Film/TV

Will Hermes On His New Chronicle of NYC Music in the '70s and Why Bruce Springsteen Is More Punk Than You Think

David Hershkovits

Will Hermes is a boy from Queens who loved to rock so much he went on to become a senior critic at Rolling Stone and is the author of the new music book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. In his six years of research for this refreshing chronicle of New York 1973-77 -- including summers spent reading every issue of the Soho Weekly News and the Village Voice covering those years -- Hermes has wisely chosen to focus more on the people than the music, safely sidestepping the downfall of most music books that overwhelm with TMI about the sessions and the players. Finding six seminal musical movements of those years - hip-hop, loft jazz, punk rock, disco, salsa and avant-garde (think Philip Glass & co.) -- Hermes goes back and forth from one scene to the next chronicling the lives and times with wonderful anecdotes. Though many of the principals have moved on to the great beyond, he was still able to interview Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, Richard Lloyd and dozens of other now legendary musicians. Immensely readable, informative and, most of all, fun, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, reminds us where we came from and not incidentally, why New York remains a hub of creative production. An added bonus is the discography which lets you look up the performers on Spotify and listen while reading!

David Hershkovits: Who would you have liked to interview for the book who is either dead or wouldn't cooperate?

Will Hermes: I wish I'd been able to speak with the late Joey Ramone, as much to just chat as for any research purpose. I gather he was a real sweetheart. And Lester Bowie, who was the most acute and amusing voice to come through the loft jazz scene.

DH: In Love Goes to Buildings on Fire the sections pertaining to CBGB and the punk scene you chronicle a significant amount of drug use among people like Tom Verlaine, Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell et al. But there's none of that in the sections about Philip Glass, Steve Reich et al. Was that because there was none? Or were they reluctant to talk about it?

WH: It wasn't really part of their scene -- though their audiences were often pretty high, it seems! Those guys were extremely work-focused. Kurt Munkacsi, who was an integral part of Glass' ensemble, told me "Drop acid and try to do a Philip Glass performance? You couldn't possibly. The music was too complicated. The most anybody did was maybe have a glass of wine or smoke a joint." On the other hand, drugs were a big part of the scene around composer La Monte Young, as you might imagine for a guy whose performances, such as they were, literally lasted for days.

DH: You place Bruce Springsteen in the downtown scene with Patti Smith. Though I was aware of their collaborations, I never thought of him in those terms. Was that a stretch for you? Or was he really there?

WH: He didn't hang at CBGBs. But he played shows at Max's Kansas City in '72 -- I have some videos posted at lovegoestobuildingsonfire.com He told me about opening for the New York Dolls, which I write about. He also recorded his albums in New York, bought British punk singles at Bleecker Bob's, went to shows and after-parties. And in a sense, he and Patti Smith were coming from the same place: Kids from Nowheresville, New Jersey, who were besotted by Dylan's poetry and wanted to yank rock 'n' roll back to basics, back to street level. There was definitely a mutual admiration society. And the song they wrote together, "Because The Night," may be the best pop song either of them ever did. They played it together live for the first time in 1977 at the short-lived CBGBs theater on 2nd Avenue, where apparently they also played the Who's "My Generation." If anyone has a bootleg recording of that show, please let me know!

DH: What were your favorite parts that you were forced to cut?

WH: Pretty much all the good stuff is in there. I could have geeked out more talking about records, certainly. But I was more interested in telling the stories of these young musicians coming up in New York City. I wanted to make a narrative that would be a fun read, not just a reference volume or a book of criticism. 

DH: What did you learn that you didn't know before? Whose music do you care about now that you hadn't before?

WH: I knew very little about the salsa scene going in, but came to love the music deeply. The best records -- Eddie Palmieri's The Sun of Latin Music, Willie Colon's Crime Pays, and especially Concepts in Unity by Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquino -- are as good as anything that came out during that era. I thought I knew a fair amount about the loft jazz scene, but I learned a great deal more. That era was never given its due by jazz scholars, in part because its importance was brushed aside by Wynton Marsalis and other gatekeepers. But that's changing. A lot of young players are exploring and extending that loft spirit of invention.

DH: Looking around the scene today, do you think a similar approach might be taken on the subject in 25 years or so?

WH: Oh, sure. All the hybrid scenes that have been growing in Brooklyn over the past decade or so -- rock, jazz, composition rooted in European and other traditions -- are producing remarkable work. It's been kinda slow for New York hip-hop and dance music lately, in terms of innovation; those scenes seem to have become more virtual, less regional. But I'm sure there's something coming around the corner. In New York City, there always is. That's why people come to here.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is out now.

 

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