Will Hermes’ first book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, takes its name from a Talking Heads song and tracks the disparate music scenes that defined New York City in the mid-70s — punk, disco, minimalism, loft jazz, salsa, early hip hop. New York may have been debt- and crime-ridden, but it was also a remarkably fertile breeding ground for groups and artists like Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, Suicide, Kool Herc, Laurie Anderson, The Ramones, the Fania All Stars, Philip Glass, the AACM.
The result is a sweeping social history, a love letter to a city and the music it produced, a remarkable evaluation of familiar figures and an indispensable introduction to lesser known artists (seriously, listen to the Fania All Stars, a group I hadn’t heard of before Hermes’ book). Tonight at Housing Works, Hermes will be appearing along with Laurie Anderson, Kool Herc, Larry Harlow, and legendary rock critic Robert Christgau to discuss the book and the era. I don’t usually use this space to pimp events, but this one looks like it shouldn’t be missed.
There aren’t many music books that focus on multiple genres. Why did you decide to write about everything that was going on in New York, as opposed to focusing on one particular scene?
The one thing I really wanted to [write] was a book with a narrative arc and a shape, a story that would be readable from beginning to end, as opposed to a book of essays or what have you. I really had to fight the desire to write a definitive volume on the New York salsa scene of that period, or a definitive volume on the Loft Jazz scene of that period — both topics that could really use definitive volumes because there are none.
The plus was that you could see musical scenes not happening in a bubble, but in the context of a broader palate of music culture and urban culture in general, which is what I wanted to do. Very often that’s what I find lacking in the books that I read — and I read a lot of them!
So you were setting out to write a social history of New York, as well.
Yeah, I definitely wanted to capture that era. While it was the music itself that drew me to take on this time period, the time period shaped [the music] in a lot of different ways. There was some serendipity involved, but there was also the very real factors of very cheap rent, the trailing off of what happened in the ’60s, the desire of the post-boomer generation to make something of their own, [something that wasn’t dependent on] the backwash of the ’60s. Also, in a bigger sense, the economy. It was hard to see a lot of opportunities to make a killing. It was an impetus for people to say, “Hell, let’s create cool stuff.”
In the introduction of the book, you write that the mid-’70s, couched as it is between the rock music of the 60s and the hardcore, hip hop, punk, and post-punk of the late-’70s is often seen as a “cultural dead zone” in the grand narrative of American music. How would you explain that period you write about in Love Goes To Buildings on Fire within this narrative? Why is it important?
I think the layman’s notion is that the ’60s was this incredible flowering of creativity and social radicalism, but that it didn’t work out quite as planned. Then everybody just sort of fell back, took huge quantities of drugs to numb themselves out to the death of the dream. It wasn’t until the late-’70s that punk rock, hip hop, and other cultural movements came along to save the day. I felt that so much of what came along to save the day was invented during this middle period. It was also incredibly interesting in terms of being transitional. There were a number of people who really came of age in the ’60s, but didn’t make their cultural statement until the ’70s.
Patti Smith drew Jim Morrison, The Stones, and Dylan especially into her work — Springsteen, the same way. And Iggy Pop. The jazz guys, too. They were coming out of Albert Ayler, late-period John Coltrane — but those guys were dead. And they had both gone so far out, in terms of extreme playing and free composition, “Where do we go from here?”
It was this incredible middle period. There wasn’t really a market for the music that they were doing, so it gave a lot of space to do unusual stuff. Loft jazz happened in lofts. It didn’t happen in clubs, where you would play a 50 minute set and then have to clear out the club so you could bring another bunch of paying customers in; where they didn’t want you to play songs that didn’t go longer than 10 or 15 minutes, so people could go to the bar to get drinks. [The fact that the music was free of those constraints] encouraged certain formal innovations. The same goes for minimalist composers — Philip Glass was writing four hour pieces, which makes it pretty difficult to market your music and commission performances in any kind of standard way.
You write about a number of disparate genres of music — salsa, punk, hip hop, minimalism, loft jazz. Do you think music has become more or less ghettoized since the mid-’70s? Was that the beginning of the rise of the niche music market?
There was some cross-pollination, but even back then the scenes were sort of atomized. The Latin music scene was not really on the radar for most people outside of the Latin music scene, with the exception of some of the jazz players — and a lot of the salsa musicians were into jazz, a lot of them were jazz musicians themselves.
It seems to me that now, as then, the most interesting things are happening when genres rub together and when people step out of strict scenes. I think a lot of what’s happening with rock bands lately working with string arrangements or orchestral stuff, the interplay between rock and dance music, rock and electronic music — these lines are pretty blurry in the most interesting music now. Then, it was the same. Of course, that also makes it more difficult to market. Back then, radio programming was a goal if you wanted to make pop records, and a lot of people [stayed within certain boundaries] if that was the goal.
Still, the Latin flavor in disco music, [for instance,] is undeniable. The rhythmic exchange happening between disco, R&B, hip hop, and salsa — a lot of which was happening between people living in the same areas. Most of the salsa musicians and hip hop DJs were from the South Bronx. That bore a lot of fruit. At the same time, music-determined subcultures are still subcultures. Even if the salsa guys might have come down to the Village to jam for Salsa Meets Jazz at the Village Gate, at the end of the night they would go up to Spanish Harlem or the Bronx and mainly worked within their communities. It functions both ways.
