Focus, Dammit!

Focus, Dammit!
Reviewer: Captain K
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Love Goes to Buildings on Fire:
Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever
384 pages
First Edition edition
November 08, 2011
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Full story of the era’s music scenes in New York City — punk rock, hip-hop, disco, salsa and the loft jazz scene — and the phenomenal and surprising ways they intersected.

OK, OK we get it. You are a musical omnivore who went to a bunch of cool shows back in the day and have some strong opinions about the importance of the music made in NYC circa 1973-1977. And it is an argument worth making. Maybe a less scattershot approach would have served better but…

In his book Love Comes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever, Will Hermes makes an ironclad case that the development of multiple important musical style innovations happened in New York during this period.

He provides complete and fascinating detail about the birth or dramatic growth of punk rock, disco, Latin jazz, minimalism, jazz fusion and rap. That is a lot of very different musical threads going through profound change in artistic sophistication and popularity. It all happened in the five boroughs of NY over a short period of time that was otherwise marked by chaos, crime, drugs and decline.

At the time the FAN did understand there was a powerful and game-changing evolution of music happening. Ultimately it was every bit as important -- if not more so – than what had happened on the West Coast during the previous ten years – and far more diverse. What Hermes adds to this through his research is to pinpoint the actual moments and places where this transformation happened.

He details the moment when DJ Kool Herc mixed the first break beats, when Suicide first pissed off the fans at CBGB’s, when the gay club-goers first danced ecstatically to the pounding beat of proto-disco while high on drugs and when Meredith Monk first ululated in a Soho loft before a rapt audience of avant guard music fans. And when Grandmaster Flash scratched the first scratch.  Even when the first fan expectorated the first barbelling loogie of phlegm at Joey Ramone.

The book is almost an anthropological exploration. It has a profusion of dates and venues and names of sometimes long forgotten musical pioneers. This detail is what makes it interesting but also what makes it a tough read. He works so hard to stay with a chronological flow that the reader gets a paragraph on the Talking Heads and Patti Smith and suddenly you are onto Willie Colon and Celia Cruz and few sentences later we are trying to figure out what Richard Hell is up to.

Rock & Roll whiplash is what results – once you get the rhythm of his exploration into the early times of Grandmaster Flash we get a jump-cut to Steve Reich or Kraftwerk. This results in a disorienting narrative flow that follows its own narrative perspective but ignores the reader. He tells the story of Afrika Bambaatta , but then he’s exploring the loft jazz scene with David Murray. Stop and start narrative is the weakness of this book.

The good, even great part of this book is the detail Hermes brings to the very specific moments in time when the tectonic plates shifted and new possibilities in music opened up. The dates, the players and what they played are lovingly detailed and the impact of this is clarified.

The blast of information — and it is very well footnoted and sourced — is valuable. But there is little in that way of overarching story.  No matter – the book is a must for fans. For the casual reader, however, it’s easy to put down. Maybe a focus on one or two threads with some background on what else was going on in the same time and place would have been more to my liking – but nevertheless – the point he makes is an important one. The detail and specifics you will find here about times, places and people are great. What it all means, you will have to figure out for yourself.