JULY 20, 2012
IN THE SUMMER OF 1975, scenes started to cohere around sounds emanating from lower Manhattan. Local musicians and critics sat up and took note. With a massive festival of unsigned bands, CBGB, a dank little Bowery club, confirmed its status as ground zero for New York’s rock and roll underground. Just a few months earlier, Patti Smith, cult poet and fledgling improvisational rocker, had kicked off a seven–week run there with another favorite local band, Television, by signing a seven–album, $750,000 contract. The summer CBGB festival included dozens of hopefuls competing to follow her lead.
Neighborhood newspaper critics took turns eking out interpretations. James Wolcott, in the Village Voice, accurately traced the movement’s origins to The Velvet Underground and the previous decade’s subterranean bohemians. Identifying a “conservative” impulse in the new underground rock, Wolcott saw the new bands — including eventual success stories such as Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Ramones — as restoring rock’s original spirit of amateurish, youthful rebellion. The scene’s paradoxically revolutionary and preservationist nature wasn’t lost on other observers either. In March of 1976, one critic in the SoHo Weekly News gushed that “New York is currently the scene of the third great rock reformation” — following the fifties original and the sixties British invasion – “and it’s about time, too.” Patti Smith had already written in multiple magazines about the need for new rock and roll messiahs, whose coming she saw in the aforementioned Television. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, writing in 1977 within months of Blondie’s and Television’s LP debuts, disclosed something like hometown pride in his hope that “the heartland would finally be moved” by the New York scene. “[A]vant-punk seems likely to make some sort of breakthrough,” he wrote. “I don’t know how big it will be or whether I’ll like its shape when it’s over. All I know is that I haven’t been this excited about rock and roll in at least 10 years.”
Christgau’s spirit of 1977 now seems charmingly parochial. As the dearest fans of New York punk know, it took some time for this scene’s cultural influence to be fully realized and it’s still being reckoned with. Much of the music produced in CBGB’s first five years remains the province of rock snobs, hipsters, and New York chauvinists, though all three of those categories enjoy growing global memberships. And while many of us remain convinced that what happened in New York rock and roll in the mid-seventies hasn’t be matched since, mainstream audiences are still likely not aware that 1973 – 1977 were, as the subtitle to Will Hermes’s Love Goes to Buildings on Fire has it, five years that changed music forever.
The downtown rock scene forms the emotional core of Hermes’s history, but the story he tells of punk rock’s birth on the Bowery is just one of the threads in his narrative, and in many ways it’s the book’s least surprising one. Along with early hip hop, punk is the genre whose story’s been told most often, with renewed attention thanks to much-read recent memoirs from Patti Smith and James Wolcott. What sets Hermes’s book apart from predecessors such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me (1997) or Jeff Chang and D.J. Kool Herc’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005), and what makes it so very valuable, is its capaciousness, taking in not just punk and hip hop but also disco, salsa, loft jazz, and the post-Fluxus minimalist composition taking place in the yet-to-be-gentrified warehouses of SoHo and TriBeCa.
Fostered in a climate of dense, young, artistic populations drawn downtown by low rents, how could such cross-pollination not have changed music forever? The cumulative force of Hermes’s richly detailed anecdotes and his insightful descriptions of hundreds of recordings and performances make the case for the music’s significance. Coincidental facts find Allen Ginsberg living in the same East Village building as musicians Richard Hell and the ubiquitous, avant-garde composer Arthur Russell, and jazz musician Don Cherry and the Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks living in the same Long Island City co-op as Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads. Walking us through these buildings on fire, Hermes serves as a descendent of the 19th century flâneur: expert observer, insider, native informant taking us from one scene to the next, foregrounding figures who hardly managed to register at all in early accounts of these scenes, such as Arthur Russell, who occasionally played cello with Talking Heads, curated an experimental music series at The Kitchen, and produced, under a half dozen monikers, some of the era’s most memorable underground disco. An oddball on the margins of multiple scenes in his own time, Russell was one of the few New Yorkers whose primary work was deliberately to cross-breed the various musical genres Hermes takes up. The majority of his efforts have gone unrecognized for decades; other scene crossers are better known even if their scene crossing has remained obscured. Even Bruce Springsteen had ties to this underground, performing at glam outpost Max’s Kansas City, co-writing “Because the Night” with Patti Smith, composing “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones, and in recent years paying homage to downtown proto-punks Suicide by covering their “Dream Baby Dream.”
