Will Hermes: The Sounds of New York 1973-77

1973, New York City is broke, falling apart and over run by crime. It has the worst reputation in the country and even the president won’t help. Neglected and left to its own devices, the City is a nightmare and also an amazing place for artists.

Will Hermes’ book, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, is an excavation of the roots of New York City’s musical culture during the period of 1973 to 1977. From Punk to the birth of Hip Hop and so much more in between, it traces the formulation and emergence of some of the most exciting music of our time. Will Hermes does a herculean job of gathering every strand, thread and shred of evidence to show us art in the making.

Will Hermes is a senior critic for Rolling Stone and a longtime contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He will read at 12th Street‘s launch event friday, November 30 at 7:00 p.m. at the Union Square Barnes & Noble (33 E. 17th Street, New York, NY 10003.)

12TH STREET: In the preface of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire you write about “movements that continue to shape music around the world.” Which movements do you think are still reverberating and which ones do you wish still were?

WILL HERMES: I think the punk and new wave sounds that came out of CBGBs— Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television—still shape rock aesthetics. Disco’s death was always a hoax; the sort of club-oriented dance music shaped by the New York scene now dominates pop around the world, and hip-hop’s influence goes without saying. The polyglot approach of the loft players is being mirrored by a lot of the most interesting young jazz musicians, while that jazz era is getting a serious critical reevaluation. The exploding Bachata scene seems to be repeating the Caribbean-New York cultural loop of the salsa movement. And I see the pop-saavy, multi-media impulses of the downtown composers in the work of both pop musicians and young composers. These days, making a living as a musician often means multi-tasking stylistically and formally. So the hybrid approach makes practical as well as aesthetic sense.

STREET: You seem to love writing about music, not just the historical but the description of music as it’s being played and turning its sound into words. During these moments in the book, they are almost always in the present tense even though you are writing about a concert that happened thirty or forty years ago. Is this a way of conveying the timelessness of the music? Do you play music, and do you consider yourself a musician with words?

HERMES: I felt the descriptions were more palpable in the present tense. And since an astonishing amount of the music I wrote about, including live performances I missed, was available on the Internet, I could write vividly and honestly in the first person. It would have been very hard, not to mention astronomically expensive, to write this book before YouTube and free MP3 blogs.

I don’t quite consider myself a musician with words—that’s a poet’s job—but I try to be tuneful and beat-minded when I write, and I hope to make people feel stuff. And that’s my art offering. Beyond late-night folk guitar strumming, the occasional abstract DJ set, and some unsteady bass/tenor singing that a neighborhood choir is kind enough to encourage from time-to-time, I leave music making to others, though I’m envious of folks like Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Ira Kaplan, John Darnielle and Rick Moody who have managed to both write and make music well.

STREET: How old were you when you started reading rock journalism? What makes a great music journalist, and what is vital to music reporting? What do you wish people were talking/writing more about in music journalism?

HERMES: I was probably twelve or thirteen when I started reading Rolling Stone, and sixteen or so when I discovered the Village Voice. I loved the former for their music features, which were long, well-reported, smart and personal. And I loved the latter for showing me how criticism could be vigorously intellectual, but also hip and funny, and a window onto the wide world behind the music in question that inspired and informed it. I saw music and arts criticism as a way of unpacking the world. I think music criticism could often use stronger journalistic bones, and that music journalism could use more heart and critical smarts.

STREET: The structure and format of Love Goes To Building On Fire is interesting. At times you are telling a linear story, but then the linear style will do a loop and a back-flip to a story already told but from another angle. Sometimes there are juxtapositions of contrasting cultures responding to a moment, and sometimes the transitions just seem random. It reminded me of skipping around while listening to an LP, or just dropping the stylus into a groove. How did it fall into place this way? Was it accidental or experimental, improvisational?

HERMES: My main organizing principal was simple chronology—I begin on 1/1/73, and end five years later, on 12/31/77. But to return to the mix tape analogy, the transitions were determined by a lot of things. Had I addressed salsa in the past ten pages, or rock? Do we need some non-musical context, some city scenes? Is there something I can dramatize, some dialogue I can recreate, to break up the data stream?

But there were plenty of serendipitous segues, like Patti Smith making her UK debut the same night as both a historic salsa concert and a seminal loft-jazz festival, or the Ramones making their UK debut on July 4, 1976, the day of the massive bicentennial celebration in New York City. Making those connections were some of the sweetest moments in researching the book, when you’d yell “YES!!!” and pump your fist, and then look around the library sheepishly and sink back into your chair.

STREET: There are many strands that run through the book that lead the reader on a journey from musician to the places where they come from and how those places influenced their art. You juxtapose Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith, both from South Jersey during the same time but their music is so different. I remember as a kid, wondering how Patti, a punk goddess and Bruce, a Top 40 King, wrote Because The Night together. This is one of the stories you tell in your book. Is this another it-can-only-happen-in-New-York, moment? Is there something of a South Jersey story embedded in their music?

HERMES: I think their connection came in part from their South Jersey roots, but also in their shared sect of Rock’n’Roll religion. Springsteen wasn’t integral to the New York scene in the way Smith was, but he was a presence there, and was born from a lot of the same back-to-basics impulses. There’s a very good new Springsteen bio by Peter Ames Carlin that goes into great depth about his pre-E Street Band years, and it shows how “Bruce Springsteen,” the persona and aesthetic sensibility, evolved from this longhaired kid who was really into the Allman Brothers Band and into jamming out on his guitar. Like Smith, who was into the Doors and Hendrix and the Grateful Dead, he was trying to take the best bits from the music he liked—also Van Morrison, James Brown, Joe Cocker, Elvis Presley—and make them into something of his own. And over time, both he and Smith became really good editors.

STREET: Do you see your book as the document of a time between times? What I mean is, the first part of the 1970s were like a hangover from the 1960s, with seemingly nothing going on except for stoners still looking for the party. People don’t usually identify quiet times in culture as important or significant, but in Love Goes To Building On Fire, you expose the works-in-progress, the culture in its making. Are these the most exciting times for you?

HERMES: I guess I’m most drawn to art that’s in the throes of inventing itself, of making up a new set of rules or ways of seeing, and of building a community. Established artists that reinvent themselves—Neil Young, Patti, Springsteen, Dylan, Chan Marshall—can be interesting too, of course. But the most compelling work I’ve done as a music journalist has been writing about regional music scenes bubbling up: Minneapolis in the early 1990s, when I was in grad school there; Omaha, which I wrote about when Bright Eyes, Cursive, and all the Saddle Creek acts were breaking out; Reykavijk, which I wrote about when Sigur Ros were beginning to hit their stride. Celebrity and its cults, once they really take hold, are much less interesting to me than the transitional periods.