Rock for the Ages

REVIEW: 'Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll'

The Patti Smith Group (L-R) Jay Dee Doughety, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, Richard Sohl, and Ivan Kral pose for a portrait circa 1977. / Getty Images
January 16, 2022

Contrary to its subtitle, Lenny Kaye's Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll isn't about discrete flashes in time as much as the scenes and cultures that created musical trends and movements—more thunder rolling than lightning striking. Kaye, adopting the terminology of legendary producer Brian Eno, refers to scenius, the collective genius of particular times and places, and explains that these scenes "spring unbidden, taking their sweet time to find how to unfold before presenting breakthrough to an awaiting universe-at-large."

Many of those scenes are well known: the Memphis of Sun Records and Elvis Presley, the Liverpool of the Beatles, the San Francisco of the Grateful Dead. Yet Kaye makes even these familiar tales fresh by describing the artistic, intellectual, and political interests shaping the time and place, and by telling the stories of the also-rans who competed for contracts and audiences—the mute, inglorious Melvins. "Heard about your band in some local page," sang the Replacements. "Didn't mention your name. Didn't mention your name." Kaye mentions their names.

In fast-moving prose that is both playful and dry—psychedelic noir—Kaye also takes us to scenes that don't appear on more generic overviews. He guides us through the churches, clubs, and studios of New Orleans, even the 19th-century pianists, that produced Fats Domino and Little Richard. We visit Philadelphia with Dick Clark on the set of Bandstand, learn about the Italians singing harmonies (kudos to Kaye, for giving doo-wop its due). In Detroit, we see a bit of Motown but get more about Creem magazine, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and the political and performative radicalism of MC5. Best of all, Kaye barely mentions Woodstock.

Kaye is a rock critic, guitarist, producer, and radio host best known for his work with Patti Smith in the 1970s. He is modest enough to avoid making himself the focus of the book but savvy enough to make occasional cameos: Here he is listening to the radio as a kid, joining his uncle for time in the recording studio, driving across the country with a friend. As he gets older, his relationship with the music deepens, culminating in 1970's New York City, where he befriends Smith and becomes her guitarist. The New York chapter is the book's best, covering his peers in Television, the Velvet Underground, and the Ramones, as well as Andy Warhol and the legendary club CBGB. Some of this material will be familiar to readers of Smith's award-winning memoir, Just Kids, but Kaye’s voice and perspective are distinct from hers.

Like a greatest hits collection, Kaye's choices will draw complaints about omissions, and it's easy to imagine other scenes he could have explored. A chapter about Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s would have been fascinating, particularly because Patti Smith was an enormous influence on REM. (Both Smith and Kaye appear on REM's final album.) These slights aside, the book often gave me the feeling I once had when perusing those overlooked casualties of the digital age—liner notes: the special excitement of discovering connections between dissimilar artists, recurring ideas across songs, familiar producers in new places.

Kaye falters, however, when he explores the 1980s and '90s: Van Halen's bass player Michael Anthony did not join the group when he let them use his PA system—that was original lead singer David Lee Roth. Poor Extreme: Their lead singer (and eventually Van Halen's third) was Gary Cherone, not Gary Charonne, and their biggest hit was "More Than Words," not "More Than You." The idea behind the title of Nirvana's biggest hit wasn't sparked when a friend wrote "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on a wall; she wrote, "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit"—a reference to a girls' deodorant that was introduced in 1991. Nirvana's 1992 compilation isn't titled Insecticide; it's Incesticide. Matt Damon isn't in Seattle-set Singles—that's Matt Dillon. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots died of a drug overdose in 2015, not 2014.

And it's true that Nirvana's Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous out of the #1 album spot, but the Gloved One's first single on that album was not "a biracial duet with Paul McCartney." Kaye must be thinking of "Say, Say, Say" or "The Girl Is Mine," which were released nearly a decade before the controversial crotch-grabbing of "Black or White." One more: Soundgarden's Ultramega OK did not lose the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1989 to Jethro Tull—the album wasn't nominated until 1990. It was Metallica that notoriously lost out to Jethro Tull for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance in 1989.

These slips, minor as they are individually, take a toll on Kaye's authority. They're also a bit of a buzzkill, which is in keeping with the overall tone of the last few chapters. Kaye's chapter on punk is outstanding, but he is justifiably hard on the Sex Pistols, in part because of the violence of Sid Vicious—who was charged with murdering his girlfriend, assaulted Patti Smith's brother, and then died of a drug overdose. That viciousness foreshadows the remarkable darkness of the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. One of its members served 21 years in prison for killing a bandmate and burning three churches. "Despite its twisted family tree," Kaye writes, "there is something comforting about the decibel avalanche at metal's core, the layers of civilization it scrapes away"—only pages after showing us where that scraping can lead.

And then there is the long procession of suicides and drug overdoses by alternative rock and grunge stars. Kaye records Cobain, Weiland, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch, and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden; let's add Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, Kristen Pfaff of Hole, Bradley Nowell of Sublime, and Doug Hopkins of Gin Blossoms.

"Rock and roll is here to stay," sang Danny and the Juniors. "It's better to burn out / Than to fade away," added Neil Young. Kaye knows better than that, and he points to Pearl Jam (liner note: They've recorded with Young!) as a counterexample, a band that's stayed alive and stayed relevant. No wonder Kaye appreciates them: He, too, is grateful for a long career immersed in the music he loves, and loves to share.

Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll
by Lenny Kaye
Ecco, 512 pp., $35

Christopher J. Scalia works at a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Published under: Book reviews