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