Lenny Zenith, of RZA is as polished an interviewee as he is a performer, surprisingly a relaxed in contrast to his frenetic stage presence. He’s been down the road before and referred to a Newlin/Matthews Figaro interview that took place at the very beginning of his RZA career. “You think, how do I want readers to know me? How can I not make the mistakes I made in my first interview?… I made the mistake of putting down a few people… cause I was so naive, so young… I just made these incredible blunders and got all these people calling (saying): “I’m going to sue you for slander’ and ‘you little worm.’ I have to think about what I want to come across as…’ Lenny had just lost his day job, and I asked what kind of job he’d like to do.”Be an executive for a large record company. A&M, Capitol… I could decide what music goes on the air, tell radio stations what to play. Some of the stuff is good but a lot of it’s so inane. I mean, who’s been at the top of the charts the last four or five years? Styx, Journey, Foreigner…” What do you think of Foreigner? ‘I think long hair went out in 1975. There’s not enough variety on the radio. There’s a lot of good music you never hear – Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The
I like Split Enz, Soft Cell… They’re kind of semi-commercial pop stuff, and you never hear it on the radio. I mean, they only play The Police once in a while… It seems to me like the nation’s stuck in this big time warp. Everybody’s scared to let the future happen with all this good new music.'” Lenny expressed a lot of ambition for RZA and his songs, a determination to find a bigger stage than New Orleans. I asked if there were any local influences on his music. “When I was 15 or 16, I heard Leigh Harris and she was a big influence. I liked her style, her intensity as far as getting emotion across. I always retained that. I liked the Normals a lot when they were together; they were a big inspiration.’ Any older folks? ‘I don’t really listen… I never heard the Neville Brothers except on tape. Never heard the Radiators. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve just never gotten around to it.’ I meant really older folks. ‘Um, no… I’m just a new cat. I don’t know that much about the older music and jazz and stuff. Not even old Rock ‘n Roll. I always listened to classical music a lot. I just found out who) The Doors were a couple of years ago. The guys in my band, especially Jimy (Negrotto) always say, “Where’d you grow up, in a bottle or something?’ Zappa? “No, I don’t like Frank Zappa too much. It’s a little too bizarre…
I think what’s influenced me the most is the new music… And classical music. I like Mozart a lot, Chopin, Beethoven…” Do you still play the piano? ‘Not a lot, I don’t have one here. Whenever I get the chance, I’ll sit down and practice. I’ve written a lot of compositions on the piano that aren’t easy to transpose into the instrumentation of the band. (Charley Wehr adds later in the interview that RZA can’t afford keyboards or they’d have some.) So when we go into the studio, I’ll probably play some of those songs that people have never heard. I’ll play the piano and sing and then have the band back me up.
I like 30s and 40s music lot; big band music I like a lot. That kind of real smokey, Casablanca-type thing…’ I have a tape now of a dozen or so of Lenny’s songs, and the more I listen, the more convinced I am that Lenny Zenith (matched locally in lyrics only by Carolyn Odell of The Uptights) has to be writing some of the finest new music in the country, as good as that of any of the groups he respects.
They run the gamut of styles and subject matter; some could be said to have ‘messages: ”We’re trying to say something important. Just recently we’ve gotten, I’d say, real political. ‘Urban Riot” is one of the songs, and we’ve got this new one called ‘Top Secret Nation, and another one called ‘For The Good Of he Whole.’ We’re trying to make people aware there are definite things going on and we’ve got to take action. I’m more of a Romantic than a political activist, but those things really affect me day to day… We’re not out to become super-political, and not every song’s about that, but I think it’s important to the people who come to hear us. It becomes a real personal thing. They know me, they know the people in the band, not from knowing us personally but from what we say and how we act on the stage. And if they like us, that probably means they think like us a little bit too and have something to say, or want to say something, about the way things are going.’ Do you think music can make a difference? ‘I think it’s one of the mediums that affect people the most. I think when I was 12, 13, 14, 15 listening to the radio, those things stuck in my head. And I think if we can get on the radio with a commercial-type song… like The Police, with “Spirits of the Material World” – they really, in a few lines, say something important. I think when people come to hear the band, not only will they have a good times but they might lear in something too.” Lenny delivers the music with a style, a persona, that can’t be ignored and never gets old. It generates energy and demands response.
I asked the modest, low-key person I was talking to who that was on stage: ‘I have to really get to the audience, make them see me. And the only way I can get them to listen to what I’m saying is to look at ’em or be right there in their face, you know, and capture their attention, because otherwise I’d feel that what I was doing isn’t important… I value what I’ve written, what I say, and think it has some meaning. So I want other people to grasp that. Plus, it’s what I feel a lot on stage. If the music makes me dance, I’ll dance. If it makes me want to jump, I’ll jump. I like to feel I’m in the middle of the audience. I like to get intimate with the people who pay to see us… I’m aware of the physical barriers – I’m up here and they’re down there – and I try to break that by jumping into the audience, dancing with them, touching them, running around in circles among them… being a Wild man.”
Is Lenny Zenith your real name? ‘Yeah.’ It is? ”No. But for the record, that’s what I go by. It’s my true identity.’
Lenny, along with Becky Kury, is making a trip to New York Soon, to promote RZA’s demo tape and maybe a few club dates for the band. They’re hot to try the big-time and clearly ready for it. If you’ve never had the pleasure of an evening with RZA, make it soon.