By the spring of his junior year at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, alumnus Lenny Kaye had played at enough frat parties that he knew how to move a crowd to rapture with just three chords and a key change. It was four sets a night of “Do You Love Me,” “Louie Louie,” and “Shout,” building in three-minute intervals to a concerto-length crescendo of “What’d I Say” as the Pi Lambda Phi brothers backstroked across the steamy dance floor. Collect $100 to split among band members, and plug in the next night at Zeta Beta Tau.

“Our ‘What’d I Say’ lasts as long as we can think up verses,” Kaye RC’67 wrote in the gig-pitch letter he sent to all the fraternity social directors on behalf of his first band, The Vandals (motto: “Bringin’ down the house with YOUR kind of music”). He was a sophomore history major—tall, bespectacled, and skinny as the neck of his cherry-red Gibson Les Paul Special—when he played his first frat party at the Chi Psi house on November 7, 1964. The Kinks had a new single, “You Really Got Me,” and The Vandals learned it off the radio so that they could be the first band to play it on campus.


But by February 1966, Kaye was in a new band, The Zoo, and he had a single of his own, “Crazy Like a Fox,” playing on the radio—at least on WAEB in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the one station that he had heard it on. It was written by his uncle (Larry Kusik, a professional songwriter best known for the romantic movie ballads “A Time for Us” from Romeo and Juliet and “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather) who saw in his long-haired nephew a ticket to the youth market. The song was recorded in a New York studio with session musicians, not the garage-rock maestros of The Zoo, and released under an Anglocentric stage name (Link Cromwell) to evoke the post-Beatles British Invasion.

Vogel’s, the popular record store on George Street in New Brunswick, stocked it, and the trade papers held high hopes for it. In Billboard, it was “predicted to reach the Hot 100 Chart.” It was one of the “Newcomer Picks” in Cash Box. Record World made it a four-star pick: “Teens will get the message,” it said. Wrapped in a package of the pop craftsmanship that Kaye admired, “Crazy Like a Fox” was a message about the freedom he craved, and that the rock ’n’ roll music he had embraced so completely seemed to promise.

So when The Zoo played a Friday night gig at Records Hall on the College Avenue Campus in April (admission: 50 cents), he felt like more than just a frat-band front man. He was, maybe, a burgeoning rock star, and a borrowed Webcor tape recorder was running as he sang his new single, sandwiched between covers of “Green Onions” and “Carol.”

They call me neurotic and say I’m psychotic

Because I let my hair grow long

They say that I’m crazy and they call me lazy

‘Cause I don’t like to work all day long

Well, I’m crazy like a fox

Whoa, I’m crazy like a fox

‘Cause while they’re working on the inside

I’m having fun on the outside

Oh yeah, I’m crazy like a fox

When Kaye returned to Rutgers 50 years later—to be honored as a Rutgers 250 Fellow and participate in the Day of Revolutionary Thinking lecture series to mark the university’s 250th anniversary on November 10, 2016—he brought his guitar with him and plugged in at a lecture hall within the new Rutgers Academic Building, a block away from Records Hall. In the intervening 50 years, he has been a rock critic and historian, a record producer, the guitarist who has been playing with Patti Smith since her first gig, and, according to Salon, the online arts and culture magazine, “one of the most influential men in rock history, even though most people have never heard the name.”

Collage of Lenny Kaye photos


Top left, Lenny Kaye rocks out with his longtime partner Patti Smith, of the Patti Smith Group, during a concert performance in the Netherlands in 1979. They met in 1971 at the Village Oldies record store in New York City where Kaye was a salesclerk. He was also writing for music publications, and an article he wrote for Jazz & Pop magazine, about a cappella music, intrigued Smith, who came to the store to meet him. Top right, Kaye had a modest hit single in 1966, “Crazy Like a Fox,” which was written by his songwriter uncle Larry Kusik and released under the Anglocentric stage name Link Cromwell to evoke the post-Beatles British Invasion; also pictured is Kaye’s Rutgers College ID from the 1960s and the medallion he received from the university for being honored as a Rutgers 250 Fellow. Bottom right, Kaye participated in the Day of Revolutionary Thinking lecture series (for which he was designated a Rutgers 250 Fellow) to mark Rutgers’ 250th anniversary on November 10, 2016.