As tour guide, Hermes actually resembles musical cosmopolitans like Russell. Fluent in the languages of multiple musical styles, he writes himself into the narrative here and there as a teenager from Queens aching for his initial entrance into at least some of these worlds. He works his way into CBGB on a fake ID to see Television; he sprawls on shag carpeting with headphones on to take in Patti Smith’s Horses, which his younger sister had brought home; he survives or witnesses a subway mugging here and there. Hermes brings to light the extraordinary creative force at play in the city on any given day, with historic events and performances happening within just a few miles — sometimes a few blocks — of one another. Highlighting musical developments against landmark events in the life of the city and the nation (think Watergate, fiscal crisis, garbage strike, national bicentennial, Son of Sam, blackout), he takes up all this and then shows us places where these disparate movements and scenes unexpectedly intersect, and surprises us with what features they share.
Limited to the rock scene, the book might have derailed in a fit of nostalgia. But Love Goes to Buildings on Fire lures readers interested in one genre and keeps them hooked to learn about the others. I made my way through the salsa and disco sections with YouTube and Spotify open, playing dozens of new-to-me tracks as I went. One reader has compiled a Spotify playlist for the book that includes over 300 songs and would take more than 24 hours to play through — and that’s with the caveat that recordings of loft jazz sessions, not to mention early DJ sets in the Bronx, aren’t available in Spotify’s database. Hermes acknowledges the importance of the internet in placing so many resources at his disposal as he wrote, and in turn the book makes a great guide to online listening. Even a brief sketch of pre-seventies New York Latin music (the mambo craze of the forties, the boogaloo phenomenon of the sixties) reads like a primer for aspiring DJs.
To get a feel for the force of Hermes’s approach, consider a few other nodal figures he celebrates: John Cale of the Velvet Underground was an early go-between from experimental composers such as La Monte Young and Tony Conrad to downtown rock. Lenny Kaye, before he plugged in his guitar to back Patti Smith’s early poem-songs, shilled discs at Village Oldies and edited a collector’s newsletter. Kaye curated the Nuggets LPs on Elektra, which brought together a host of one-off and overlooked sixties garage singles, helping to jumpstart the post-Velvets rock underground that would transform into punk. Larry Harlow, one of salsa’s great architects, was born Lawrence Ira Kahn in Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish opera diva and her nightclub bandleader husband; he consulted with Cuban record collectors to produce hits including “La Cartera,” which Hermes describes as “a mash-up of New World salsa brass and jazz improv with old-school charanga violins.” Hip hop’s founding fathers, including the Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, scoured record bins for beats that would keep their Bronx dance parties thumping. Hip hop and disco DJs helped salsa reach non-Latin audiences. Steve Reich, the downtown minimalist composer (and “former Coltrane obsessive”) whose orchestra performed in cultish white robes, sampled street preachers and imported African polyrhythms into his work well before Paul Simon broke out his album “Graceland.” With fellow composer Philip Glass, Reich hoped to pull “an end run on European [classical] tradition using jazz, rock, African and Indian sources, and some New York hustle.”
