Interview: Will Hermes, Author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

11/21/2011 1:30 PM |

Cover illustrated by Mark Alan Stamaty, Village Voice cartoonist.
  • Cover illustrated by Mark Alan Stamaty, Village Voice cartoonist.

Nearly six years ago, music journalist Will Hermes, a senior critic for Rolling Stone and frequent contributor to NPR, (as well as publications like Spin and the Village Voice), interviewed Patti Smith on the 30th anniversary of her legendary first album, Horses. There, in a café on MacDougal Street, the story on the making of her album sparked the beginning of a compulsive quest—Hermes set off to write a big picture story on New York’s tumultuous and uniquely generative music scene in the years from 1973 to 1978. Published earlier this month, Love Goes to Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever is that story. Love Goes (title appropriately borrowed from the Talking Heads’ 1977 single) covers simultaneous, burgeoning scenes in rock, hip hop, salsa and jazz, culled from a staggering amount of research and one-on-one interviews. You can check out some behind the scenes stuff, like rare performance footage from bands like the Talking Heads, Television and The Ramones on Hermes’ website, as well as a 300 song Spotify compendium to the book, made by a fellow journalist and fan. The L sat down with Hermes at a noisy midtown café to talk about the historical parallels between the New York (and Brooklyn, duh) music scene then and now, as well as how he figured in his own story, as a teenager growing up in Queens at the time, against the larger backdrop of these movements.

The L: What compelled you to write an historical novel about these years? Why for now, 2011? Was there a specific moment where you said to yourself, “I have to do this”?

Will Hermes: It was back in 2005, and I can trace it specifically to doing a story on the 30th anniversary performance of Horses at the Brooklyn Academy of Music by Patti Smith and the Patti Smith group. It was a record that was hugely important to me, growing up. I remember my sister actually bought it, not me, my younger sister, and she brought it home, and I listened to it and I was wowed. I sat down with Patti at a café on MacDougal Street, and then I sat down with Lenny Kaye and got the story of the making of the record, and put that together.

Patti Smith and Bob Dylan
  • Patti Smith and Bob Dylan

The more I thought about what I talked about with them—which was about how they were really leaping off of what was happening in the ’60s, because they were hippie kids, but they were a little young, and they didn’t catch the crest of the wave exactly—they wanted to invent something for themselves; the more I thought about the music that was really important to me and how not just punk was born, but hip hop—wait a minute, invented in New York, ’73 to ’78, and then the first record came out in ’79; the loft jazz era, which was always a real personal favorite of mine, even though it was kind of written out of jazz history; salsa I always knew was there but I didn’t know a lot about it because it kind of happened in the community, in the Latin community—it was kind of a cultural bubble; one thing sort of led to another and then it was just, “I can’t stop.” And it was just sort of serendipitous that the project became a compulsion and something that was really fun to do.

But then we start seeing very strong parallels—because the economy wasn’t tanking that bad when I started this book, but we’re now in an economic time in New York, at a sort of general weary zeitgeist and also with a kind of radical response to that in Occupy Wall Street and what have you—it brought a lot of parallels to what was going on, the kind of energy that was going on in New York in the ’70s, the struggles that people were having and that urban centers are having now. So, it resonates.

The L: That parallel—in the epilogue you talk about Animal Collective in Brooklyn in the 2000s. Can you elaborate on that analogy with bands in New York right now? How do you identify trends as they’re happening? Or do you? Do you just focus on what you love?

WH: New York is still a staging ground for artists, and what’s come together in Brooklyn, specifically the indie rock scene, specifically the jazz scene, which has been centered in New York ever since New Orleans sort of ceded primacy many years ago, with due respect to St. Louis and other important, Kansas City, and other important jazz cities. The jazz scene now is vital as it’s been in quite a long time, drawing a lot of inspiration from the loft scene, as an aside. And it seems like young composers—guys like Nico Muhly, who’s a protégé of sorts of Philip Glass, but also doing a lot of work with artists like Bjork, who I think qualifies as an honorary New Yorker now; David Byrne, who is still a force to be reckoned with, collaborating with women like Annie Clark, St. Vincent, who’s doing incredible work; the brothers in The National, who have been kind of straddling pop and modern composition. Sufjan Steven’s doing the same thing. So I think it’s an incredible, vital time at a real, sort of innovative, fusion-minded time too. So I see that kind of echo of the ’70s spirit as well.

The L: There were a ton of anecdotes and reconstructed scenes—performances, practices, conversations in clubs. How did you go about getting that? How much research and one on one interview time went into reconstructing those scenes?

