Yes, I realize "curated" has become the word choice for pretentious d-bags, and there's some of that here, no doubt. But it is also the appropriate word for museum work, and there's some of _that_ here, too. The book is about music in New York City during the 1970s, but the passion, the detail . . . the curation . . . could have been about any number of cultural forms from the same period, cherished by the generation that grew up with it. Even as I was reading about punk and salsa and hip-hop and free jazz and reinvigorated classical music, I could not help thinking about the movie that came out just as this story ended: Star Wars, and all the people who tenderly nurture its legend.
As Luc Sante notes on the back of the book blurb, the most radical and interesting choice Hermes made was to simply arrange the various stories he told in chronological order. And so we get the tale of how hip-hop was born, and how rock and roll reinvented itself in the wake of the 70s as poetic bombast, as punk, and as the offspring of both of those, of the beginnings of salsa, of the attempts to move jazz forward after the experiments of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and how Philip Glass and his circle gave new life to the stultified classical music.
When presented this way, in order, the connections between the various musical evolutions becomes clear in ways that are otherwise hard to see. There, rock and roll kids were each going to the other's shows, and recording at the same studios, and so there was some wild mixing. (For what it's worth, Hermes's heart seems to be most in this story, but he is admirable in not giving short shrift to the other narrative lines.) Early hip-hop DJs were eclectic, mixing in rock tracks and salsa ones--salsa then being created in the Spanish-speaking parts of New York. Jazz musicians working the loft scene and those with more classical inclinations both turned to popular forms to find new ways forward. There are examples of sessions between them and the rock 'n' rollers that show the lines of influence radiated like blaster shots from Star Wars.
Hermes has clearly done his homework. He knows these stories in intimate detail, from various biographies, autobiographies, interviews, and extensive reviewing of old newspapers. One gets the feel for life in the city during the mid-1970s, and the creative ferment--creative possibilities. He was around during this time, too, just entering his teen years. (Which is when, of course, these kind of pop cultural changes most impact us; the old joke: When was the golden age of science fiction? Twelve. In this case, when was the golden age of music? Twelve.) And Hermes inserts himself into the story here and there, but the intrusions don't feel, well, intrusive, but, rather, informative: another voice in the poly-vocal song to New York City. I would have liked to hear more about the mechanics of the music making and song crafting — as in Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life — but Hermes prefers the biographical, and he's got the material to make the stories work.
Make no mistake, this is a hymn to New York City, a love song. Which is where the limitations of the book — such as they are — are most noticeable: the problems inextricably bound to the curating sensibility. New York City was, undoubtedly, an important center of the musical changes he documents. But it was not the only place, and so there are weird contortions in the narrative to acknowledge Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland as foci of music in the 1970s. And London — indeed, London becomes so central that Hermes has to leave the friendly confines of New York City and travel across the Atlantic to spend time there so that his story makes any kind of sense.
There are other weird malformations of the story, too. Alternately, Hermes has to berate some musical forms as passé, and then praise them as influential. So Marvin Gaye-wstyle funk is too watered down, but also an influence on the early DJs. Summer of Love rock n roll and Woodstock are weak tea, but also, when needed, proof of some particular character's commitment to pop music, that they would travel to Woodstock. The Band is great and also out of step with the times. Thurston Moore shows up in various places, but why?
Hermes's is both working against the rockism tradition, but also trapped inside of it. Some of the paragons of rock — Led Zeppelin, in particular — are powerful but also tired. Rather, he looks for authenticity in his beloved New York City. He finds best those acts that eschew sentimentality, that are hard as nails — the way New York City is. He doesn't seem to see what Michael Foley would (later) point out: that Punk Rock was not just a reaction against the free love hippie movement, but mourned its death because the punks believed in those ideals and were frustrated to see them die.
The celebration of the unsentimental is reflected in Hermes's curiously parochial vision of New York City. For all that the book mentions the City's history, it is a rather conventional view of the time: the city was falling apart, given over to drug addicts and prostitutes, on the edge of bankruptcy. He name checks Charles Bronson and his Death Wish movies, and, really, his book is just an obverse view of the city: New York was falling apart, which allowed creative DIY-types to invent new forms of music without interference. Hermes can sometimes be ironic about the situation, and poke fun at it--but only insofar as he is also part of it, the way Star Wars fans can make fun of the movie's horrible dialogue, but take offense when outsiders do the same.
It is a conventional view of the city, and the book limited, to an extent, by its relentless focus on New York, but the real surprise is how defensive, almost pleading it could be. This is not Saul Steinberg's "View of the World from 9th Avenue" hubris, but almost a demand that New York City be seen as the equivalent of grunge-era Seattle or Austin, not the world's capital, but a cool, shabby place. Hermes spends time noting how various stars passed through New York City, or came there from else where to reinvent themselves, as though this were news, as though New York city was not a long-time magnet for artists. And the book ends with a straining description of 2001--almost thirty years out from his main focus--and a description of Jay Z's "New York City" that emphasizes how it is about the Empire State and the rapper himself from the area, almost as if New York needs Jay Z's street cred.
Despite these limitations — heck, maybe because of them — the book is still a passionate recreation of a time and place in musical history, one that is well known, but still worth revisiting. Just like a Gen-Xer rewatching Star Wars: we all know the lines, we all know the stories behind the movies, but it still somehow touches us. We just can't seem to get enough.