If there’s a moment of musical convergence in which all Hermes’s streams run together, it’s a surprising one: “I Feel Love,” the futuristic dance anthem Georgio Moroder wrote for Donna Summer in 1977. Hermes narrates the response:
As unprecedented as [Kraftwerk’s] “Trans-Europe Express,” it became just as essential, an electronic dance music template. Blondie covered it live, fairly faithfully, with Chris Stein adding Santana-style guitar licks. After hearing it in Berlin, Brian Eno rushed into the studio where he and David Bowie were working on Heroes, waving a copy of the record, raving that it would change the sound of club music “for the next fifteen years” (Eno was fond of grand statements). One can imagine the record spinning while the two Philip Glass fans listened to its hypnotic repetitions, the sonic possibilities blooming in their minds like flowers in a stop-motion film.
An argument emerges here and throughout the book that the music that has taken the greatest hold on our imaginations seems to have come in hybrid forms. Salsa, whose history has been told much less frequently than punk or hip hop, carries in its very DNA the attributes Hermes values most in any of his scenes:
New York salsa was fusion music; you could hear urbane Havana son and country Puerto Rico jibaro styles, jazzy horn and flute solos, Santana-style rock guitar, wah-wah keyboards, long percussion jams that drew on funk and African music while mixing in various Caribbean and South American rhythms. It was integrated, like the city it came from.
Similarly, Springsteen and his producer Jon Landau “pored over the early scrolls of rock and pop: Phil Spector’s girl groups, the British Invasion bands, Stax R&B.” Even the punk scene found itself responding to the influence of salsa and disco — its biggest breakouts, Blondie and Talking Heads, broadened their audiences by appealing to a bottom line: rhythm. “If it makes people move,” Hermes writes early on, “it’s all good.” The biggest of Blondie’s early hits built on the band’s successful forays into disco and extended to hip hop, rap, and reggae, all by the time they collaborated with Fab 5 Freddie on “Rapture” in 1981.
If New York’s manifold scenes shared an historical awareness and a susceptibility to infectious rhythm, they also shared a DIY ethic and a penchant for self-invention. Hermes doesn’t speculate about the broader cultural impulses here, but I follow the cultural historian Andreas Killen, who, in his 2007 book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, identifies self-invention as a key aspect of what he terms a Warholian moment. The evidence here ranges far beyond the transformation of Tom Miller and Richard Meyers into Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell (of the band Television). Consider Lawrence Kahn’s reinvention as Larry Harlowe (“El Judio Marvilloso”) or Bambaataa Kahim Aasim’s rebirth in the South Bronx as Afrika Bambaataa. Even Springsteen, the epitome of American authenticity, comes off as creating a self-conscious, audience-oriented image meant to suggest authenticity as much as express it.
Almost across the board, the music under consideration here is cult music. In reinventing and selling themselves, these innovators have created devoted audiences, from their origins to our own time. The forms born in New York in the seventies have had global impact, to be sure, but in some ways our listening habits remain ghettoized, cutting us off from the promise of these hybrid forms. In the case of salsa, we’re talking about music with an enormous audience, probably the largest of any of the movements surveyed, but with hardly any mainstream media coverage in its heyday and very little historical documentation. Hermes describes a 45,000-person show at Yankee Stadium, billed as the “1st Latin Soulrock Fiesta!” featuring the Fania All-Stars, a label showcase supergroup that featured Larry Harlowe, Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz, and others. Fans rushed the field, bringing the show to an early stop. The single-column notice in the Times mentions the bands scheduled to play but nothing of the crowd’s excessive enthusiasm. Mainstream music magazines paid little notice. The episode reminds me of a more recent Times piece from 2009 by Jody Rosen, about the Bronx-based bachata band Aventura, whose frontman, Romeo Santos, a teen idol in Latino neighborhoods, has collaborated with big-name hip hop artists and is able to sell out Madison Square Garden, but remains largely unknown to white, English-speaking listeners. Do we have to wait for 40 years’ hindsight to see the richness of our own moment? Comparing the north Brooklyn indie rock scene of today and the downtown scene of the seventies, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire concludes with an implicit plea to contemporary audiences: that we broaden our ears and minds to the present sounds of the city in all their manifestations.