WH: There were books that I used as primary sources, stories that had been reported by other people in publications from that period, most of which have not been digitized. I spent a summer going through microfiche copies of the Soho Weekly News which began in 1973 and stopped publishing around the end of the ’70s. Not a lot of fun when it’s yellowed and faded, but this is a really, hugely important part of New York history, and thank goodness it exists in some form, but not on the internet. So there was that. I interviewed a lot of people and got first person stories. And the most amazing thing, which didn’t really become a factor until the tail-end of researching was Youtube.

Youtube existed when I started writing the book in 2005, 2006, but there wasn’t anything there that was of much use to me, let’s just say. The Talking Heads playing at CBGB’s six months after they formed…it’s like, I could write about that scene as if I was there, because of the video footage. Same thing with early Ramones performances, same thing with some pivotal salsa performances. And that was thrilling.I mean, I think for anyone who’s writing a history book at this point in time—because most of this footage, it was not on TV. Maybe some of it was on public access, but a lot of it was just shot on half inch black and white video reels, was shot on Super 8 film by hobbyists or semi professional filmmakers and shelved away as a curio. But now, once the pipelines got bigger and people were able to upload this stuff without too much trouble, you know, now it’s all out there.

The L: This is a history book that includes your own personal history as well, growing up in Queens. I’m wondering how much of these musical goings on in the city you were aware of at the time and how much you had to fill in later.

WH: There’s no way to have historical perspective when you’re in something. Especially this period that I’m writing about, nobody, except for the salsa guys, and some women, very few, they were all kids, and this was underground, and it had not exploded until the end of the period I’m writing about when it kind of came above ground. But it was mostly people in their 20s and 30s inventing themselves as artists or musicians, and they were inventing music in the process, what music ultimately became.

But Queens, I was listening to what is now classic rock radio. I was listening to British prog rock. But I went to CBGB’s, it was my first club show, and I remember seeing Television, a band that was local, that was not famous, and was awesome. Like, as good as anything I’d seen. I hadn’t seen many shows at that point. I’d gone to you know, Madison Square Garden and seen Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin by the end of 1977. By the end of the year I was 17, and I was like, “God, these guys are kind of old.” You go and see Television and they still look like kids.

The L: I actually laughed out loud at one point when you talked about all the bands that you listened to growing up—Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes. And I was thinking, “Wow, those are all bands that I listened to, my peers, growing up as teenagers,” and I’m sure the generation since then. Do you think there’s something quintessential about those bands—that every teenager must listen to in their early musical development?

WH: [laughs] I think so much when a lot of people write about the ’70s think about the ’70s—it’s this complete, radical break from the ’60s. The ’60s was this flowering of culture which sort of collapsed, and then punk and hip hop came along and saved the day. But it really was not like that. Patti Smith came directly out of what was happening in the ’60s in terms of using elements of free improvisation and really revering Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and same thing with Television. They were strongly influenced by the Grateful Dead. Tom Verlaine thought those guys were especially great. And the jazz players who came through the loft era were really jumping off of what happened with free jazz in the 1960s. And this was really a transitional period. It was taking what was useful in the ’60s and churning it around to do something new. I really think it fed off of the energy of the ’60s, but people understood that not everything worked. And this was definitely a new era and it was definitely more disillusioned. And the city was pretty rough. The summer of love, as one critic I quote put it, never really took hold in New York. It’s a little too hard-nosed in the town. And I think the music reflects that attitude.

The L: A major criticism I felt, in 2011, was that music was “too wimpy”—that’s something that I’ve read from some people.

WH: Too wimpy? Ok. With the exception of the Fucked Up record.

The L: Right. But I wondered if that was at all even comparable to what was going on with disco. People thought it was too soft. Or even in response to the Dead. People started making “harder” music. Do you think that’s where we’re headed now?

WH: Well, it’s interesting. There were two things that happened with the music of the era. And I guess it comes to two possible responses to hard times. And one response is to counter it with beauty. Certainly like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and some jazz to some extent was very beautiful, hypnotic, disco too, transporting music. So, ecstasy as a weapon sort of thing, will help you get by. Because, you can’t change anything if you can’t experience pleasure and recharge your batteries in that way. So, beauty isn’t necessarily un-radical. But then the other side is a kind of fighting spirit, and an edginess and an aggression that we certainly saw in punk, that we certainly saw in salsa, which I think was, compared to the Cuban music it was modeled on, was much more aggressive.

Right now, these are hard times. There are extreme times—and the music can be extremely pretty or in some cases, extremely aggressive. I do agree that in indie rock, there’s a lot of prettiness going on. But, you know, I like pretty.

The L: I also want to talk more about your personal experience in writing this, researching, doing all these interviews. Did you have a favorite or standout interview where you learned something that made you go, “My brain is melting out my ears and dripping onto the floor?”

