Thursday, February 9, 2012

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

In my last two years at SUNY-Binghamton, I was General Manager of Slipped Disc, the school’s record store that carried everything from Asia to Aztec Camera, from The Modern Jazz Quartet to The Modern Lovers. Those were fun years. We were at the center of campus music along with the superlative radiomen and women at WHRW, and the live music titans over at Binghamton Concerts. Good times.

Here’s what I remember of Will Hermes: backpack laden, rushing into the store at high speed, very friendly, extremely enthusiastic and, for some reason, I always see him carrying a pita stuffed with hummus from the upstairs food co-op. I think that’s all accurate; it’s been a while, coming on 30 years.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will’s new book, is an eminently enjoyable read, short pieces making a narrative whole. Will’s snippets skip from genre to genre like a top notch radio show, an eclectic group of word songs with intermittent first person reflections from DJ Hermes. The panoramic presentation of earth-shaking music erupting from New York from 1973-77, and how it influenced all that would follow, is almost too much to grasp. There was so much going on in such a small area.

Will’s personal asides are a treat. His account of riding his bike along treacherous Queens terrain to buy records from Korvettes made me flashback to my own quasi-daring rides to my local branch of the store, much further east in Lake Grove, Suffolk County. After a well thought out purchase, I would return home, scanning the cover intently, hands off the handlebars, occasionally checking traffic. It was self-created danger.

That’s as close as I get to similarity. Will mentions that from the apartment building rooftop he could see Manhattan. From the top of my suburban house in Long Island, I could see the top of another suburban house in Long Island. Maybe that’s why, at comparable ages, he was taking the subway to see Springsteen and I was listening to Top 40 on WNBC.

Here’s a secret: I never really loved the sounds of 1970’s New York, never feeling the same deep thrill for Patti Smith or Talking Heads as I did for The Clash or The Jam. (Springsteen is the lone rock exception, though he is both part and apart from the cool crowd). Well, maybe for The Ramones, though for reasons inexplicable to me to this day, I never had the urge to see them live. There was something about the New York scene I couldn’t wrap my arms around and give a big hug. A little cold, a little affected. There’s a quote in the book about how David Byrne didn’t twitch unless he said to himself, “time for a twitch.” I paraphrase here. It’s a better comment than that, but exemplifies my take on the band. Even the King of New York rock, Lou Reed, doesn’t really do it for me (though The Velvets did).

Talking with another college pal, I put forth the notion that The Jam was a better group than The Clash, despite the Strummer hagiography. That led to a discussion on the Top Five of the era. I think I had The Jam, The Clash, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols. My friend Jimmy said, “What about Talking Heads?” I was a tad stunned. I never think of them in that light, as among the cream of the crop. But I know that out of my peer group mainstream thought.

(A Talking Heads aside. They played the arena in Broome County at the height of their Speaking in Tongues popularity. Someone I knew from school offered me coke and I declined. I was never a drug taker, though not from any position of morality. Just wasn’t interested. Anyway, my pal, shocked, said, “It’s free,” as if finances were the only logical reason to demur. I still said no. The next day, he (I wish I could remember who it was) told me that I was the only person he’d ever met who said no to free cocaine).

There is one musician of the period I did revere: tenor man David Murray. Will’s descriptions of the emerging jazz loft scene are my favorite parts of the book. I first saw Murray at Binghamton, acting and playing in a post-apocalyptic drama written by Amiri Baraka and picketed by Jewish student groups. (I’m betting Will was there). I was hooked on the man. Whether solo, big band or in the World Saxophone Quartet, Murray became my go-to guy. His album The Healers, recorded with Randy Weston, was my most played album of 1987-88.

Like any great music book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire has me checking on artists I’d long ignored, like Steve Reich. I used to feel bad about not knowing everything, or not being cutting edge, but I realize there was only so much time to listen and, back in those days, only so much money to buy records. Choices were difficult to make. I’m not quite ready to dive into salsa, but I’m sure I will, ‘cuz Will Hermes thinks I should.

Get the book, read it, and learn. Then listen.

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