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Will Hermes knows a lot about buildings and tunes

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire – Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever

by Will Hermes

(This review was published in the Washington Independent Review of Books, December 2011)

Music journalist Will Hermes, referring to rock ‘n’ roll critics back in the day, wrote, “… their sense that the entire world of art and culture and human emotion could be compressed into a vinyl recording, left a deep impression on me.” Me, too. And this book, a smart and savvy chronicle of the New York musical underground of the 1970s, aims to capture the magic of an ancient era, relate the secret history of a city when there was music in the cafés at night, revolution in the air, and most everything else was lousy.

On January 1, 1974, the august New York Times Op-Ed page brooded, “With 1973, an era died … an era of profligacy … an orgy of consumption, following the lean years of depression and World War II. This New Year’s Day, symbolized by dimmed lights, chilly rooms, and empty gas tanks, ushers in a new era …”

Man, oh man. Bad times, eh? Things had to get better, right?

Sorry. On January 1, 1975, one year later, the Times continued the gloomy riff, “To bid farewell to 1974 is in many ways a relief.”

Bummer

And yet, New York, at that moment, was ablaze in one of those rare, radioactive bursts of new music that spark fleetingly in unexpected places—think ‘60s London or ‘90s Seattle. The ‘70s were New York’s time. Music was everywhere, kids flashed guitars and turntables like switchblades and the place was on fire. As Patti Smith said, “This is the era where everybody creates.”

Will Hermes (grew up in Queens, a real New Yorker, writes for Rolling Stone, the New York Times, NPR, the Village Voice—helluva resume) has written a crazy cab-with-no-brakes panoramic superhero musical ride through the pot-holed dirty streets of Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs. The title? Love Goes to Building on Fire (note singular building) was the first Talking Heads single, released in 1977 but written in early 1975, (note the level of detail here) a catchy paean to fearful times in the big city when buildings really were on fire. Music during a kind of wartime.

Let me just say that the book buzzes, rattles and hums like a beat-up Fender Jazzmaster guitar plugged into a hot, overdriven amp about to blow a fuse, its tubes glowing like the streetlights outside CBGB or the Mercer Arts Center. Amiably written in straight-ahead, three-chord, unornamented prose, it is at its best when Hermes throws in his own aching tales of teenage sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in Queens with the glittering Manhattan skyline in the distance.

The book is arranged chronologically by year—“1973: Wild Side Walking” or “1974: Invent Yourself.” Throughout, Hermes zooms in on a history-making musical event—say, the Ramones’ first gig at the dumpy CBGB on the Bowery. He tells us what happened in deliciously downtown graphic detail, tells us why it’s important, places it in social context, makes connections for the reader and then swoops away to some other gig happening uptown or around the block the following week—maybe Philip Glass’ performance at a loft just off Bleecker Street. The narrative moves fast across the grimy surface of the streets. Though expertly woven together to show the striking interrelationships among musicians, scenes shift and artists and genres mostly flash by like subway stops on a Lexington Avenue express. Deep musicological study à la Greil Marcus’ scholarly Lipstick Traces it’s not—there is no discussion of why all this happened, no illumination of its historical, political or musical origins. Another book awaits.

But I also must confess that I skipped and skimmed through maybe thirty percent of the book. Sorry, but I just don’t care about the salsa scene. I feel guilty. And the early days of rap and hip hop? Yes, it was instructive, and I have a new respect for Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and 1520 Sedgwick Avenue and I admit it would be good for me to expand my universe, but I wanna get back to the good parts for me—the New York Dolls, Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Springsteen, Philip Glass. If you are a potential reader of Love Goes…, and I believe you know who you are, you’ll skim too. Unless you’re an amazingly hip, culturally omnivorous, intense fan of every genre of music out there—rock, jazz, disco, salsa, hip-hop, classical (sorry, no country or blues here)—or somebody as passionate and well-informed as Will Hermes, you’ll skip around. But that’s okay—this is a book, it turns out, for dipping. Go ahead, whip through it and then return to it—open the book to any page and you’ll find something, a little trail to follow, a nugget from Hermes’ college of musical knowledge. And be prepared to fire up that iPod, or better yet, drag out your old turntable and dusty records—you’re gonna wanna hear what Will hears and you’ll learn a thing or two.

The central artistic pillars of Love Goes… turn out to be Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, two Jersey kids who rode the bus to the big city, played the dives before people cared. Both released their breakthrough LP’s in the autumn of ’75—Horses and Born to Run. (Ever notice how similar the covers are design-wise? Me neither. “Sans-serif comrades in arms,” says Will.) And I had no idea that Springsteen had such firm New York roots. On the book’s accompanying website (lovegoestobuildingsonfire.com, highly recommended itself), there’s a scratchy video from Max’s Kansas City, August 1972: Springsteen solo, acoustic guitar in hand, opening for the New York Dolls, of all people. He’s working through a tune that, in a year or so, will become Rosalita, an anthemic landmark, here caught in mid-creation. It’s an underground moment that underlines why these secret scenes are so important and still resonant today. Hermes’ book is full of them.

Patti Smith, now a National Book Award Winner and revered founding mother of punk, spoke to Hermes in 2005, recalling the captured fizzing magic recording Horses at Electric Lady Studios at 52 West 8th Street, said, “I remember the exact moment where I peaked: there’s a line in it [Birdland], ‘Shoot ‘em up like light/like Muhammad boxer’—my little tribute to Muhammad Ali. That moment something happened. It was a moment where you shiver, y’know?

Will knows. Now I know. Something happened. Shivers.

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