Lenny Kaye and friends to celebrate the garage rock treasures he unearthed for ‘Nuggets’

James Sullivan, Boston Globe


May 16, 2024

Lenny Kaye and friends to celebrate the garage rock treasures he unearthed for ‘Nuggets’

By James Sullivan Globe correspondent,Updated May 16, 2024, 

The cover of "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968."The cover of "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968."ELEKTRA RECORDS

As a kid in suburban Connecticut, Clint Conley was raised on the pop music of the day — the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas. Then he heard a dangerous-sounding song called “Talk Talk” by a mysterious group called the Music Machine.

“It broke my little 11-year-old brain,” recalls Conley, who would go on to become a founding member of Mission of Burma, the uncompromising post-punk band that formed in Boston in 1979. “It was so dark, so laden with menace. And I thought, ‘Ooh, I want more of this!’ ”

On Friday, Conley will join an all-star lineup representing Boston’s distinguished rock ‘n’ roll history and beyond in a celebration of the 50th anniversary (give or take) of “Nuggets,” the 1972 compilation that canonized the sound of “garage rock.” The Neighborhoods’ David Minehan, the Cars’ Greg Hawkes and David Robinson, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, Belly’s Tanya Donelly, and many more will be joined onstage at The Cut in Gloucester by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s longtime co-conspirator, who curated the original “Nuggets” tracklist.

When Conley was asked to play the gig, he had one request: He had to do “Talk Talk.” After receiving the invitation, he dug up a box of old 45s tucked away in his garage. He found two hopelessly scratched copies of the “Talk Talk” single.

“Maybe I should put one on a lanyard and wear it around my neck,” he joked.

By 1972, such hard-edged rock songs — many of which flirted with the pop charts during the previous decade, often recorded by short-lived groups with names such as the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watchband — already felt like quaint relics. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, had an idea to document that vanishing era. He asked Kaye, then making a name for himself as a rock critic, to compile a tracklist.

Musician and "Nuggets" archivist Lenny Kaye, shown at home in New York City earlier this year.Musician and "Nuggets" archivist Lenny Kaye, shown at home in New York City earlier this year.AL PEREIRA/GETTY IMAGES

Kaye put together a list of about 60 songs, 27 of which would be released on the original double album. It was officially titled “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968.” Then as now, Kaye had a distinct idea of what constituted a “nugget.”

“To me, it’s like the sense of plugging in and finding out who you hope to become,” he says. “That divine spark that keeps people forming bands, singing at the top of their lungs, and banging their guitars against the amplifiers.”

In his liner notes, Kaye referred to the music not as “garage rock” — that term hadn’t been invented yet, he says — but as “punk-rock.” That proved to be prophetic. Within a couple of years, the first punk bands — the Ramones, the Saints, the Sex Pistols — would emerge with “a sense that music needed to return to its initial rawness and sense of naivete,” as Kaye, on the phone from New York City, puts it.

In a brief introduction to the vastly expanded, four-disc 1998 “Nuggets” box set, Holzman wrote that his anthology concept was high-minded.

“This was no K-Tel bargain TV ragbag,” he wrote, “but a serious study.”

But Kaye says he just did it for the fun of it.

“My joke is that if I’d have known I’d still be talking about this 50-plus years after ‘Nuggets’ came out, I would have screwed that record up,” he says. “I would have made it too serious.”

The Boston-area “Nuggets” may be a finale of sorts. It’s potentially the last of several full-scale tribute shows that have taken place over the past year in cities including Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

“It’s meant to be joyous,” Kaye says. “I don’t want it to be a job.”

Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham, who lives in Gloucester, took part in the North Carolina show last fall, and he convinced Kaye to bring the tribute to the newest venue in his adopted city. Burnham did much of the organizing.

“I try not to have any responsibility for these things,” Kaye jokes, “other than showing up and accepting the plaudits of a grateful universe.”

But New England deserved a show, he says: “Boston was certainly a hotbed of garage rock back in the day.”

The Remains, the '60s Boston band, appeared on "Nuggets" with "Don't Look Back."The Remains, the '60s Boston band, appeared on "Nuggets" with "Don't Look Back."ED FREEMAN

One of the original Boston rock bands, the Remains — mainstays at Kenmore Square’s Rathskeller in the mid-1960s, a full decade before the club’s punk-era rejuvenation as “The Rat” — were accounted for on the original “Nuggets” release. So were the Barbarians, who were from Cape Cod, and “Dirty Water,” the hyper-local ode to the Charles River recorded by the Standells (who were actually from Southern California).

Red Sox organist Josh Kantor, who has indie rock bona fides that include frequent participation in Buck’s theme band the Baseball Project, will join the backing band at The Cut. The supporting cast will also feature bassist Ed Valauskas, guitarist James Mastro (of the Bongos), and drummer Jon Wurster (Bob Mould, Superchunk), with help from Burnham, his fellow Gloucester local Tony Goddess, and the guitarist Duke Levine, who is currently touring with Bonnie Raitt.

Longtime Beverly resident Barrence Whitfield will contribute his signature brand of rock ‘n’ roll fanaticism on three tracks he hand-picked — Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Just Like Me,” the Strangeloves’ “Night Time” (a J. Geils Band staple), and the Sonics’ “Psycho.”

“That one is a no-brainer,” says Whitfield, who has been busy with a Slim Gaillard tribute band and an album of covers by Stoney Edwards, one of the few Black country stars of the 1970s, among other projects. “When I said I wanted to do ‘Psycho,’ they started laughing — ‘You’ll probably scream your guts out on that one!’

“I credit my mother for spanking me and getting that howl out of me,” he says.

Barrence Whitfield can't wait to sing the Sonics' "Psycho" at the "Nuggets" tribute show.Barrence Whitfield can't wait to sing the Sonics' "Psycho" at the "Nuggets" tribute show.J. A. GONI

That timeless instinct to make a glorious noise lies at the squalling, pounding heart of the “Nuggets” credo. In addition to his cover of “Talk Talk,” Conley expects to join Willie Alexander, the patron saint of Boston rock ‘n’ roll, onstage. They plan to play a couple of songs from Alexander’s ‘60s bands the Lost and the Bagatelle.

“He’s the living embodiment of that era,” says Conley, who has worked as a senior producer on WCVB’s “Chronicle” for more than three decades. “He’s a totally lovable dude, a benevolent presiding spirit.”

For the last several years, Kaye has hosted a nighttime DJ set on Sirius XM’s vintage rock station, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. He still loves the music, he says, but he also keeps tabs on the platform’s TikTok Radio channel.

“I spend a lot of time with the soundtrack of today,” Kaye says. “I may not participate in it, or even understand it. But I’m about musical progression. I’ve never said, ‘Oh, music was better then.’ Music exists in the present.”

For a few hours on Friday, however, the music of the moment will be, he says, “a celebration of a moment in time.”

Written by James Sullivan for The Boston Globe