Monday, January 23, 2012

Five years of NYC music that changed history

The rancid stench of garbage hovered above the city's sidewalks in the wake of a summertime strike by sanitation workers. Stores were looted overnight after a blackout plunged rioting neighborhoods into darkness. And a financial crisis pushed the city to the brink of bankruptcy in an era that gave birth to both Travis Bickle and the Son of Sam.

"It's very refreshing being in the 21st century," said Will Hermes, senior critic for Rolling Stone magazine, longtime contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered" and author of "Love Goes to Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York City That Changed Music Forever."

Hermes' musical journey begins an hour after midnight on New Year's Day 1973 in downtown Manhattan with a performance by The New York Dolls and concludes on the city streets in 1977 on New Year's Eve.

The sometimes dangerous and often depressed conditions of the era is briefly referenced but provides an omnipresent backdrop of a five-year span that gave birth to a musical culture that has inspired a world of art ever since.

"I wanted to write a history that was something people could sit down and enjoy. I wanted it to be a good read, and I also understood I was bringing something to the table growing up during those years in New York," Hermes said.

The book documents a changing musical culture, from arena rock to Bowery bar punk, and an era of transformation in the worlds of salsa, hip-hop, jazz and the classical avant-garde.

"There were these incredibly influential movements, some that were born simultaneously, side by side, and sometimes intersecting," said Hermes, a teenager in the early '70s growing up in Queens, the busy lights of the Manhattan skyline glowing on the western horizon; change was in the air.

A performance by Bruce Springsteen at the now-defunct Palladium on 14th Street lit the fuse.

"Seeing Bruce Springsteen from the last row on the top balcony at the Palladium where I had to stand on my toes to see the stage ... that was certainly one," he said. "That's still one of the greatest concert experiences that I have ever had."

In his book, Hermes' prose relating the experience takes on Lester Bangs-esque flair.

"I thought I would be sucked off the balcony and through the air into the white-light energy onstage," he writes. "After the show, I walked down the steps to the subway feeling like I'd been baptized."

Going to CBGB's and seeing the band Television provided another pivotal experience.

"That was the first time I had seen rock music in a club, and it was as amazing as the bands playing at Madison Square Garden. That was really striking," he said. "And the first Patti Smith record -‘Horses' - that was also very powerful."

The scene unfolding in Manhattan and Hermes' recollections putting together the book were aided, at least in part, by upstate connections.

Glens Falls resident Paul Pines, an accomplished poet, writer and host of Lake George Jazz Weekend, is noted for presiding "over one of the incredible venues for the loft jazz scene" in downtown Manhattan at the time.

And ZBS studios, located off Route 4 between Schuylerville and Fort Edward along the Hudson River, helped launch projects by Allen Ginsberg, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. Interviewing Anderson in 2010 in her Canal Street loft, the performance artist told Hermes her work at ZBS "changed my life more than anything else."

Hermes wrote segments of the book at Yaddo Mansion in Saratoga Springs, following in the literary footprints of nearly a century of writers who came before him.

"Yaddo is an amazing place. I can't say enough about it. I was at a hard point in the book. I hadn't hit the halfway point, and the time there was invaluable. I did a huge amount of writing. It's an incredibly special place for writers and artists," he said.

- Thomas Dimopoulos, January 2012.

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