An impressively-researched book that reads more as scrapbook than history.
By Mark Jenkins
From 1973 to 1977, New
York New York was a
heckuva town. Hip-hop and salsa were uptown,
punk, minimalism and loft jazz downtown — and disco somewhere in between. Will
Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire:
Five Years in New York
That Changed Music Forever tries to cover it all, with admirable breadth.
Depth is another matter, however.
The novelty of this book is that it mashes together everything from Willie
Colon to Patti Smith, Kool Herc and Meredith Monk, Richard Wagner to Bruce
Springsteen. Nearly all the music made in the five boroughs during the period
is on Hermes’s self-designated beat, including classical as well as pop,
mainstream as well as oddball. The author did some original research, but this
is essentially an ambitious clip job.
The result is too detailed for the casual reader, yet too familiar for the
devotee. To take just one example: Hermes’ brief account of the New York premiere of
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Einstein
on the Beach includes two amusing stories. But they were already the two
best-known anecdotes about this moment in Glass’ career.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (which
takes its title from Talking Heads’ first single) is not a work of criticism,
either musical or social. New York
was in turmoil during the five years Hermes covers, and he includes asides
about the city’s bankruptcy, the
growing acceptance of porn movies,
serial killer Son of Sam and the great blackout of 1977. But he doesn’t attempt to explain the musical renaissance in terms of
the city’s plight, other than to note that real estate was cheaper then.
Neither does he seek profound links between the various musical genres being
defined or redefined at the time.
Instead, the connections are mostly geographic or chronological, which makes
the book read like an after-the-fact diary. The segues are abrupt, and the connections are sometimes forced. At one
point, Patti Smith is likened to Celia Cruz; later, she’s compared to Bella
Abzug. The narrative takes the occasional odd turn, detouring to France for the
1977 premiere of Gorecki’s Third Symphony or time-traveling to 1850 to note
that Jenny Lind once performed on the same site (not even in the same
building!) as the New York Dolls.
Hermes lived in Queens during 1973-77, but he
was a teenager with limited access to, or knowledge of, what was going down.
Periodically, he reminds us of his proximity with recollections about records
he heard or concerts he attended — or drugs he took or handjobs he received.
These extraneous confessions add to the sense that the book is merely a grab
bag of incidents.
Hardcore music fans, or readers with less dedication but great perseverance,
will find much that’s of interest in Hermes’ sack of musical memories. They’ll
learn about styles they didn’t follow closely, or at all, and may even discover
a thing or two about music they thought they knew utterly. What’s lacking is
any overarching theme, structure or analysis. Hermes has put it all together,
but in a form that’s more scrapbook than history.