Columbo the Crooner: Guitarist-author Lenny Kaye delves into a decades-old musical mystery

Originally published in LA Alternative Press in 2005

Lenny Kaye (publicity photo for 'You Call It Madness')
Lenny Kaye (publicity photo for ‘You Call It Madness’)

by David Chiu

I’m not that past-oriented,” begins Patti Smith guitarist/music journalist Lenny Kaye. “When I’m working on something is when I’m experiencing it. Patti always had a phrase, ‘Progress isn’t the future — it’s keeping up with the present.’ It’s really what I’m about. I’m opening my door and seeing what walks through.”

A lot has been coming through Kaye’s door, and ironically, some of the work is “past-oriented” in that the multi-talented New Yorker has written “You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon” (Villard), the true story of Russ Columbo, a ’30s singer. Thanks to a seductive voice and good looks, Columbo’s star was rising alongside rivals Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee — until a freak accident claimed his life at age 26. Columbo languished in obscurity for decades until Kaye heard his song, “You Call It Madness,” and fateful story on the radio over 10 years ago.

Kaye, who co-authored Waylon Jennings’ 1996 autobiography “Waylon,” began serious work on Columbo’s story in 1997. “The vista of that moment in time opened up for me,” remembers Kaye in a phone interview. “The drama that was unveiled to me in a few minutes seemed like it was a story that needed to be told. One of the most rewarding things about the book is that I was able to extend my knowledge from the beginnings of rock and roll all the way to the beginnings of the century to see how rock and roll got to where it got.”

The resulting work is not solely a story about Russ Columbo (who was also a violinist and a songwriter), but also of the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, rife with glitz, glamour, and tragedy. Through his subject, Kaye provides context for the origins of the croon; the dawn of radio broadcasting; fellow crooners Crosby and Vallee; the Ziegfield Follies; and starlet Carole Lombard, Columbo’s lover and later Clark Gable’s paramour. “I kind of got hooked into his era almost more than him,” Kaye says. “It was like a prism that I could look into his moment of time. I found endless speculation and incredibly interesting characters.”

Kaye wrote “You Call It Madness” as a stylized novel that follows the lyrical tone of a song, rather than following the sometimes-dry music biography approach. After all, Columbo’s life and death falls in the category of the truth being stranger than fiction. For example, his frail mother received his “letters” written by other family members masquerading as Columbo for 10 years after his death to make it appear her boy was still alive.

“I liked the dramatic essence of it,” Kaye explains, “and I wanted to write something that wasn’t a dull recitation of facts. I felt that especially a story like this, which is as much myth as fact could be spun in different ways.”

Columbo never lived to see how his career or love life might have taken off; friend Lansing Brown accidentally killed him with an antique dueling pistol in 1934. “Had he lived, which is the great question,” theorizes Kaye, “would he have become a singer in a swing band? Would he have become an actor under Carole [Lombard’s] tutelage? The music of the songs that he wrote is really good — “Prisoner of Love” is a beautifully put- together song. He would’ve made his home in the musical world.” As Columbo faded into obscurity, rival Bing Crosby went on to become an American entertainment icon.

Columbo and other crooners set the standard for romantic, ultra-smooth pop emulated by the likes of Bryan Ferry, Chris Isaak and the late Tiny Tim, who recorded an album of Russ Columbo songs in the early ’90s. “For me, [Columbo] was the true crooner — the one who stuck close to the female heart. That was my interpretation of him. I do feel he embodied the sensual song of the croon — the love song sung by a man to a woman in her language,” Kaye opines.

“You Call It Madness” represents the latest chapter in Kaye’s stellar writing and musical career, further delving into his own much-lauded out-of-the-mainstream explorations and appeal. “I feel incomplete without either [music or writing],” he says. “If I had been in the basement writing for a while, I feel the need to get the guitar and bang away. If I’ve been on the road for two or three months, there’s nothing I long for more than the solitude of a good library.”

A fixture in New York City’s downtown music scene, Kaye was and remains part of the rock and roll counterculture as a music writer for publications including “Rolling Stone,” “Crawdaddy” and “The Village Voice,” on artists ranging from Alice Cooper to The Band to Grand Funk to Aretha Franklin. Early in his career, while A&R scouting for Elektra Records, he assembled the ’60s garage-rock anthology “Nuggets” (1972), which later became the template for punk and power pop. “It was quite a miracle that it did come out as great as it did,” he says of that collection. “If you really listen to the album, it’s a little bit more all over the place. Now I could see more of the similarities in the sense they had this grassroots spirits of rock and roll — that initial instinct to pick up a guitar and turn it up to 10.”

Of course, Kaye will likely always be best known as Patti Smith’s guitarist and collaborator. The pair met at a poetry reading in 1971, and except for Smith’s recording hiatus during the ‘80s, Kaye has performed with her steadily. He appeared on her influential debut, “Horses,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Kaye has fond memories of that record and era.

“Amazing isn’t it? Off the top of my head, I see a young band straining to keep up with its inspiration. It’s a very unique record by an artist who has no peers in terms of performance and passion. There is no one like Patti who has blended the power of the word with such commitment to the spirit of the music.

“I always feel privileged and honored to play with her and to be a part of her band,” Kaye continues. “To me, that’s an example of life giving you what you asked for, because all we ever asked for is to make our music without any compromise. The fact that it is still ongoing after all these years is a blessed miracle to me.”

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