Sunday, July 1, 2012

I Love (Listening to Music In) New York

People can usually recount the music that they first loved. There is usually a song or a work or a genre that unexpectedly stopped them in their tracks, became the object of fascination, and transformed their thinking or behavior, staking out new directions for listening, selfhood, and social interaction. (In fact, it's the subject of a new call for papers over at the IASPM-US blog). Of course, as we tried to show in the My Music Project, first-loved music music doesn't always have to be in the form of a single work or follow the prescriptions of genre. Often, the musical experiences that end up changing our lives when we are young are the result of both random discoveries and careful choices, a complex accumulation of encounters that reflects our developing needs and personalities. Each of us is constantly building "idioculture" of sound that declares who we are and who we want to be.

For those lucky enough to have grown up in a rich musical context--shaped by access to a supportive teacher, a decent radio market, a wide-ranging parental record collection, or a city supporting diverse music scenes--one's musicality can develop in especially interesting ways. Such is the case with Will Hermes, a senior critic for Rolling Stone editor and NPR contributor, who, in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, describes an amazing time of transition in New York City's musical history between 1973 and 1977, a time when he was lucky enough to participate, however tangentially. While the book's organization--episodic paragraphs covering diverse music scenes of New York, year by year in five chapters--might seem only slightly more engaging than researching the Village Voice concert calendar, Hermes transforms that mundane chronological framework with commentary that is detailed, self-deprecating, and touchingly enthusiastic. He's admirably both a critic and a fan in this history, and without getting into the whole "aca-fan" ("crit-fan"?) thing, it works.

Avant garde jazz, latin jazz, fusion, salsa, minimalism, electronic music, disco, rock, proto-punk, hip hop--it all gets equal attention in each year, allowing us to see the same musicians as they develop their different art forms over time and also enabling us to map their chance encounters and deeper interactions. Hermes' carefully constructs our awareness of historical simultaneity by juxtaposing on the page performances, recording sessions, block parties, underground dances, acid trips, bar fights, and burgeoning partnerships happening the same night in separate neighborhoods and boroughs, or even down the street from one another. Hermes did not experience himself everything he writes about (he was 14 years of age in 1975 and not exactly of clubbing age), but even an adult with all the money and time in the world could not have done so. Instead, he presents New York's changing musical life with an wide-enough scope (what he calls "panoramic, telescopic, superhero vision") to best account for the historical transformations underway in the city. We learn of Hermes buying records at The Music Box on Union Turnpike in Queens, seeing the Ramones at Hammerheads bar on Long Island, failing to get into Studio 54, and adopting Peter Frampton-style hair to get girls. But we also learn about the "First Latin Soulrock Fiesta" at Yankee Stadium in 1973; the legendary fight between The Dictators' Dick Manitoba and transvestite singer Wayne County at CBGBs in 1975; the financial struggles of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson as they prepared a production of Einstein on the Beach. We see a young The result feels personal but shared; it's a kind of collective becoming-a-fan story, noting a moment when many different people, unknown to each other in a huge, damaged, and unpredictable metropolis, used music as a means for cultivating new meaning and negotiating their survival. For more on the book, go to the book's multimedia blog.

That brings me to a quick mention of another book I just finished, appropriately, right after Loves Goes to Buildings: Patti Smith's Just Kids. It is a surprisingly touching and poetic memoir, describing her early years in New York City with then-struggling artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As with Keith Richards' Life, I was struck by how much the act of listening to records meant to Smith. She and Mapplethorpe barely had enough money for food most of the time, but throughout the book, their few cherished records seem to provide them the inspiration to go on:
We didn't have the money to go to concerts or movies or to buy new records, but we played the ones we had over and over. We listened to my Madame Butterfly as sung by Eleanor Steber. A Love Supreme. Between the Buttons. Joan Baez and Blonde on Blonde. Robert introduced me to his favorites--Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin--and his History of Motown provided the backdrop for our nights of communal joy (45).
That's a collection Hermes--and perhaps many other New Yorkers--would understand.

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