Book Review: Love Goes to Buildings On Fire by Will Hermes

Moreso than the fans who are equally aware of the era’s greatness, music critics have somehow made the 1970’s a hardfought discussion time and time again in terms of who were truly great and who are worthy of pedestals in each genre’s respective Hall of Fame. That would perhaps be true, if not for our current state of everyone and their mother being able to form a band, create a Reverbnation page, book a show in a tiny puissant venue, and hope that the money will roll right in. So the consensus seems to be that the most significant contribution to music from this time is that these bands were all creating impressive works that are so exciting, less for their own artistic merits and more for how these records were made. This was conventional wisdom (with certain exceptions, like Bruce Springsteen) to any critic if you asked them closer to the era than those who’ve picked up on the records of the era second-hand.

That last part is emphasized in the book’s epilogue, where Hermes muses on how bands are still doing it themselves, and more willing to explore the possibilities of crossing-over genres so that we can have things like electro-punk and dance-rock. But where Hermes does an excellent job of recreating a sense of community so important to the arts scenes in the book’s middle, the book begins and ends in legendary (and widely common knowledge at this point) coincidences pointed in obnoxious matter-of-fact narration, and an epilogue that is more interested in putting the author into the story where he could not before and interviewing some of today’s artists who offer halfhearted musings on what a similar sense of community means to them today.

Still, there is much to love here, whether you are familiar with these stories already or not.

After the Jump, what started as love will go to a building on fire.

The book’s title originates in the Talking Heads’ first single, “Love –> Buildings on Fire,” a jittery number as like anything else the Talking Heads released around ’77. But when considering the title, and the given five year period that is the focus of the book, it is perhaps a very fitting title to summarize this as a period of great transition. For all of the book’s faults in trying to encompass so much history in a very slim collection of anecdotes, with few critical asides, it does make an excellent point of making ‘transitional’ periods as just as important as the more-established eras of music that take the lessons learned from those periods.

Is New York 1973-1977 a Renaissance of the lowlifes? Hermes seems to think so, and there are points where he doesn’t convince you, but forces you into actually feeling the sense of camaraderie not just within the rock community, but among the Loft Jazz scene, salsa community, and the birth of hip-hop. And though there only seems to be true idea sharing among the conceptually minded, (David Byrne, Lou Reed, Don Cherry, Phillip Glass, and Steve Reich all come off as the most voracious of music consumers, and when you look at their respective outputs, this is obviously true), the scope and narrative structure of the book turns the major metropolis of New York City into a small-town where the Bronx really wasn’t too far away from the lower Manhattan where the majority of the action is taking place.

Speaking strictly to the portions of the book that deal with rock and roll artists: their stories are the most plentiful, but the least revealing. Again, much of the information on artists like Patti Smith, Television, and Bruce Springsteen is well known and well-documented. But when taken as breaks between exploring the fanatics-only world of salsa, Latin, jazz, funk, fusion, and experimental genres, as well as touching upon the beginnings of hip-hop (Hermes points to learning about the subject from Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang), the narrative becomes more successful.

Still, when looking strictly at the scope of the portions dealing with rock and roll, it seems to toss aside some artists who are now critically beloved but there’s very little about them available to speak to. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen take up the majority of the space here, as do the New York Dolls in the initial two chapters; and the closer the book gets to the end, Talking Heads seem more significant as being a one-band transitional period for 80’s New Wave. It’s nice for when the Heartbreakers show up, though weighed down in the band’s obvious drug problems. Blondie is best appreciated in the book’s epilogue, where Hermes muses that “The CBGB band once voted least likely to succeed, Blondie, blew up bigger than anyone. . .” before pointing that they incorporated the near-by disco and rap sounds into their own music, the same way David Byrne and Talking Heads brought in world music, funk, etc.. And while those two bands are perhaps better appreciated nowadays than they were then, there is skim to little to say about the two artists that are more responsible for the current state of indie-pop and indie-rock thanks to their influence on the bands that immediately followed the era, stretching into the 90’s, and even today: Television. Tom Verlaine and Co. take up a good chunk of the ’74 and ’75 chapters, but become non-existent by ’77, with no mention of their over-looked and equally brilliant second album, Adventure, until the epilogue. For a band as influential as they are, they should have been approached with as much reverence as Springsteen and Smith. Maybe there’s just not quite enough out there, but it still feels like an oversight, just as much as there is nothing to say of Paul Simon’s solo output being released at this time. He may have been of the old guard of the ’60s, but if there’s room to muse on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, there must be something, anything, to say of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon or Still Crazy After All These Years, released in 1973 and 1975, respectively.

Between the mandatory background noise of New York City headlines and Hermes’ own personal reflections of being a teen in the era, what’s at heart is a fascinating document of the zeitgeist of a time and a place. The book inspires in all the right places in terms of the wonders that small community-minded artists can create out of desperation and determination. And ultimately, it is a fine primer to anyone interested in the rumblings of punk, the direction of folk-rock artists, and the quick rise and fall of disco. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire makes the case that no era should ever be considered a creative dark age, like so many rock critics have before.

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One response to “Book Review: Love Goes to Buildings On Fire by Will Hermes

  1. Pingback: Another Spin: Television – “Television” | Electric Comic Book.

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