This non-review is adapted from the one that I posted on Goodreads a few days ago. I found several copies of the paperback priced at $6.99 at the Half-Price Books on University Boulevard three weeks ago, remembered wanting to read it when it came out in 2011, grabbed a copy, and devoured it over the next few days.
Origin of the title: the title of Talking Heads' first single, usually just referred to as "Building on Fire."
LGtBoF transported me to New York in the 1970s in much the same way as Patti Smith's Just Kids, which came out the year before Hermes's book and is cited as a source. In her memoir, the Godmother certainly provided plenty of great reminiscences of CBGB, Max's, and other milieux and the inhabitants of the downtown scene. Hermes takes a much broader view, alternating the focus among six different musical styles or genres: rock, hip-hop, disco, salsa, jazz, and minimalist/avant garde composition.
The practitioners of these musics did not operate in isolation: The punkers knew the minimialists, mostly via William S. Burroughs and other Beat writers. Jazz artists like Eddie Palmieri took salsa and Latin rhythms to stratospheric heights, and the Salsoul Orchestra incorporated the rhythms in disco orchestrations. Blondie had runaway #1 hits spiked with disco and hip-hop flavorings.
Hermes also takes pains to interject his personal perspective as a teenager in Queens who occasionally ventured into Manhattan for musical experiences. New York was a dangerous and exciting place for anyone, even a white teenager from the Outer Boroughs, but a place with unlimited creative potential.
I wasn't in NYC during 1973-77. The closest I got was spending summers with my father and his second family in North Jersey. But later, when I heard the Ramones and similar acts on old-school FM album rock stations, I was all in. As a college radio DJ, I got to explore this revolutionary music in depth, and even today it feels like a part of me that only a lobotomy could remove. The true test of this book is whether somebody who never studied that scene could enjoy it and benefit from it. If so, maybe it could earn that fifth star from me.
Hermes is mostly interested in assembling the facts in coherent placements, and he does this beautifully. Unfortunately, the narrative has little or no breathing space for stylistic touches; fortunately, he doesn't need to fall back on style, and he can still convey how electric it was when certain phenomena occurred for the first time: a DJ plugging his sound system into a streetlight post, salseros having the cojones to rent Yankee Stadium for a gigantic concert festival, taggers decorating entire ten-car subway trains without getting busted, Meredith Monk vocalizing for two hours accompanying herself on wine glass and enrapturing a critic from the Times.
For me, the biggest revelation from LGtBoF is the importance of Bruce Springsteen in the Lower Manhattan music scene. Because of who he hung out with, and because he was a scrawny Jersey kid who performed in a tank-top and a scruffy pseudo-Beat beard, even Springsteen got labeled a "punk." The Boss wasn't doing anything terribly new; he just took the atmospheres created by his major influences (Orbison, Guthrie, Dylan, Van Morrison) and made them bigger, arena-size, adding an edge-of-your-life passion in his delivery. He influenced Patti Smith, and vice-versa, even before they collaborated on "Because the Night." There's a reason people who never owned a Springsteen record would pay top dollar to see him live.
Let's Not Make Any New Waves
Here's a tidbit I found mildly interesting: This book does not include the term "new wave" anywhere in its 300 pages of narrative. Alternative music fans tend to associate new wave music with the post-punk period: Elvis Costello, Devo, Human League, and even Public Image Limited. New wave acts might use synthesizers and write more mature lyrics than punks did. But the term may pre-date the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.
Someone who was part of the CBGB scene once told me that Tom Verlaine had adopted the "new wave" label for his band Television and similar acts, partly as a homage to French New Wave cinema. Then Joey Ramone decided, "If they're new wave, then so are we." (Talking Heads certainly was not a band that inspired mosh pits; put the Heads in the new wave bin, too, if you must.) Television frequently played at CBGB, originally a showcase club for country, bluegrass, and blues (hence the name), and which by 1975 had become the go-to club for bands like the Ramones and the Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty's band) who wore the "punk" label. (Around 1980, some bands tried to distinguish themselves from this movement by calling themselves "no-wave.")
Television was not a punk band. They didn't play at punk tempos. They placed more emphasis on imagistic lyrics and lengthy guitar leads than punkers usually accepted, but they weren't a jam band or an art rock band either. "New wave"? Maybe, but who cares? If any band ever made categories irrelevant, Television was one. This book transcends category as well.
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