You quote a James Wolcott article titled “The Conservative Impulse of the New Rock Underground” at length. In that article, which was published in 1975, Wolcott writes, “rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times. …. What’s changed is the nature of the impulse to create rock. No longer is the impulse revolutionary — ie: the transformation of oneself and society — but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition.” What do you think of that argument? Does it still apply?
Rock was new in the ’50s and the early ’60s. When you were making music in the ’70s, or in the tweens, you’re inevitably going to be making music about what has come before. Even if you’re trying to create something totally new, you still have the history of your instruments — your approach is going to have some precedent. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think anybody can make any art without having some history behind it. How you engage it, how creatively you cover your tracks, how creatively you embrace the tradition is what makes it a worthwhile endeavor or not.
I spoke to Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and he said something really interesting. I asked him about the Brooklyn scene and the music communities and he demurred a little from it being any kind of unified scene, but he said that it’s a very interesting time and — I’m paraphrasing here — because the tools and conventions of rock music have been around for such a long time that abstractions are a very useful avenue to go down. In a way, it’s similar to making jazz in the late-’50s and early-’60s. Or doing classical music in the twenties. You have these traditions and you can riff off of them in really interesting ways, encode them in insider-y sort of ways that can be really provocative and resonant to people familiar with the tradition — and most people are, it’s your cultural birthright.
What do you think of the argument Simon Reynolds makes in Retromania? How does that relate?
I totally emphasize with Simon’s concern. Can you invent the future if you’re so mired in the past? But those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, at the same time. I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing to embrace history. But that’s coming from someone who spent six years writing a book about the ’70s.
The Modern Lovers’ song “Roadrunner” comes to mind. Musically, it’s a total throwback to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, but is also all about living in the here and now.
Oh, totally — “I’m in love with the modern world.” Not necessarily making modern music, but it’s very self aware.
You were a teenager in New York during the period that you write about. Why did you decide to write yourself into the book? Was the book ever more of a memoir? Do you think you’d be as interested in the period if you hadn’t grown up during it?
There’s definitely a connection between the fact that I chose this as a topic — that I was in New York at this time, growing up — and deciding to have some element of memoir in it. It was very tricky to figure out how useful that element would be. For one thing, I wasn’t really old enough to be part of any of these scenes. I was growing up in an outer borough, I was only 12, barely 13 at the outset of the period I write about. By the end of the book, I’m going to shows at CBGB’s and seeing some of this stuff in flower. But unlike James Wolcott, who was really a part of the CBGB’s scene and writes about it with great humor and eloquence and insight both in his articles from that period and in Lucking Out, I’m coming at it as more of an outsider.
The memoir element was mostly useful to provide cultural context — what the garbage strike was like, what the summer of ’75 smelled like, what it was like traveling the subways, what it was like being a kid, growing up and going to New York City schools. That’s also the experience that many of the musicians I write about came from. I tried to be very judicious with what was useful. There was definitely more memoir in earlier drafts and I pared it away to keep the relevant bits.
With the obsession with the past that Reynolds talks about, it’s tempting to see the period you write about as being particularly “authentic,” compared to these postmodern times, but a number of the people you write about are familiarly image conscious and interested in the past.
That depends on what constitutes authenticity. These folks all saw themselves as artists. I write about Patti Smith being photographed with a Bob Dylan mask on. Certainly Smith and Springsteen were devoted students of Dylan. Alan Vega [of Suicide] was a performance artist — he knew what he was doing. He put on a leather jacket and chains, provoking the audience. He was very inspired by Iggy Pop, as a lot of these folks were.
In terms of authenticity, there’s no doubt that these guys were performers, they were artists, they were donning personas. They made what they were making in reaction to pop music that had become fake in a different kind of way: this very ornate, prog rock-y cult of the virtuoso, the baroque tail end of the ’60s. In relation to that, their artifice was about realness — Richard Hell was wearing sunglasses in a dark club.
Some of these bands were praised for being bad — I think Television was called “refreshingly bad” early in their career, though that certainly changed rather quickly.
Of course, by the time they recorded those albums they were actually quite good! Tom Verlaine is certainly one of the greatest guitarists of our era, or any era.
The impulse was that you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to make art — at least for the punk bands, starting out. It’s worth pointing out that that was an aspect of the punk scene — it certainly wasn’t an aspect of the loft jazz scene, where those people were often accused of not being good players, but were the best of them were actually incredible players.
We live in a culture that has never really encouraged artists; that has never prioritized art as something worthy to do with your life. If you’re going to acquire the skills to make art and discover how fun it can be, how beautiful it can be — whatever it is you’re going to do — you need to have some encouragement, some role models. Any movement that can encourage people, that says, “Yeah, you can do this,” is worthwhile. There are approaches that are very fruitful, that don’t require virtuosity — they just require passion and dedication, which all of these people had. If that’s there, then I’m all for it.
That was something that was very inspiring about that era. I know, as a writer myself, that the idea that anybody could make a living as a writer was completely ridiculous to me. That’s also something that people feel now. There’s such a seismic shift in the world of publishing — magazines, newspapers, books — it’s very easy to to think that you can’t do these things. But if you’re incredibly driven and you love the pursuit of a particular type of expression, you’re going to do it. You’ll find some way to put that together with a way to make a living and you’ll find a way to take that and build it into part of your life.