I Wanted a Punk Book, not a History Lesson

I Wanted a Punk Book, not a History Lesson
Reviewer: 2bitmonkey
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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.

Will Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire was a book that held so much promise for me. I mean, look at that subtitle: "Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever". As a native New Yorker, too young to have lived through that scene but a fan of mid-'70s punk music, I couldn't possibly be more excited to read this book. I was ready to make my journey through the world that made artists like Patti Smith, David Byrne, Joey Ramone. And Hermes - a very knowledgable writer - should have been the man to do it.

Early on, I felt good about my expectations. I learned a hell of a lot about David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Arthur Kane, Jerry Nolan and Sylvain Sylvain, i.e. the New York Dolls, in just the first 40 pages. When it comes to punk, Hermes knows his stuff. Quickly though the book settled into a format that led to it being a pretty substantial letdown. Hermes painstakingly takes his reader through a chronological blow by blow, minute detail after detail, of literally everythnig going on in NYC musically at the time. His research is extraordinary, but he them simply regurgitates the information back to the reader in a very vanilla manner.

Hermes jumps from scene to scene - punk, Latin, disco, hip hop, jazz - in the blink of an eye, with little continuity or segue. It’s almost as if he has too much to say. Unfortunately, by telling us everything he communicates nothing about the scene itself. The point is (or, in my opinion, should have been) to depict a five year music scene through telling the stories of the artists that comprised it. Instead of stories we get a history lesson. In doing so, the aura of the scene itself is lost. Hermes provides a description, not a portrait, of the time and place.

Additionally, I felt somewhat duped by the music scenes that actually were covered vs. what I'd expected. I went into the book thinkng that it would be mostly about the downtown punk scene, but that was only about one-third of the story. Yes I learned a lot about Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine, but the rest (disco, jazz, and Latin) I could do without. Since the book was told completely chronologically, jumping from genre to genre in page after page, I found it overall to be a tough read. Perhaps I have myself to blame for that false expectation - after all, no promise was made that the book was a punk tell-all - but one look at that cover makes me think that the publishers take some of the blame here as well.

Overall, unfortunately my expectation level was probably so high that this book was never going to meet it. To be fair, maybe if I had gone into the book differently I would have had closer to the experience with it that Nick Hornby did. He wrote once that the book literally changed his life with the way that it introduced him to those other genres of music. Am I too closed-minded? Am I being too hard on Hermes? There was, after all, a lot to like about Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. It's probably worth a read, but only if you know what you're getting into.


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