You Call It Madness

Sheet music

Phases & Stages

You Call It Madness

By Lenny Kaye

Villard, 432 pp., $25.95

Imagine Walter Winchell, ear cupped and mic clenched. "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press!" Lips smoothly defy the 238 words per minute spit like little daggers into the cold steel. This stiletto staccato sets the pace of Lenny Kaye's latest project, You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon. Kaye's literary love song is a frenetic delving into the life of post-Jazz Age's most promising yet long-forgotten figure. Had this handsome, satiny baritone survived his youth, the name Russ Columbo would rest next to kingly peers Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. Sadly, Columbo went the pistol route at the hand of his best friend. Kaye, not exactly relegated to obscurity himself, is best known as Patti Smith's right hand. This ultimate fanboy turned rock god began his musical life as the musicologist responsible for the excavation of Nuggets, the seminal garage rock compilation. A punk pedigree like his might seem an unlikely source for such crooner arcana, but Kaye knows his onions. Think Kenneth Anger's blasphemous Hollywood homage, Hollywood Babylon. Likewise, Kaye, in ways, also seemingly out of his element, is actually at one with his subject, for it was the crooner's art that brought poetry to pop, with phrasing that evoked as much emotion or meaning as any word could. In reaching this far back and writing the past in present tense, Kaye connects-the-dots from jazz, to standards, to beat poets, to Tiny Tim, to punk and makes it work. (Patti Smith's very loving, very straight take of "White Christmas" comes to mind.) A stream of semiconsciousness, the book sometimes plays like the better parts of noir-y David Lynch. Ultimately, You Call It Madness makes good use of this device, where style is the substance as opposed to implying a lack of it.

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