Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever
From post-Dylan Greenwich Village, to arson-scarred South Bronx barrios where salsa and hip-hop were born, to Lower Manhattan lofts where jazz and classical music were reimagined, to ramshackle clubs like CBGBs and the Gallery, where rock and dance music were hot-wired for a new generation...
Excerpted from Excerpted from Chapter 1: Wild Side Walking (footnotes omitted) from Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes, published in November 2011 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Will Hermes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
On October 31, the New York Dolls played the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom. Their debut LP had been out for three months—Ellen Willis, The New Yorker’s pop music critic, wrote that it had “virtually no competition as the most exciting hard-rock album of the year”—and although they did a week of shows at Max’s in late August, this was their New York City coming-out party. They’d just returned from their first proper tour; they’d been on TV in Los Angeles, and Johansen had been jailed in Memphis for “lewd public behavior” and “inciting a riot” after a boy kissed him on the lips during a show.
The Halloween homecoming gig was conceived as a spectacle. The promoter, Howard Stein, took out a full-page ad in The Village Voice. Tickets were steep at $7.50, though they automatically entered the holder in the Best Costume competition (one prize: a weekend for three at a hotel in Newark). The Waldorf-Astoria was the epitome of uptown, uptight, upper-crust New York; whoever agreed to give the ballroom over to the Dolls and their wasted fans was either clueless or wickedly subversive.
By midnight, a thousand-some freaks of various stripes were packed into the ballroom entryway, pressing against doors that were supposed to have opened at 11:00. Tempers flared, doors were smashed, and someone lit a stink bomb in the hotel lobby in protest. Security guards admitted a portion of the mob, but hundreds were turned away. Arthur Bell described the scene as “Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and Joel Grey in Cabaret by the dozens, chains and hoods, silver buttocks, scarlet breasts, dildoed noses,” with old-school trannies washing down Demerol capsules with swigs of whiskey. It even occasioned a lock-up-your-daughters (and sons) TV news report by Tony Hernandez of WNBC. Walking through the crowd, he described the Dolls as “a rock group with an aura of bisexuality” and as “a group of five tough Brooklyn street kids.”
“The Dolls usually play at a sound level of 130 decibels!” Hernandez bellowed at the camera. “A jet plane at take-off has a decibel level of 115!”
The band finally came onstage at about two a.m., with Johansen in a white tux and a black top hat: for a dude who generally walked around in semi-drag, men’s clothing constituted a Halloween costume. They proceeded to play what may have been their greatest gig. By the finalé of “Frankenstein,” Johansen was shirtless, yelling into the mic with his top hat teetering on his head and his lush brown curls sticking to both sides of his face.
“New Yawk City!” he shouted near the song’s end, in his camp Howlin’ Wolf–meets–storefront–preacher delivery. “It’s Halloween, and it’s the night you’re all gonna get down and do it really evil if you’re ever gonna do it at all... And before you go home tonight to do it, I’m gonna ask you one question about yourself: Do you think that...”
Johnny Thunders hit a monstrous power chord.
“...you can make it...”
Another Thunders explosion, this one lower, gurgling, the sound a man makes after being poisoned and before he falls to the ground.
Thunders’s and Sylvain’s guitars hurled feedback; Johansen yelled
“Happy Halloween, everybody!” over the squall, grinned broadly, pivoted in his top hat, and strutted offstage, turning to throw a kiss perfectly synched with one last Thunders power chord.
A few days later the Dolls were back in England for the first time since Billy Murcia’s death. Their most important gig was on the BBC music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, hosted by the absurdly tweedy Bob Harris, who introduced them with withering condescension as practitioners of “mock rock.” Their performance of “Jet Boy” and “Looking for a Kiss” made an incalculable impression on countless impressionable youths. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalled the future Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. “They was just all falling about all over the place, all their hair down, all knocking into each other. Had these great big platform boots on. They just didn’t give a shit, y’know? I thought it was great.”
The future president of the New York Dolls fan club and future lead singer of the Smiths, Steven Morrissey, was also watching. “I was thirteen,” he recalled, “and it was my first real emotional experience.”
“It’s ten o’clock: Do you know where your children are?”
To answer the question posed nightly by an ominous broadcaster’s voice on the bump before the 10:00 p.m. Channel 5 news: my parents’ children—me and my sister, Liz—were usually in our rooms, either asleep or pretending to be. I’d stay up reading comics like Unexpected or Ghost Rider, mags like MAD and National Lampoon, or books by Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft while listening to Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Yes, or ELP. My allowance was five dollars a week. The Korvettes department store sold new records at three for ten dollars. But the Music Box on Union Turnpike sold used titles for one or two bucks. It was run by Keith, a glam rocker with long straight hair and bangs. He had a band called the Brats, who I’d never actually heard; they had a following and eventually became regulars at Max’s. He’d point things out for me. By the end of ’73, I’d begun a decent record collection.
Other than as a sensationalist news item, the New York Dolls didn’t make it onto television in their hometown. The only real outlet for rock on TV at the time was ABC ’s In Concert, channel 7, Fridays at 11:30 p.m., simulcast on WPLJ 95.5 FM. Whenever my father went to bed early, I’d sneak down to the basement and watch the procession of British acts. The show gave me my first black-and-white glimpse of a rock concert that August: the Electric Light Orchestra (not bad, I thought) with Black Oak Arkansas (lame). I sat there, riveted, until the station signed off the air, footage of an American flag flapping in the wind while “The Star-Spangled Banner”—not Hendrix’s—wheezed away in the background. What was happening in Manhattan, I had no idea.
In 1963, as music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Steve Reich pulled together a group with his Mills College cohorts Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten. The idea was to create an improvisatory music-theater piece with dancers, brightly colored lights, and chaotic/hypnotic music. Soon afterward, Lesh (and later Constanten) joined the Grateful Dead. In his memoir, Lesh describes the Mime Troupe production— titled Event III/Coffee Break—as the prototype for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, the “happenings” that help launch the Dead’s musical journey.
Reich, meanwhile, followed a different path. Raised on the Upper West Side, he’d studied music and philosophy upstate at Cornell, continued his music studies at Juilliard on West Sixty-sixth Street, then headed west to Mills in Oakland, where he worked with the composer Luciano Berio. Like his pal Lesh, Reich fell hard for the music of John Coltrane, whose gigs he caught whenever possible, often at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach. Around the time of his Mime Troupe stint, Reich began experimenting with magnetic tape, making loops and collages. He also began a working relationship with Terry Riley, a composer who lived down the street from him.
In the fall of ’64, Riley—well known in Reich’s circles—attended a concert by Reich’s group at the Mime Troupe theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. Bored, he left midway through it. The next day, Reich walked down the block to Riley’s garage, where Riley kept his piano, and confronted him about the previous evening. They smoothed things over, and Riley showed Reich a new composition written on a single sheet of paper.
In C was a series of fifty-three melodic modules, each to be repeated by each group member as often as he or she liked, until moving on to the next, each at his or her own pace. It was simplistic, anarchic, and, in practice, ecstatic. Reich loved it and offered to help arrange it. That November, the piece premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, with Reich playing percussion and his girlfriend playing piano. It received a rapturous review in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reich was completely taken with the piece. He began experimenting with repetitive structures.
The first fruit was It’s Gonna Rain, composed for multiple tape loops of a preacher’s voice that begin in unison and gradually slip out of phase. Reich was still interested in performing with live musicians, though. So in the fall of ’65, with hippie culture heating up and Lesh having run off to join the circus, Reich headed back to New York, where he figured he’d have better luck finding kindred spirits.