Rob Verhorst; Bill Cardoni; Roy Groething

“I always think of rock ’n’ roll as my true major,” he said, and in retrospect his years at Rutgers, where he served his apprenticeship as a musician while learning to research and write as a historian, look like a carefully crafted independent study designed to make him exactly what he became: both a chronicler of and a participant in the epic of rock ’n’ roll. “This is the 50th anniversary of my graduating class, and I’m still pretty much doing the same thing I was doing at Rutgers back then.”

And then, before he played “Crazy Like a Fox,” he introduced it this way: “In a weird way, it is the story that became my life,” he said.

“It should have been a hit, as they say,” said alumnus Terry Stewart, the former president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, who first met Kaye when, as social chair at Delta Kappa Epsilon, he paid The Zoo an extra $25 to play four hours straight without a break. He knew him later through the hall of fame, where Kaye, who describes himself as a “semi-member” (Patti Smith was inducted in 2007, without her band), serves on the nominating committee. 

“He’s in many ways the reason she has a band. He’s unique in that sense: he’s the catalyst, he’s the provocateur of her musical career,” said Stewart ENG’69, ED’69 about the decades-long musical partnership between Kaye and Smith, who were born three days apart in 1946—he in New York (his family moved to North Brunswick when he was in high school), she in Chicago (her family moved to South Jersey when she was a girl). “The term that comes to mind, probably the only legal term I remember from law school since I never practiced as a lawyer, is sui generis, one of a kind. He’s an intellectual of sorts—a writer, a raconteur, a performer—and it’s only through the luck of the draw that he’s not inducted.”

“Crazy Like a Fox” vanished quickly, except in sets by The Zoo, which remained a popular enough campus band that they played at the wedding of former Rutgers president Mason Gross’s daughter (“When the society band finished its stint, a long-haired, pulse-pounding rock ’n’ roll group took over the bandstand, and the younger guests took over the dance floor,” according to a local newspaper account).

“Even though the record didn’t do much of anything, it still helped me understand who I could be,” Kaye said as he stopped into the Student Activities Center during his November campus visit. When he was a student, it was called The Ledge, where The Zoo often played the big room overlooking the Raritan River, and where he once interviewed protest singer and songwriter Phil Ochs for the Targum student newspaper over a hamburger at the snack bar. “And that to me is the great secret of garage rock: that you find this yearning and desire within yourself and you’re able, through the use of an amplifier and a guitar, to turn it up—and turn yourself up as well.”

His initial career path was toward academia, maybe following in the steps of the professor who inspired him most deeply, the late cultural historian Warren Susman. And Kaye was a good enough student to win the Roman Law prize in the history department for his thesis on social mobility in the Theodosian Code. (“How that comes back to me is pretty amazing,” he said.) But all through his senior year, a psychedelic poster he had hung on his wall beckoned in another direction. It was from the 1967 New Year Bash at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, a concert featuring The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

The Zoo had a few gigs the summer after graduation, but after they played the Middlesex County Fair, Kaye hopped in a ’56 Ford with his friend Larry and $80 and headed west to San Francisco. “We ran out of gas in Nebraska because we were arguing about the nature of self,” he said. “It was an amazing summer of possibility. It sounds so naïve now, but you definitely believed that love would change the world, that when The Beatles sang “All You Need is Love” it was true. The sense of hope and possibility, the sense of power that you had of what this could be was remarkable.”

He came back east in the fall to start graduate school at New York University, where he earned a master’s in history and decided that he was more interested in what was happening around him now. A rock press was emerging, and he started writing more about music than he was playing it. “I always felt that I wrote from the perspective of what it was like to be in the band,” he said.

He clerked at a record store, too, Village Oldies on Bleecker Street in New York City. One day he got a call from a fellow New Jersey exile who had read his story in Jazz & Pop magazine about a cappella music. “She called me up out of the blue and said, ‘I just read your article and there’s a lot of heart to it, and who are you?’” Kaye said about his first encounter with Patti Smith. “She’d come visit me at the record store and I’d put on her favorite records, ‘My Hero’ by the Blue Notes or ‘Bristol Stomp’ by the Dovells, and we’d dance and chat, and one day she said, ‘I hear you play a little guitar.’”

Smith was writing for the rock press, too, living with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and planning a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. “She said, ‘I’d like to shake it up a little bit so maybe you could come and play a little guitar behind it,’” he said. “I went to the loft she was sharing with Robert at the time, and she read me a couple of her poems and I kind of followed along, essentially tracking the way she spoke-sang them.” 

