Hermes, Will. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. New York: Faber & Faber, 2011.
Man, am I sick of Brooklyn.
Remember that New Yorker cover from 1976 where Jersey is a brown smear and the West is a few busty bumps in an otherwise empty plain signifying the remainder of the continental United States? The purported view from the magazine’s offices, geography distorted (inevitably) by ideology: New York as the center of the universe, at once a celebration and a satire of the New Yorker’s (italicized or no) perspective.
Out of the City for two-plus years now, spiraling toward middle middle age like a winged Zero, I’m finally starting to get—not understand, but get—“why they hate[d] us,” as the Quiet Manhattanite might have put it, once upon a time. Not because we were black, or gay, or liberal, or spoke with a funny accent, or knew how to parallel park. (Well … not entirely, anyway.) No: it was the holier-than-thou sense of hipness, uptown as much as down. The oligarchy of the tastemakers. The artistic export economy, the country pillaged and sold back to itself, reflected in a broken mirror.
Yeah, I grew up in that brown smear, so fuck you, and you, and you.
Today, the cultural crosshairs have shifted a little south, a little east. Brooklyn, Brooklyn is the borough du décennie, the place where it’s all happenin’, the place the cool kids move, the place kids in Austin and Louisville dream about …
I’ve had plenty of life to cultivate a self-righteous dislike of the cool, only occasionally admitting to myself how much I craved it. Raised in the ‘burbs, how could I not think New York was the cat’s ass? And so in my twenties I moved there, like everybody else. I was in Bushwick before it became East Williamsburg—not by design; it was what a part-time teacher could afford. After leaving the City for the second time, some fifteen years later, I had to keep a foot in the Bronx for a whole year just so as not to stumble. It was always my City: the city where I dug in my heels and opened my eyes, the city that shaped the art I consume and create, the city I go on dreaming and reinventing, will go on dreaming and reinventing until the day I die. It’s still my city, goddammit, even if I don’t recognize half the sites anymore.
But Brooklyn? Ah, Brooklyn. You’re too much.
It took me almost a year to make it through Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes’s paean to the New York art and music scene 1973-1977. And maybe, were I to do it justice, I should have taken five. This is, after all, a sort of urban diary, a chronology of significant artistic events during a very tumultuous time in the City’s history, written in a voice suggesting intimate contact.
The thesis, such as it is: New York in the ‘70s was the forge in which a slew of musical styles and genres (punk, rap, salsa, disco, “loft” jazz, minimalism) were created, by artists who were listening to the City and to each other. I say “such as it is” because Hermes’s primary goal isn’t to persuade. It’s to illustrate, through extended montage and in extensive detail, the Here and Now of New York arts at the time—to make us feel and hear the City as it was.
Together, the such-as-it-is thesis and the abandonment of structure to chronology, with each entry running between half a page and two pages, sometimes grouped in related sets, invite on-again, off-again reading. At their best, the sections in aggregate can work like sympathetic strings, so that all the narrative fragments vibrate together when we read any one. At their worst, they can feel like the printed equivalent of toggling: a lot of information presented through endless cross-cutting, sometimes bubble-gummed together across the cracks, with little space for analysis or reflection. Indeed, when Hermes tells us that Blondie’s Chris Stein jammed with the nascent Heartbreakers in ’74, “but nothing came of it” (113), it’s hard not to take this as microcosm of and comment on the text: an extended, noodling jam without payoff.
It could be argued such a structure invites the reader to make his or her own connections, that this is what the white space between the sections is for. Quite possibly I am bringing the wrong (academic?) expectations: for a worked-out argument and more than just drive-by analysis … something firmer on which to string those beads of detail (to borrow from Emerson’s comment on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers), no matter how brilliant, multifaceted, and intensively-mined many of them are.
For it’s true that, as a collection of vignettes, each occupying its own radiant little present, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is sharp and vivid and enjoyable. Consider, for example, Hermes’s description of the action at The Gallery club in ’73: “[Y]ou would suddenly be dancing in utter darkness, packed into a room full of screaming hedonists already out of their minds on drugs and adrenaline, their retinas still flickering with images, lights, and colors from a few seconds earlier. Then: WHAM! The lights were on” (30-31). Everything about the language, voice, and rhythm here immerses us in the moment. Hermes’s frequent use of dialogue and streetwise diction do the same. As befits a well-traveled music writer, he can nail a sound like nobody’s business (about David Murray: “brutish yet melodic, focused, damp with emotion […] he could also puff out velvety Ben Webster-style phrases in between ferocious gospel-style shouts and honks” (149)). And then there are those brilliant shards of analysis—describing Taxi Driver as a “horror film” with “New York as the monster” (167), or session players as “honeybees” of New York music’s “cultural cross-pollination” (136). I appreciated Hermes’s treatment of salsa’s fraught relationship with the barrio, its desire “to be seen, and to see itself, as more than just a ghetto dance-hall soundtrack” (24). It is a comment that comes out of a discussion of ‘73’s Hommy, but really comes to fruition with Hermes’s discussion of the crossover work of Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, and Willie Colon in ’76 and ’77. It probably doesn’t need to be said that the discography at the end of the book is more valuable than the bibliography. This is as it should be.
Considered as a work of music history, though, there is something problematic about Hermes’s approach. It’s one thing to construct history with a journalist’s ear for detail, language and dialogue, and another to re-imagine history as another present—as a reflection of the historian’s inescapable subjectivity. “They,” Love Goes to Buildings on Fire seems to say, are “us.” But who are the “they” and “us” of Hermes’s universe?
