For Will Hermes, the 1970s took a few years to kick into gear — in particular when it came to popular music. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever examines the sliver of time (January 1973 to December 1977) when, in Hermes’s assessment, the budding decade took on a life of its own. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, punk, salsa, contemporary classical/new music, loft jazz, hip-hop (in its nascent form), and disco (in its all-devouring form) were among us. While the Big Apple, itself quickly rotting from budget cuts, was going down the tubes, its music scene had rarely been so vibrant.
What Hermes, a senior writer for Rolling Stone and an NPR contributor, captures so well is the burbling creative energy that gripped the city. If the sixties had hung on past its expiration date, it now suddenly seemed nothing less than urgent to shake things loose. Thankfully there were talents abounding, itching to rework the music in their own image. Hermes has a full deck of mythic figures to draw from, including Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Hector Lavoe, Tom Verlaine, DJ Kool Herc, Laurie Anderson, David Murray, Arthur Russell, and that perennial icon Bob Dylan.
The grass-roots origins of the different genres, as punk developed in cruddy clubs, disco in sweaty gay nightspots, and hip-hop literally on the streets, remains fascinating and not a little inspiring. New York City in the mid-seventies may have been an open pothole of political ineptitude and public indifference, yet this morass is what got resourceful musicians juiced. To his credit, Hermes devotes a good part of his interweaving narrative to what may be — at least to the broad mainstream of listeners — the least familiar genre: salsa. The infighting, dirty record company dealings, and missed opportunities that litter the tale can break your heart, but Hermes’s lively writing and general enthusiasm make you want to search out gems like The Sun of Latin Music by Eddie Palmieri.
Hermes makes no inflated claims for his chosen era as a musical golden age that we will never know the likes of again. But his big-hearted and inclusive embrace reminds us that the stripped-down aesthetics of such disparate benchmark recordings as The Ramones Leave Home, Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Chic’s Le Freak, and Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town are proof that magic can be pulled off the meanest of streets.