Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
It’s entirely possible, though, that we stumbled across each other in some loud, smelly club in the late 1970s or 80s. And that (the clubs and the music) is the subject of Hermes’ in-depth look at five years of the New York music scene in the mid-1970s. We’re past the 30-year mark now from the death of punk and so the great nostalgia machine is kicking into gear.
What made this experience different is that Hermes and I are near contemporaries, living no more than 4 miles apart during the years he writes about. There’s no doubt we were at some of the same shows. There’s no doubt that we both found the 70s lacking and the music–at least some of it–the only saving grace. There’s no doubt we’d disagree on almost everything he writes about.
Why would I say that? Let’s take a step back. Hermes focuses on the years 1973 through 1977 in (mostly) downtown NYC. It’s his contention that the music created then “would grow into movements that continue to shape music around the world.” That’s a major statement and he valiantly tries to back it up by going beyond the nascent punk scene to include the salsa movement, loft jazz, modern orchestral music and the first glimmerings of rap.
It’s a neat conceit sure to grab folks now in their 50s who, like every previous generation, are convinced the music–well, everything, really– used to be better. It will especially appeal to those with a gritty urban past.
It’s also not an original approach. Peter Guralnick did the same thing for the various strands of R&B that converged into soul music by focusing on Memphis, Macon and Muscle Shoals in the mid-1960s. And it could easily be done for San Francisco from 1965 to 1969 or even late 19th century or 1920s Paris. I’m sure that we’ll see the Austin and Williamsburg versions eventually.
What’s more original is that somehow what could be a day-by-day recounting of bills and reviews and contemporaneous events doesn’t read like a calendar on steroids or the Daily News with better music coverage. Hermes does manage to keep all these threads moving forward and he touches upon lots of people I remember and a few I’d forgotten.
Hermes also has big ears and so is able to cover the different strands without showing too much favoritism. Because it’s a coming of age tale, though, the bands he loves loom large and those are the punks. And it’s here for me that it fell apart on a number of fronts. While the usual NY suspects are there the A team, for our scribe, is Patti Smith, Television, and Talking Heads.
Maybe I can stretch that to include–at least at the beginning–the New York Dolls. But although they’re present and important, Blondie, The Ramones, The Dictators, even The Heartbreakers seem diminished. There’s a reason and it’s candidly stated: “…aesthetic lines were being drawn. There were the pop-rockers in one clique… And there was the art-rock clique…”
Hermes just loves the art punks with their kissing up to the Warhol crowd and the faux fin de sicle decadence (and even aliases) they embrace. The art/pop split runs deep and after 300 pages I have to admit that while I listen to all these bands I don’t universally love them.
And the art punks are a particularly unlovable crowd. Full of pretense and yearning for acceptance and success while denying it all the while. Alan Vega of Suicide gets in the best shot: ” [Byrne] didn’t make any twitchy gestures without something in his head saying, ‘Make a twitchy gesture now.’
By the time 1977 (and the book) ends, I found myself sick to death of Smith, et al. A musician friend recently noted that the Talking Heads had not aged well. I agreed and I think it’s because the art thing ties them too closely to an era. The punk years are not alone in this–there’s plenty of unlistenable psychedelia that doesn’t stand up either unless you still have Peter Max wallpaper in the loo.
Here’s the rub: in the end the song’s the thing. Different songs do it for different people; the best songs have a life of their own. Yet there is nothing more ephemeral than a 3 minute pop song. You can work like the devil to imbue your warblings with deep meaning but it’s the listeners who decide if it matters.
I’ll go out on a limb and say Johnny Thunders would never have called himself an artist. The more proper term would be fuck-up. But just listen to “Too Much Junkie Business.” There can’t be a more puerile paen to narcotics and yet the band is almost beside itself having fun. And can any band–good, bad or unremarkable–play “Surfin’ Bird” and think it’s serious art rather than just a truckload of smiles?
At the end of the day that’s what the art punks lacked. They were serious. Life’s serious enough, let’s all escape and find a little joy. Hey, Ho! Let’s Go!
You’ve stuck it out this long. Let’s have a little juvenile, punk fun. For your consideration: Look who the ultimate arbiters of fun chose to showcase.