In 1974, Hermes tells us, Debbie Harry caught Patti Smith kissing Tom Verlaine behind CBGB (115). At the opening night of a Heartbreakers run at the Village Gate, Johnny Thunders “chatted with his old comrade David Johansen” and “Debbie Harry gave him a kiss on the cheek” (255). “Handsome” Dick Manitoba was treated for injuries “where [his] pal Joey Ramone once spent two weeks in the psych ward” (183). At so-and-so’s performance, the following luminaries or luminaries-to-be were in the audience. Such details (and the text is rife with them) are meant, I assume, to give that I-was-there vividness of impression, and perhaps to further the idea of artistic cross-pollination. But I have a hard time distinguishing it from tabloid writing, the sort that mires us in the ins and outs of our favorite celebrities’ lives: so-and-so saw so-and-so here, kissed so-and-so there, and by the way, did you know so-and-so got his hair cut by the same barber who cut so-and-so’s hair? And they bought their weed from the same dealer! By the time we hear about Joey Ramone burning his face and coming back from the ER, his face dripping with ointment, to “deliver one of his greatest shows ever” (275), it’s difficult to suppress a sigh … unless, I guess, one is a big Ramones fan. (Bias alert: What Hermes writes about Patti Smith’s “Hey Joe”—“it’s a bit too impressed with its own transgression” (89)—nicely sums up my own feelings about much (though not all) of the CBGB music of the time.) And greatest show according to whom? I looked in vain for a footnote that would say.
Hermes’s anecdotes about growing up in New York, with which the book is seeded, also participate in creating this tone of faux intimacy.* Though often enjoyable and always well-written, they also always feel out of place. The anecdotes tend to be self-effacing, with Hermes as the geeky Queens kid. And yet, by scattering them throughout the narrative, he blurs the distinction (purposely, it seems) between himself and the artists he writes about. In the radical (punk?) democratization of fact and event to which the book seems to aspire, critic novitiate and budding artist are equals: Will is Bruce is Blondie, “he” (critic) is one of “them” (artists), and “they” are “us.” It’s a double move: On the one hand, the critic becomes a star, like the artists and scenes it is his function to help shape and legitimize.** On the other hand, the stars become “just like us”: punk everypersons and romanticized Folk. Of course, there was something of a revolving door between critics and performers—Patti Smith wrote for Creem, Lenny Kaye for Hit Parader; Lester Bangs jammed with his typewriter on stage (!). But when we hear about Smith hyping her friend’s band Television, and Bangs his own guitarist, it all does start to sound like a bit of a circle-jerk … and Hermes, a few years too young for the scenes he’s “covering,” trying to edge his way in.
One of the jacket blurbs, by Chuck (Fargo Rock City) Kloesterman, singles out the book’s section on the 1977 blackout for praise, for telling us “what (seemingly) every interesting person in New York City was doing [that] night.” I love the hedge: it’s the critic who creates the “seems.” And who is (or seems) interesting? Well, Chris and Tina and David—of the Talking Heads, of course (though we’re not on a first-name basis until the epilogue). Lester Bangs, sure. David Murray, Meredith Monk. And Will Hermes. He was there. Not surprisingly, the section on the blackout ends with him.
And so were you. Were you? If you weren’t, well, better luck next time. Or, better yet, move to Brooklyn. Because there’s stuff happening there right now that’s interesting, and so you can be interesting, too. In ’77 people had started buying cheap brownstones, there were “signs of cultural life” around Flatbush (228); but Brooklyn in the 2000s is “a culture as vital in its way as downtown Manhattan in the ‘70s, with clubs, galleries, and semilegal performance spaces set up in residential lofts” (304).
Only … it’s 2015. What if you’re too late? What if the scene’s moved on, and some prescient rock critic is already writing the LGTBOF equivalent about Brooklyn? Don’t you know all the cool kids are moving upstate, doing the farm-to-table thing? You’re heading my way Brooklyn, yes you are, like it or not. I don’t like it. It’s why I’ve never been able to settle down: you always come and fuck up my shit, Brooklyn, like you did in Bushwick, you make my shit uninhabitable, bitch. Standing in my overalls, I raise my middle finger at you, Brooklyn. I know you like that sort of thing. Self-consciously vulgar, just shy of cutting edge.
* The occasional use of “you” in the text also raises the issue of voice. When Hermes tells a story about himself, he uses “I.” By and large, when he writes about the music scenes, he uses the third person. But who is the “you”? “You” substitutes for the passive voice, but it implicates the “I” as well. When Hermes writes, describing graffiti culture, “In Queens in the mid-‘70s, you would occasionally see artful tags on the E and F trains” (37), he is likely writing from experience: he was one of the “you” who saw said grafitti. When he writes, “You could still hear Sonny Rollins searching for a sound on the Williamsburg bridge,” the “you” is more of a question: Did Hermes himself hear Rollins? Or is this the general “you” of the City? In the dance-club description quoted earlier, the “you” is at its most slippery. That description builds from the interview with groundbreaking DJ Nicky Siano … yet Hermes, who says that he was entering sixth grade in ’73, clearly wasn’t there (at least in ’73). Again, this is a way to build energy and intimacy into the prose; but here it seems to function as a way to embed the author in the action, helping create that “insider,” in-the-know tone.
** Finding or founding the critics or the ‘zines to champion you, your style and your scene is part and parcel of making music history, and a certain in-crowd dynamic is the inevitable product. But this is the sort of power the critic wields in the present, to shape the future of music—Hermes’s job at Rolling Stone. It seems out of place here.