If you listen to a recording of that night at St. Mark’s—February 10, 1971, the night Smith’s rock ’n’ roll career was born—you can hear a poet finding her voice as a performer, and a guitarist finding the rhythm and melody in poetry. “We did ‘Fire of Unknown Origin,’ which was one of the first songs Patti ever wrote, and I kind of transcribed the bluesy chords from where her voice went,” Kaye said. “It wasn’t meant to be a band or even something to last past that night. It was kind of just for the sake of art.”

Lenny Kaye playing guitar at home


When not on the road with the Patti Smith Group, which still actively tours, Lenny Kaye likes to hang out with his wife, Stephanie, in their Victorian home where he practices the guitar, writes songs, and reads from an impressive canon of history and fiction lining the bookshelves.

Bill Cardoni

Around the same time, Kaye was rummaging through the record bins of his memory and New York City to unearth tracks for what became Nuggets, the groundbreaking compilation album that reimagined a neglected chapter of rock history and launched a thousand punk bands: “an archeological dig into the bizarre splendor of the mid-sixties, a time when nobody seemed too sure of what was happening but never let that get in the way of enjoying it to the fullest,” as he wrote in the liner notes.

“This is the moment where my life turns on a dime, where the steps I will be taking during these next months will determine the course of my existence,” he said. “Little does one know when opportunity arises.”

He played more poetry readings with Smith over the next several years while writing for a wide range of magazines, from Rolling Stone to Cavalier, and living across the street from CBGB in the Bowery.

“Basically, I would watch how she breathed, I would listen to the timbre of her voice, the inflection, and basically try to go to the door and have it open so she could rush through,” Kaye said. “It was very organic. We didn’t really know where it was heading or why it was heading but we knew that there was a sense of fascination from the audience when we played and we kept following it. There was no thought that we would have a rock ’n’ roll band. There was no thought that it would be anything more than an interesting creative shot in the dark.”

But by 1975 they were a band, playing CBGB four nights a week for seven weeks, signed to a record deal, and blasting out of the same fertile scene that produced Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, and the Ramones. They had four hit albums in four whirlwind years, inadvertent rock stars touring the world until one final concert in 1979 before a crowd of 70,000 in a soccer stadium in Italy. 

“It took everybody by surprise, including us,” Kaye said. “Amazingly enough, we were part of a vanguard of musicians that were reinvigorating the music that we loved.”

And then Smith left it all behind, moving to a Detroit suburb to raise two children with her husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Kaye kept writing; co-authored Waylon Jennings’s autobiography; played in other bands and fronted his own; and produced records, including Suzanne Vega’s hit single “Luka.” When Smith returned to music in 1995 after her husband’s death a year earlier, he joined her again. Between tours and recording sessions now, he returns to the rambling Victorian in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where he moved with his wife, Stephanie, 29 years ago to raise their daughter and where he has stashed enough records and memorabilia to qualify as an annex of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Albums occupy one room on the first floor, 45s another room upstairs (that’s where the 1967 Fillmore poster hangs now), and the basement, a flea market of rock ’n’ roll artifacts, is where he writes. The book he’s working on down there now is tentatively titled Lightning Striking, a history of rock ’n’ roll told through its most influential times and places: Memphis 1954, for example, Liverpool 1963, San Francisco 1967.

“The New York 1975 chapter, I’m sure, will have more of me than I may be comfortable with,” he told the audience during his Rutgers visit. “I’m not a Bruce or a Patti—even in my aspirations. I feel very comfortable when I play with Patti being on her left-hand side watching her breathe.”

A few weeks after visiting Rutgers, he and Smith planned to celebrate their 70th birthdays with a pair of concerts—his in his birthplace of New York, hers in Chicago.

“I really treasure the experiences I had at Rutgers because one of the reasons you come here is to learn about yourself as opposed to learning whatever they teach you in class,” he said. “The strange irony is that what I did in school—which was study American history with an emphasis on cultural history and play in a band—prepared me for my future life, amazingly enough.”

And for his finale in the lecture hall, he had a surprise. “One more song,” he said, strumming his blue Fender Stratocaster. “I don’t even know the chords to this one.”

“My father sent me to old Rutgers, and resolved that I should be a man,” he sang, urging the audience to join him for “On the Banks of the Old Raritan.” It didn’t sound the way it did when the marching band or the glee club performed it, but it was good enough for rock ’n’ roll. •