WH: Well, you live for those moments as a journalist, really. And they don’t happen all the time. But certainly, Rashid Ali, who’s a jazz drummer who worked with John Coltrane toward the end of his career and died just a few months after I interviewed him for the book was incredible, incredible spirit and personality, omnivorous in his music tastes and his playing. Rubén Blades and Larry Harlow and Willie Colón. All three of those guys from the Fania Allstars were incredibly generous and incredible storytellers, recounting an era— no one has written an adequate history of that era in New York salsa music. I had to fight the urge to do that in researching this book because this was big picture storytelling. It was not like a reference volume or a full-on history, so those guys were really inspiring.

Fania All-Stars
  • Fania All-Stars

And the people who started the book off really, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, really inspired me to say, you know, this is the 30th anniversary of this record. And these people, while they are still imbued with incredible youthful energy are older, and a lot of the people in my narrative are not alive. And, as time goes on, fewer and fewer are going to be alive, and a lot of the people who can tell these stories are in their latter years. That lent a certain type of urgency to doing it.

The L: So who did you write this for? Did you write this for a younger generation that doesn’t necessarily know about these people, how they came to be major figures? Did you write it for fellow journalists or fellow obsessives about the era?

WH: It was incredibly important to me for this not to be a nostalgia fest that just writes about this great, golden era that will never be repeated, from an insider’s point of view. I wanted to tell a story that would have some resonance now to young artists, or young music fans coming up, and also for people who might not even be huge music fans, who just like writing, because I didn’t want to write a reference volume or another book of criticism. I wanted it to be a story, with an arc, a beginning, middle, and an end, and characters that each had their own narrative threads that came in and out. So I’m really trying to make the salsa music interesting to the rock fans—and put it in a kind of context that it makes sense you can really see and hear if you follow it up with listening to the connections between those musics. And turning people onto obscure jazz from the period. Too few people probably know who David Murray is, who Lester Bowie was, so that was kind of part of the mission too.

The L: You get that from the timing. At one point [in the novel], a teenage Thurston Moore is listening to Patti Smith. It was connecting everything.

WH: Thurston Moore was very inspiring because he’s an incredible advocate of the loft jazz era, the free jazz that I write about a lot here. His writing has been really inspiring to me on that specific subject.

The L: And it seems like there could have been multiple books written in addition to—or books within your book. You don’t only talk about music—you write about graffiti, you write about Fluxus, briefly. And you talk about drugs. Drugs are sort of inextricably tied to music. If there’s something you wish you could have expanded on, what would it be?

WH: That’s a good question. To me, the early pre-history of hip hop, because so little was recorded, so little was photographed, so little was preserved, I think it would have been edifying to dig deeper on that, write longer.

The L: Another theme—The Ramones came from Queens, Springsteen and Patti Smith came from Jersey, and you yourself grew up in Queens. The fringes. What do you think it is about that process, coming into the city, that can define an artist?

WH: From my own experience, and I think this is probably true of anyone who lives in suburban, exurban, rural areas. You ultimately have these opposite poles. You have the spaciousness of areas that are not so heavily populated, that are not so heavily urban, and they have their own beauty and their own draw. And then you have the white-hot epicenter of cities, New York in particular. It’s dirty, it’s noisy, it’s crowded, it’s very often dangerous, but that energy comes to bear on art in a very kind of concentrated, community-oriented sort of way. And growing up in Queens, the easternmost edge of Queens, the last stop on the E and the F train at that time, and then I had to walk 20 minutes from there, I had to take a bus. The kids from high school decided to go in one of two directions. Either they got their learner’s permit and their license and they got a car and they’d drive out to Long Island. And they’d get into Long Island bars and hang out on the beach in the car and that was the direction that they went. Or, conversely, you walked to the subway, got on the train and took it into Manhattan. And literally, if half of my classmates in one direction, the other half went in the other direction. Obviously, I got on the train. And I think that’s an eternal narrative in any culture. Anybody who’s writing stories, it’s the city mouse versus country mouse sort of thing. Certainly both sides have their pluses and minuses, but for art making, densely packed communities really create something special.

The L: Do you think New York now has the same level of artistic vigor in the years that you write about?

WH: It’s different. I completely see that energy throughout the artistic communities in Brooklyn. At the same time, it is a very different time. It is much more expensive to live. But people continue colonizing neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the outskirts of Williamsburg and Bushwick and Greenpoint. People want to be here. It’s a staging ground. No matter what you’re into, no matter what your obscure, idiosyncratic drive is, you will find kindred souls here. And it’s always going to be that way. I think now’s a good time.