Sunday, April 01, 2012
We Burned This City
In the midst of a 1977 London press conference that suddenly went haywire, an enraged Patti Smith threw food, jumped on a table and laid down the law. “I’m the field marshal of rock ‘n’ roll,” she announced. “I’m declaring fucking war!”
Smith had as much claim to the title as anyone, but as Will Hermes demonstrates in this excellent memoir-cum-pop-culture history, the war in the mid-1970s — the one against the status quo, played out in New York City and reverberating elsewhere — had revolutionaries on several fronts, all doing their own thing, and feeding off each other.
Taking the chronological approach, with a specific geographical focus on New York City between the years 1973 to 1977, Hermes does for the music and culture of the 1970s something like what Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life did for the 1980s underground: He expands and enriches the era, going well beyond what you might think you think know, or remember, and finds roots and connections in surprising places.
He ably tackles the familiar punk turf of CBGB’s-era New York — the New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Patti, Television, Talking Heads — but he also takes in a much wider scope: hip-hop, salsa, Latin music, avant-garde classical and experimental jazz, and he shows how the mix-and-match clash of all these cultures, nestled side by side or within each other, were creating the music of the future.
The battleground was a city in the throes of a worst-of-times-best-of-times upheaval: saddled with mounting debt, high crime, empty buildings, piles of garbage and terrorist bombings, all of which only helped energized the city’s musicians and artists.
Somewhere amid the rise and fall of the Dolls, the arrival of Patti Smith and Television at a grungy new club called CBGB’s, and the first Ramones LP, punk rock was born. So was hip-hop and (alas) disco.
DJs like Afrika Bambaataa discovered new ways of jumping musical barriers, “demonstrating that genres, like racial divisions, were largely false constructs.” A random pressing of a dance hit on a 12-inch record proved a revelation: the beats were bigger, fatter and easier to manipulate. A DJ named Theodore Livingston discovered, quite by accident, that if you stopped a record with your hand and moved it back and forth, you created a rhythm. Elsewhere, classical musicians like Steve Reich and Philip Glass (a cabbie by day) introduced electric keyboards into their music and dreamed big orchestral abstract dreams. The Latin musicians on the Fania freely mixed jazz, soul, rock and anything else that came to mind. Uptown, Anthony Braxton was stretching the limits of experimental jazz; downtown, Television’s Tom Verlaine was charming the marquee moon out of the sky. Physically and culturally, the city was on fire.
Also, major artists were finding their focus in ways that, in perspective, seem to reflect each other. In one particularly astute aside, Hermes compares two classics: Springsteen’s Born to Run and Smith’s Horses, both released within months of each other in 1975. They were widely different in style, one drawing from classic rock and one bristling with punk energy, but both were total statements of purpose that had everything in common: “both South Jersey kids were maximalists, given to extended and verbose songs. And both embraced rock ‘n’ roll as a kind of religion.
Springsteen was more the fundamentalist, testifying to old-school verities; Smith was more the Sufi-style mystic. But, at core, both were telling stories of escape, from narrow hometowns and narrow conceptions of life’s possibilities.”
Hermes is great throughout the book at finding ways in which musicians took from each other and made something different, whether it’s a salsa composer named Larry Harlow who turned to The Who’s Tommy to create Hommy: A Latin Opera or a minimalist composer named Rhys Chatham who found inspiration in Johnny Ramones all-out guitar attack.
“After all,” as Hermes states somewhere near the end, “making music is never about ‘inventing’ the ‘new’; its about the past reemerging in the present, becoming again, like the Buddhist concept of punarbhava.”
The word means rebirth, and that’s what this book is about.
(Originally published in Columbia, S.C. Free-Times.)