8:23 am Nov. 30, 2011
Readers who pick up a book like Will Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, an examination of New York’s early- to mid-'70s music scenes, are bound to do so with expectations.
They'll look for sex and drugs and rock and roll on the L.E.S., the moment punk was born at CB's, and how Will was there to see it all go down downtown. That’s the timeworn mythos patented by Please Kill Me and plenty of other first-person accounts of the era. But Hermes takes his narrative in another direction. Instead of a diary of debauchery or a list of all the famous people he ran with back in the day, Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone and an NPR contributor, offers something more rare and more valuable.
Hermes chronicles the period as a historian would, and tells the story of how just a few years in New York saw the rise of genre-defining (or redefining) artists and movements that shaped a variety of musical worlds, their influence felt strongly today in every realm of pop. His story encounters some familiar names—The Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen—as well as more subterranean acts (at least at the time) that, he argues, were no less influential—Suicide, Television, and proto-hip-hop D.J.s Grandmaster Kaz and Kool Herc.
“It was a period when things were being invented,” Hermes told Capital over Thanksgiving weekend. “Club music was being invented, and hip-hop was being invented, and the story hadn’t really been told. Some of them had, like the disco story in Tim Lawrence’s great book. But all the relationships, the fact that all this music came up together at the same time, hadn’t been told.”
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is at its best when telling these less-familiar stories. There are the formative moments of future superstars—Bruce Springsteen resisting his label’s demands to ditch the E Street Band and record alone with an acoustic guitar, or David Byrne’s pre-Talking Heads outfit, The Autistics, road-testing “Psycho Killer” at a Valentine’s Day party at The Rhode Island School of Design years before it would appear on Talking Heads: 77 and become a hit—alongside stories from more esoteric acts and genres. The book is broken into five chapters, one for each year. Over the course of the book, some artists come and go, while others—The New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and Television, particularly—are followed year after year, as they mature as artists, or (in the Dolls’ case), watch their early success wither. Hermes makes occasional appearances as a kid living in Queens, desperate for a taste of the culture going on all around him yet mostly inaccessible outside of neighborhood record stores.
The book relies heavily on interviews, but Hermes felt responsible to the facts, many of which weren’t on the tips of his interviewees’ tongues. This is not an oral history, and owes as much to Hermes’s research as his access to the era’s great artists.
“Well, people’s memories aren’t often that great,” Hermes said. “Bruce Springsteen has played a lot of shows. He recalled certain things very vividly, and certain things I was hoping he’d recall, he didn’t. That was the case with everybody I spoke to; it would be the case with me if someone asked me about what I was doing in my twenties on a particular evening.
"So, going back to publications like The Soho Weekly News, every week there were critics on the ground, writing about things that were happening. The library research was critical for telling these stories in real time, which was what I wanted to do. I wanted this to be a narrative that people could move through, and feel that they were there.”
Love focuses as much on salsa, jazz, and the kind of avant-garde work being done by artists like Philip Glass as it does on Blondie or the Ramones. Those more subterranean bands, composers, and scenes, he argues, were just as influential in what has happened in music since, despite their relatively smaller audiences at the time.
“Listen to almost every disco record, and it’s got somebody playing congas on it, if not timbales and other Latin percussion,” Hermes told Capital. “Hip-hop’s whole focus on the drum break is really a way of thinking that comes as much from salsa breakdowns as much as it comes from dub reggae breakdowns.… The triumph of rhythm is really the story that connects all these genres. Punk was simplifying rock to very basic rhythms. The minimalists were taking 12-tone compositions and reducing them to a pulse. Disco was all about rhythm, obviously, hip-hop, salsa, and the loft jazz scene to an extent.”
New York itself is something of a major character in the book. Hermes checks in with his cast of through all the major milestones of the period, from the ’77 blackout to the Son of Sam murders. CBGBs and The Chelsea Hotel feature heavily, as do the local parties in the dank basements and housing projects of the South Bronx, where hip-hop was born. “The South Bronx was looked at as being the archetypal snake-bitten ghetto. There were a whole lot of reasons for this—city planning, Robert Moses’ highway system, and more. But this place that was really the symbol of how bad the American economy was, and how troubled the city was, created two of the most important musics that the world has known: salsa, which to a broad extent synergized Spanish music rooted in African music with Puerto Rican music, Cuban music, Columbia music, music from the Dominican music, and really affected Latin music to this very day. And hip-hop, which is arguably the most important pop music of the last quarter century. These things came up cheek-to-jowl, and I don’t think that the people who were doing it at the time could have envisioned what was coming down the pike. They were just following their gut and trying to make something that was cool for their friends.”
It’s that sense of locality, of smallness and togetherness and playing for friends, rather than any hope of smash-hit success, that Hermes is convinced inspired the greatest achievements of this era. “[It’s] people creating really incredible stuff artistically when things seem pretty hopeless economically,” Hermes said. “It’s the story of young artists starting off, and doing something they weren’t getting instantly acknowledged for or paid for. Sometimes dire circumstances bring out intense human creativity.”
The book, released on Nov. 8, will be the starting point for an event tonight at Housing Works in Manhattan, where a number of the people Hermes interviewed for the book, including D.J. Kool Herc, Laurie Anderson, Lenny Kaye (guitarist with Patti Smith Group, author), Larry Harlow (of salsa group Fania All-Stars), and critic Robert Christgau will discuss how 1970s New York, with its crime, drugs, serial killers, and crumbling streets, shaped them as artists and people.
“If I can eavesdrop on Kool Herc and Laurie Anderson chatting over a cocktail,” said Hermes, “I feel my work has been done.”
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