IN­TENSE CITY

A new book on the mid-70s New York mu­sic scene is a re­mark­able work of cul­tural his­tory, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WE all have cities we miss when we think of the times we spent in them. Some­times that city can be the one you’re still liv­ing in to­day. But New York is a me­trop­o­lis that ex­erts a pull on the mind even if you’ve never been there.

Whether it’s a Woody Allen film such as Man­hat­tan or Jay Z and Ali­cia Keys cel­e­brat­ing it with Em­pire State of Mind, an an­them that soars against the his­toric wound of Septem­ber 11, New York continues to oc­cupy our mem­o­ries and even our dreams.

Per­haps this is why a book that ex­plores the city’s dis­parate and of­ten deeply ob­scure un­der­ground mu­sic scenes from 1973 to 1977 can be so vi­tal. In the cu­ri­ously — and ur­gently — ti­tled Love Goes to Build­ings on Fire, Will Her­mes zooms in on a seem­ingly ar­bi­trary pe­riod. He does so pre­cisely be­cause of its low stand­ing be­tween the glo­ries of the 1960s and a star­burst of talent that in­volved ev­ery­one from Blondie to Lau­rie An­der­son and Grand Mas­ter Flash when the 80s be­gan.

Where oth­ers saw an in­terim, if not a waste­land, the then teenage Her­mes felt his­tory in the mak­ing. And it’s as an his­to­rian — rather than a re­por­to­rial in­genue a la the Cameron Love Goes to Build­ings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Mu­sic For­ever By Will Her­mes Vik­ing, 384pp, $29.99 Crowe film Al­most Fa­mous — that Her­mes ap­proaches the era now. He does so at high gear and with great anec­do­tal verve, un­scrolling his panorama in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, jux­ta­pos­ing the mu­si­cians, venues, me­dia and street life that laid down rev­o­lu­tion­ary grounds for punk, disco, hip-hop, salsa, jazz and min­i­mal­ism.

Books such as Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Wont Stop (hip-hop), Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day (disco) and Clin­ton Heylin’s From the Vel­vets to the Voidoids (punk) have vis­ited this ter­ri­tory bril­liantly be­fore, as Her­mes ac­knowl­edges. But none moved far out­side of the gen­res they ded­i­cated them­selves to at depth, even if they had broader res­o­nances.

Her­mes tries to cross­hatch all those scenes and more into one seething ur­ban mass. It’s hard not to feel jumpy and ex­cited while you read all about it. His New York is a place where punk bands such as the Ra­mones are stalk­ing the same streets as a young taxi driver and as­pir­ing com­poser named Philip Glass, while the real-life disco lovers who in­spired Satur­day Night Fever are club­bing the night away and Martin Scors­ese films his Taxi Driver.

Graf­fiti tag­ging has just be­gun on the sub­ways — “the first gen­uine teenage street cul­ture since the 50s”, de­clares critic Richard Gold­stein — and off to one side the Latino com­mu­nity thrills to a salsa mu­sic that pen­e­trates the city: ‘‘Heard as a com­pressed ra­dio sig­nal blast­ing from shops, apart­ment win­dows, and pass­ing cars, it sounded brassy and shrill — fun, hus­tling, ter­mi­nally high-strung.”

Her­mes is a dab hand at mu­si­cal de­scrip­tions and evoca­tive phras­ing, as well as char­ac­ter por­traits and scene-set­ting of epi­gram­matic force, not to men­tion the com­pacted foun­da­tions of his re­search and in­ter­views.

He spent more than six years work­ing on this book and has a life­time of back­ground ex­pe­ri­ence in the city writ­ing for jour­nals such as Rolling Stone and Vil­lage Voice. It shows in ev­ery­thing from pen-stroke ob­ser­va­tions of a young Bruce Spring­steen ris­ing out of New Jersey with his “Dy­lan-style lyri­cal splat­ter paint­ing” to an as­tute and bridg­ing use of a Spring­steen quote at the book’s end, where the Boss cites a sur­pris­ing pas­sion for the chill­ing syn­the­siser rock of Sui­cide: “You know, if Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like (Sui­cide singer) Alan Vega.”

The well-doc­u­mented CBGB club scene that spawned the Ra­mones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talk­ing Heads, Sui­cide and Tele­vi­sion is in­evitably part of this story fab­ric. But Her­mes is

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