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Will Hermes: Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

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Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

By Will Hermes

Faber and Faber inc.

“New York, New York” wasn’t always the de facto theme song of the city it rhapsodizes. In fact, it wasn’t written until 1977. Will Hermes doesn’t concern himself much with the tune in his new book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever—just a couple of paragraphs near the end—but in a way it typifies what the Rolling Stone critic sets out to do here. Hermes scrutinizes five critical years, 1973 through 1977, and the ways in which much of what many take for granted about the music most associated with New York City came to be during that period: hip-hop, punk rock, salsa, all that grew out of the loft-jazz scene, disco, minimalism, and other bedrock sounds of modern culture.

There have been a number of great accounts of the early histories of these genres, but Hermes attempts to tie them all together in their shared moment and proximity. As a result, the book’s focus zooms from Carnegie Hall in midtown (where Steve Reich performed his Four Organs on Jan. 18, 1973) to Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx (where hip-hop progenitor DJ Kool Herc played his first party on Aug. 11, 1973) to East 20th Street (where the Ramones played their first gig on March 29, 1974, slightly pre-CBGB). Hermes also includes non-musical culture of the moment (New York City faced bankruptcy, Martin Scorsese was on the rise, etc.) and introduces a number of indelible personalities along the way, from mercurial salsa star Hector Lavoe to New Jersey’s own Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen. He also includes occasional dispatches from the seminal days of another provincial kid in thrall to Manhattan: himself, coming of age in Queens at the time.

In the early chapters, Hermes’ detailed research and crisp writing keep you on course through the almost frantic tacking from topic to topic. As the newcomers from the first hundred pages become rising stars, you assume that he’ll be summing up his account at the end: Few readers will be familiar with all of the stories the author interweaves, familiar as some of them may be, and likely fewer still will have considered them in light of this shared context. Yet Hermes assumes his readers know their cultural history enough to fill in how these disparate strands of activity changed music forever; the book ends, with no analysis, on New Year’s Eve 1977. As a portrait of a place and time, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire does its subject justice. But by the end, it feels like this story has yet to be definitively told.

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