Tuesday, December 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

In journalism, the term “clip job” usually connotes a hack who pulls every single article previously written by others on a single topic, does next to no first-hand research or interviews, gives it all a once-over with a Thesaurus, puts it all in a Cuisinart and presses “pureé”, and voila, a “brand new” article. But what happens when a writer does this very well? What do you call it when a writer with an accomplished reputation (Will Hermes writes for Rolling Stone, Spin and The New York Times) who lived through the days and music he writes about and tosses in his own personal reminisces with meticulous anthropological research in order to reconstruct a five-year panoramic timeline of New York City's cultural nightlife? You call it a clip job par excellence.

Well, not clip job per se – a “mash-up,” is more like it. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City combined two already exhaustively researched topics that occured at the same time and place (the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, serial killer H.H. Holmes) into a novelistic narrative and yielded a mother of a bestseller. Ditto Bryan Burroughs’ epic Public Enemies, which spun together running narratives of all the major players in the Depression-era crime wave, not just focusing on the iconic John Dillinger. Hermes’s fascinating and impressively constructed Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber, $30) lies somewhere between those books and Tony Fletcher’s more traditional overview All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York (W.W. Norton: 2009). Hermes, who grew up in Queens, applies the same Robert Altman/John Dos Passos wide-angle lens to grungy-but-vibrant New York during the John V. Lindsay-Abraham Beame Years, a.k.a. the “Drop Dead” years, a.k.a. the Big (Rotten) Apple years of garbage piles on the curb, the seepage of urine and fear on the street, and nasty, black-sock perversions up in Times Square – all seasoned with angel dust and bong smoke and the ecstatic numbness of cocaine.

What Hermes does – through an exhaustive pureéing of local papers, liner notes, YouTube videos, blog posts, his own previous interviews, bootlegs, concert reviews and pop-culture ephemera – is reconstruct in linear, A-B-C detail each year of his 1973-77 timeline. (Different years are different chapters.) He interweaves a thousand stories of a naked city on the edge with its various cultural movements; the most impressive and galvanizing aspect of the narrative is Hermes’ all-inclusive panoramic view of it all – jazz, classical, punk, disco, minimalism, reggae, salsa, hip hop, folk, graffiti, underground journalism, radio, film, art, even urban planning – represented through a Charles Dickensian cast of its most vanguard artists: Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Sam Rivers, Eddie Palmieri, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Robert Mappelthorpe, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Anthony Braxton, Celia Cruz, Kool Herc, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, Robert Wilson, The Ramones, Suicide, Patti Smith, David Mancusco, Nicky Siano, Rubén Blades, Afrika Bambaattaa, Debbie Harry, Joseph Sadler (a.k.a., Grandmaster Flash), Talking Heads, David Murray, Stanley Crouch, Arthur Russell, Hilly Kristal. Icons ghost through on their own trips: Miles, Dylan, Sinatra, The Stones, Bowie, Elvis. (Even Blue Oyster Cult makes a surprising number of appearances). All blur through the breezy, 306-page narrative in a facsimile of Mark Alan Stamaty’s dense, cartoonish cover jacket.

Hermes approach to this material also reminded the Beast of Rick Perlstein’s masterful cultural biography Nixonland, where the author manned a Hubble Space Telescope on the rended American fabric of the late 60s/early 70s, zooming like a masterful cinematographer from, say, the wide generational tensions leading up to the Kent State massacre to Neil Young sitting on his manager’s porch in Pescadero, California, picking up the paper and composing “Ohio” on the spot. Hermes takes a similiar Macro-Micro approach, jumping in one sentence from anti-gay activist Anita Bryant’s appearance on Donahue to a 28-year-old gay activist shooting himself in the head after watching it, or cutting from an overview of a near-bankrupt New York with quick edits of individual urban psychosis that carry a sort of hideous sense of humor: “At the Emotional Outlet [our emphasis], a clothing store on Sixteenth Street off of 7th Avenue, a customer inexplicably punched a salesgirl in the face.” When the myopic Grammy Committee belatedly added a Latin Grammy category after the success of the first Latin Music Awards, Hermes transports us to a cramped dressing room at the Bottom Line, where drummer Ray Barretto’s band jokes about the committee’s cluelessness:

“Well,” said the trumpeter Papi Roman backstage, “if they don’t like us here, then fuck ‘em; we’ll take the place apart and carry it uptown with us!”
“Hey, you can’t do that, man,” chimed in the flutist Artie Webb. “How would it look?”
“Like the Puerto Ricans did it again!” yelled Barretto.
“See?” said Roman. “Can’t take us anywhere!”

