It’s like riding a motorcycle: If you start thinking about going around the curve at 80 mph, you’re going to be off that curve in a second. But if you become the bike, and feel the bike, and slide around it, and look to the next curve as opposed to the one you’re going around, then you’re riding.

‘I thought of us as young ponies suddenly let out of the corral. What do you do? Do you run off a cliff, or do you control these horses?’

“I look back at us and I see youth in that record,” he adds. “Our earnest hopes for who we could transform ourselves into — amazingly enough, the tale has come true. I really appreciate how much we became who we wanted to be through the making of Horses and all these years playing it. We’ve kept our ideals together and kept our purpose for being onstage, which is not for fame or wealth, but for artistic illumination. That’s what’s always driven Patti and me: the fact that we want to make the best art, and a belief that if you make the best art, you will be able to make art tomorrow and the next day.”

The concerns addressed in the group’s music have changed over the years, from internal to societal, Kaye says, but the work ethic of its two chief operators has not. “What Patti and I share is that we’re both workers. I like to dance to ‘White Wedding’ at 4 a.m. in some random bar as much as anybody, but I’ll also make sure I get up at 8 in the morning if I have a piece of work that’s fascinating me.”

In 2016 Kaye will be immersed in writing his fourth book, which will focus on music’s critical crossroads, such as Memphis in 1954, Liverpool in 1963, and New York in 1975. A lifelong contributor to rock publications such as Rolling Stone and Creem (and, most recently, for the now defunct website Wondering Sound), Kaye likens wordplay to the feeling of playing a guitar solo. “I don’t find the divide between my musical self and my writerly self,” he says. “In fact, I like the way they inform each other.”

And as far as fodder for writing goes, Kaye certainly suffers from no paucity of stories to tell, no dearth of formative experiences to relate — though occasionally what these actually involve is his narrowly missing out. He recalls how Smith chanced to meet Hendrix at Electric Lady’s opening-night soiree; at the time, Kaye was far away — psychically if not geographically — in New Brunswick, New Jersey, plotting his next move. “It was prophetic,” he says. “I wasn’t even on the scene; I was just thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do with my life when I move to New York City?’ ”

For musicians or potential musicians in that position today, Kaye counsels that forking over the cash for time in a high-end studio isn’t a guarantee of anything. “I can’t tell you how to become famous or heard or any of that, but I do believe that if you do your own work, it is its own reward. Maybe you’ll find a way in which to have that work heard by millions.”

Returning to his own particular example, he sums things up thus: “For all the flaws of [Horses] or the things that happened we didn’t expect, they’re still playing it, and that is a beautiful and grateful thing.”