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Much to Love in 'Buildings on Fire'

Will Hermes studies five years that changed music

Feb. 13, 2012
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The Talking Heads' first recording was titled "Love Goes to Building on Fire," and although Will Hermes never does explicate the title of his intriguing history Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber), the reference is obvious. The Heads' deadpan approach to rock music had within its forced repression a wildness that was more gallery than alley.

Rock music changed completely, as did all of the other idioms Hermes covers, from New Year's Day 1973 through New Year's Eve 1977. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire thoroughly investigates the post-Dylan Greenwich Village urban renewal, encompassing rock, disco, salsa, loft jazz, punk rock and the early stirrings of hip-hop. New territories were established for Bruce Springsteen (whose New York beginnings are an essential part of the book) and Patti Smith to inhabit. It was a confusingly diverse period, as Talking Heads made it clear that rock wasn't just messing around anymore, Grandmaster Flash transposed the turntable into a musical instrument and spoken word leaped bookish realms into rock 'n' roll bindings.

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson were rehearsing Einstein on the Beach while David Byrne was writing about "his fondness for double-knit slacks, which he would always shrink by inadvertently washing them in hot water." The influence of The Velvet Underground hovered nearby, "with New York's past, present and future" colliding at a busy intersection with no stop-and-go lights. The music that emerged from the five years concentrated on in this dense but easily readable book splinters into so many viable factions that it is to Hermes' credit that he does not simply present us with an encyclopedia. He does, however, precisely define the music of everyone from Richard Hell and the Ramones to Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton. It's as inventive as music criticism gets. And Hermes does get it. "The concentrated vitality of the '70s music scene diminished in the '80s and '90s as the city revived economically and Manhattan's downtown artist ghetto became a high-end playground and marketplace, driving nascent musicians elsewhere. But the creative impulse never faded, and some of the most visionary fusions were ahead." Venturing briefly yet with remarkable brilliance into what did lie ahead in the book's epilogue, we have a text that examines an era that produced so much because of the regional quality of the artistic process. "Ya just get a place, some crappy place that nobody wants, where ya got one guy that believes in ya, and ya just do your thing," as Patti Smith said. Hermes' theme throughout: It takes a loose music community, very landlocked and loaded, to change the rest of the world's musical sensibilities


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