This is a book review that wishes it was feature story. The subject is Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, no not the Talking Heads song (it was their first single) but the terrific, relatively new book by Will Hermes. It’s a loving chronicle of the thriving New York City music scene from1973-1978.
As the David Gates review in the New York Times noted, almost any five year period in recorded music history will yield epochal recordings, the emergence of great artists and a stunning wealth of extraordinary music. But that completely misses the point. It wasn’t that there was great music going on 1973-’78, but that it went on here, in New York City, and it went on when Gotham’s image couldn’t have been more in need of a makeover. It’s easy now to look back on that era of the city and see Annie Hall, a litany of bands that are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, wistfully, the opening of the World Trade Center. However, that was also the era when the city’s craziness was accurately reflected by Taxi Driver. CBGB’s, the epicenter for bands like the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and The Ramones, was located in a part of town that many cabbies would not take a fare. And the city’s fiscal crisis led to urban decay and dilapidation, best symbolized by Jimmy Carter’s walk among one rubble strewn block after another on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx.
In other words, great music grew out of buildings on fire. The first remarkable aspect of the book is the diversity of Hermes coverage and its penetrating scope. Of course, he covers the CBGB scene in great detail but equal passion is applied to the loft jazz scene (with appropriately large shout outs to Sam Rivers and Rashied Ali); the emerging contemporary classical music circuit that would make stars of Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass; the salsa scene in the Bronx from which Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and many others emerged; the nascent hip hop scene; and even the arrival and ascent of Bruce Springsteen.
Hermes perspective is poignant to me. He was living in Queens during this time and just too young to join the party. I could relate, I was a comparable age, living in Dallas, too far away to join the party. I’m still not sure how I didn’t go to CBGB or Ali’s Alley on my first night in town when I moved to NYC in 1978. Hermes’ book joins documentary films like the Tamra Davis’, Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child and Nelson George’s Brooklyn Boheme as definitive documents of the city during a fertile period for the arts.
So the feature story I would have written had some PR person been on the ball last fall would have been to revisit a few of these noted places and discuss how arts in the city have changed. This mid ‘70s renaissance was possible entirely because the city was on fire. Rents were cheap. Several anecdotes mention rents in the low three digits for locales that now routinely fetch eight or nine times that much.
It seems to me that our community is no longer built around being present at the creation of art, but rather being present at its premiere. In other words, we’re among the audience, not the scene. What sort of love goes to that kind of building?
Martin Johnson used to write about music and film for a living; now he writes about them because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.