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Reviewed by Greg Beets, December 16, 2011, Music

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

by Will Hermes
Faber and Faber, 384 pp., $30

"There's a pulse in New York," George Carlin once said, "even on the quietest street, on the quietest day. It's full of potential." That certainly rang true in the mid-1970s. Despite a bleak backdrop of high crime and crumbling infrastructure, New York birthed a fruitful musical renaissance that went on to transform popular culture several times over. Punk was born on the Lower East Side. Hip-hop emerged from street jams powered by illegally hot-wired streetlights in the South Bronx. DJ Nicky Siano cultivated the disco aesthetic at the Gallery, while Philip Glass became synonymous with minimalism. Jazz was reinvented in downtown lofts like Studio Rivbea, and salsa music exploded with sold-out shows at Yankee Stadium. Borrowing a phrase from Talking Heads, Rolling Stone senior critic Will Hermes deftly encapsulates how cheap rents in a decaying cultural epicenter led to the rapid-fire, cross-genre evolution of music between 1973 and 1977. This rapidly unspooling chronological approach imbues the narrative with energy and suspense even when you know what comes next. Occasionally hearkening back to anecdotes from his adolescence in Queens, Hermes documents the era with the longing of someone just a few subway stops away from the right place at the right time. By jumping from genre to genre, he incants the wide-open creative spirit of the time, marveling at the notion of Richard Hell, Steve Reich, Patti Smith, Kool Herc, and Hector Lavoe collectively honing their artistic identities within blocks of one another. Garbage strikes, blackouts, terror bombings, and serial killers are no match for the march of musical progress. An upscale menswear boutique now resides in the space once occupied by CBGB, its graffiti-covered walls covered by Plexiglas like a museum piece, but the influence of music pioneered in New York during the mid-1970s shows no sign of waning.

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