Wednesday, January 04, 2012

40-Year Time Machine

I took some time over the holidays to enjoy Will Hermes' new book Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which chronicles the New York City music scene in the mid-1970s—roughly the period between the opening of CBGB and the release of the first commercial hits by Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie, Along the way, Hermes covers the rise and fall of seminal rockers like the New York Dolls, Television and The Heartbreakers, all bands that were heavily influential on my own listening (and partying) habits when I was in college. They remained heavy favourites when I began hosting shows on CKCU-FM in Ottawa.

New York Dolls
The book is very evocative of that era in rock, but what I really enjoyed was the way Hermes moved between the music most people remember from the time and three other equally important strands: jazz, salsa and dance music (which split into the immediately commercial—disco—and the currently commercial—hip hop).

The jazz portions were particularly resonant, given that saxophonist Sam Rivers died during the period when I was reading the book. Like rockers Patti Smith, Richard Hell, David Byrne and others, Rivers took advantage of the crumbling infrastructure, and rock-bottom rents, on the Lower East Side to stake out creative territory. At his Studio Rivbea and drummer Rashied Ali's apartment, the fuse was lit for the rise of the improvised music that was my entree to campus radio—music by artists like David Murray, James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Air and Arthur Blythe.

David Murray
Cast together in the hard-scrabble streets of Alphabet City and points west, the musicians didn't see a lot of difference in what they were trying to accomplish, and as Hermes makes clear there was a lot of cross-pollination between young artists like Smith and Murray. Just lend an ear to Dolls frontman David Johansen's radio program on Sirius XM to understand how broad his tastes are. It's not unusual in Hermes' you-are-there narration to find skinny, young Bruce Springsteen catching a punk set after missing his bus back to the Jersey Shore, or to understand how the cauldrons of Queens and The Bronx served as places where the DIY electronics knowledge of Jamaica met the desires of young men who would use any tool at hand to make a noise and express their creativity.

Along the way, Hermes also peers into the worlds of graffiti artists who aim to pull off the ultimate work of art—a fully decorated set of train cars, minimalists who spend months perfecting a single idea, and uncontrollable adventurers like Johnny Thunders, Alan Vega and Héctor Lavoe, who never found widespread success.

Whether you remember the wild, turbulent, frequently over-reaching, music of the period, or the names are mere legends to you, I recommend the book.

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