Essays about the New York music scene in the 1970s.
David Dinkins may have been hyperbolizing in the early '90s, but in 1973 New York City really was a gorgeous mosaic. It was filthy, dysfunctional, riddled with corruption, debt and factionalism, yes -- but gorgeous. No one wants to romanticize poverty, struggle and dirt, but compared with the theme park Manhattan has become, even clear-headed thinkers can succumb to nostalgia.
Will Hermes thankfully does not succumb, but he does re-create. His purview is music criticism -- a much and often justly maligned genre -- and he does an expert turn here in his book about the music scene in 1970s New York, moving between musical genres and the human worlds they contained with the light-headed excitement of a bright grad student who's transferring from one subway line to another.
Hermes' main love seems to have been punk, and from Patti Smith's first gig to her latest, 39 years later, there's not much that went on that Hermes doesn't seem to cover. Every bar fight, rehearsal session, absurd rumor and storied romance is there, along with Hermes' love of the music itself. His enthusiasm, fortunately, doesn't lead to absurd excess, unlike Smith's description of Thom Verlaine's guitar as "the sound of a thousand bluebirds screaming."
Instead, he steers a steady course between shop talk and ecstatic elegy. (His take on the same instrumental: "[it was] ... accelerated but incandescent, notes stabbing like knives.")
Hermes covers every other genre -- disco, hip-hop, salsa, and postmodern opera -- with equally intense, note-for-note scrutiny. He manages not to descend into jargon, even when dealing with jazz or 12-tone modernism, music for which an acquaintance with music theory is almost a requirement.
Outside of some very decent criticism, Hermes' book is valuable for the history of human connection running through it. Every small incident is infused with larger municipal -- therefore human -- issues. For each grungy rehearsal session, every scratched-out innovation in a DJ's childhood bedroom, Hermes gives us a taste of city planning, racial politics and legal mayhem.
This was a time when Laurie Anderson could try to hitchhike to the North Pole while junkies were drilling a giant hole through the wall in her apartment, when people had giant open-air boom-box battles under the summer sky in Fort Tryon Park, and when artists went home in tears from unsuccessful first gigs only to rule the world of record scratching a few months later.
Was it Frank Zappa or Elvis Costello who said that music criticism was "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for the benefit of people who can't read?" And which one of them said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"? Either or both can be true, but if you are young and still excited about something and you've been hearing and seeing it at a club until 4 a.m., you want to grab someone like Will Hermes, who's also jazzed up but maybe a little more informed, and sit talking with him at a diner about the show, and how it relates to other shows before and the shows to come, until long after the sun comes up on whatever it is, these days, that makes up a piece of your own mosaic.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."