The title isn’t hyperbole. Like the book itself, it’s poetry. Will Hermes, a senior critic with Rolling Stone and long time All Things Considered contributor, takes us on a journey through what was alternately one of the bleakest and brightest moments in New York City history.
In the early ‘70s NYC teetered on bankruptcy, crime had reached proportions that can best be described as frightening, and the hellish urban decay hounds gorged themselves on the carcasses of hopes and dreams in the five boroughs. The same era that gave us Blondie and Talking Heads and Television also gave us Son of Sam, the rise of the heroin trade, Metal Machine Music, and the death of the Hippy Dream.
The book opens on 1 January 1973 with a late night show at the Mercer Arts Center, a split bill featuring the Modern Lovers and those New York Dolls and essentially closes on 1977’s final night with Chic’s Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards being turned away from Studio 54 only to go home and right the once ubiquitous “Le Freak”. Between those two points are the birth and rise of CBGB, the birth of disco and hip-hop, Philip Glass’s emergence as a Serious Composer, and the many shades of salsa.
Hermes doesn’t attempt to tell the complete story of any genre he takes up; rather, he gives us vignettes, extended stanzas that blare and blur like the amplified heat coming from clubs and lofts of the city in the sweltering summers and hard winters chronicled here. There are blasts and bursts galore as Celia Cruz, Patti Smith, and Grace Jones appear alongside Jon Landau, Lester Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and The Ramones.
There’s the demise of the New York Dolls, the slow descent of Johnny Thunders into the life of addiction and desperation that would eventually take him, Lou Reed’s what-the-hell moment with the aforementioned Metal Machine Music, Fania Records, the Fania All-Stars, graffiti artists and the ill fates of too many of New York’s promising minds. We see the seeds of Tom Verlaine’s brilliant career as he and Richard Hell take on the city together only to later have their working relationship––if not their friendship itself––fall apart.
There are scores of stories about important gigs, about important paths crossing, and the inspiration behind some of the era’s greatest music––indeed, some of the greatest American music––and always the presence of a city falling deeper into the abyss. In 1996 the poet T.R. Hummer published the book Walt Whitman In Hell, and its titular epic would imagine the man of vast appetites not crossing a Brooklyn ferry but emerging from the bowels of the New York City subway and into the multitudes of the grotesque. Reading Hermes’ book its not hard to imagine what the great poet would have thought of the great city in decline and, like in that work, elbows rub and we witness the vastness and beauty and decrepitude of the Great Mouth of America. As someone once blurted, “Take a bite of the Big Apple. Don’t mind the maggots.”
There is but one major criticism of this work and that’s the epilogue––an imagination-stifling moment that tells us too much about the future rather than letting us stay in the past’s beautiful dream. Still, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is not the less necessary for this.