Hermes excels at juxtaposing eyeblink-quick snapshots of mood and atmosphere: Sonny Rollins practicing alone on the Williamsburg bridge; Phillip Petit stepping off the south tower of the World Trade Center onto a tightrope; Laurie Anderson returning from a trip to the North Pole to discover her entire apartment looted and destroyed; both Al Green and Hector Lavoe falling apart onstage at the Felt Forum in different years; Alan Ginsberg writing his poem “Mugging” after actually getting mugged; the Art Ensemble of Chicago frightening its audience at the Five Spot or Sucide’s Alan Vega opening his cheek with a knife before a horrified audience at Nassau Coliseum; Phillip Glass driving a cab after the ’76 premiere of his epic opera Einstein at the Beach and being told by his fare: “Young man, do you realize you have the same name as a very famous composer?”

What Hermes captures most successfully is the sheer rush of proximity—of all this stuff happening butted up against all of this other stuff. Hermes gives exact dates, exact times, exact addresses – we somehow know where everyone is is related to everyone else. He does a craftsman’s job of global positioning historical and cultural moments: Sam Rivers’ Loft Jazz space Studio Rivbea is landladied by Robert DeNiro’s mother and features trumpeter Olu Dara, who brings along his young son Nasir, who would grow up to become the rapper Nas. David Murray and Stanley Crouch room together in a loft space across the Bowery from Studio Rivbea and just around the corner from CBGB’s, where Rashied Ali once played. La Monte Young curates music at a loft space owned by Yoko Ono. Suicide’s Martin Rev studies with postbop pianist Lennie Tristano. Guitarist Lenny Kaye pops up in the audience for Bruce Springsteen’s first band. Jon Gibson plays the giant pipe organ at Washington Square Church while Anthony Braxton hustles chess in Washington Square Park. Television records its first demos at a Times Square studio where proto-gangsta Willie Colon has just finished his landmark salsa LP The Good, The Band and the Ugly. Springsteen records Born to Run at the Record Plant where Todd Rundgren produced the first New York Dolls album. When the Great City Blackout of ’77 strikes, porn star Annie Sprinkle is in the middle of a “blowjob for hire” in a midtown swingers’ club. While Disco Forum revelers boogie down in a hotel ballroom, the hapless Mayor Beame is twenty floors above in a suite, watching the primary returns for his already-lost election to Ed Koch.

Of course, it is a sensory thrill to watch all of this gunk mushed up into a fertile above/underground hash from the comfort of one’s own reading chair, but what does it all mean? It means endless transmutation, that all this rubbing of hips and haunting the same spaces at different times created a new reality where origins don’t matter. All of it, Hermes writes, “made me think about New York as a culture of aliases and personal reinventions.” There are thrilling, you-are-there accounts of DJ battles, street parties and ambitious IRT graffiti runs in the early rumblings of rap and hip hop, where motivated pockets of freaks began rebuilding a crumbling city with their own visions, finding influences in the oddest places: jazz drummer Billy Cobham's funky beats inspired a young Grandmaster Flash; Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" inspired Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"; Studio 54's Steve Rubell being a dick to Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards inspired them to write "Le Chic."

Ultimately though it is about the music, and it is to the author's credit that he focuses not just on influential records but the people who played on them, produced them, sound engineered them, the funky little record stores that sold them, the enterprising DJs who mutated them, the journalists and fans who wrote about them, the street dancers and graffiti artists who formed their art from their liberating influence. And in quick rushes you catch a young kid named Will slinking into Westworld or Soylent Green and Death Wish at the St. Mark's Cinema, collecting Wacky Packages bubblegum cards designed by a young Art Spielgelman and being confused by Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden ("These guys were what, in their thirties?...I mean, what the fuck?”), a wide-eyed, weed-smoking teen in awe of it all and hungry to make it new.

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