Love Goes to
Buildings on Fire
Five Years in New York
That Changed Music Forever
Faber and Faber: 369 pp., $30
Every city of any cultural import has its moments -- so-called golden eras when seemingly unconnected factors and personalities combine to give rise to artistic movements.
By any measure, the musical life of New York City throughout the 1970s was one of these eras, a swath of time and real estate rich with innovators hellbent on pushing music forward. Those then composing and/or performing across genres and musical philosophies included Patti Smith, Steve Reich, Talking Heads, DJ Kool Herc, Philip Glass, the Ramones, Arthur Russell, Meredith Monk, David Mancuso, Anthony Braxton and Grandmaster Flash.
While the city was struggling to fend off bankruptcy, an influx of cheap heroin and a serial killer named Son of Sam, it also was flush with inexpensive housing, especially on the Lower East Side. It’s this combustible combination that’s the backdrop of Will Hermes’ musical history “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever,” which chronicles the period between 1973 and 1977 when musical worlds were melding and experimenting, when a few visionary figures spun magic.
Within this specific time frame, Hermes demonstrates, rock became more sophisticated as art school dropouts mixed with working-class punks mixed with wannabe poets; in cut-rate Lower Manhattan lofts and hopped up on punch bowls full of LSD, DJs pushed extended funk jams issued on huge-sounding 12-inch singles.
In the process they drove the rise of a four-on-the-floor beat music called disco; jazz pushed outward with Anthony Braxton and David Murray; and salsa evolved through the expansive work of Fania Records and superstars Celia Cruz and Willie Colon.
“All of this activity -- largely DIY moves by young iconoclasts on the edge of the mainstream -- would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world,” submits Hermes, longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, National Public Radio and the New York Times in the book’s preface. He then proceeds to offer a day-by-day, week-by-week chronological survey of those five years that presents countless detailed, wonderfully well-researched tidbits that, expertly contextualized by Hermes, reveal cultural collisions at work.
December 1974, for example, began with a Stevie Wonder three-night stint at Madison Square Garden, where Mick Jagger, Patti Smith and David Johansen were at a pre-party together; around that time, the Ramones were trying to rehearse for the recording of their debut album (except that Tommy Ramone had been recently hit by a cab and Johnny Ramone was battling appendicitis); future Talking Heads rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were moving to New York after leaving the Rhode Island School of Design; and Philip Glass was collaborating with theater director Robert Wilson on a project tentatively titled “Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street.”
Hermes weaves through these little narratives the context: Richard Nixon’s resignation, Rupert Murdoch purchasing the Village Voice, and the marijuana drought that, the writer submits, inadvertently got artists in search of escape hooked on heroin. On the night of the city’s 1977 blackout, Hermes explains, Bruce Springsteen was in the studio recording “Born to Run,” Meredith Monk was watching “Annie Hall,” guitarist Robert Quine was playing Monopoly with Lou Reed’s future wife, and Talking Heads were at a barbecue.
Hermes includes a little of his own story within the larger chronology, of weekends as a teen spent taking the train in from Queens to see bands, as a way to not only bear witness to the wonders of music discovery but to offer an overarching story of not only music creation and performance but also music fandom -- of hopping the train, of missed connections, of personal revelations. The strategy is only partially successful, though; his personal anecdotes about smoking PCP by accident or skipping Peter Frampton’s Madison Square Garden show but going to see Springsteen around the same time don’t add enough weight to make them worth the diversion.
It’s not that Hermes’ own story isn’t interesting; it’s just that the whirlwind of activity that he captures throughout “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” is so strong as to blow through all but the most overpowering voices.