Saturday, January 28, 2012

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever (Faber & Faber, 2011).

The very best gifts are the things that you would have wanted had you known they existed. For my birthday last month, my friend David found me this remarkably dense look at the music of New York City from 1973-77. It attempts to touch on everything, and doesn't even really need to draw lines between the movements and the subcultures. Just laying out the facts and anecdotes chronologically pulls everything together. I knew that I wanted to read it immediately, and I knew that I needed to, quickly, as another friend, Ric, saw it and said to hurry up with it so that he could borrow it.

It's a dense book, and sometimes difficult to follow, since a reader has no idea whether the new players who appear in the narrative will be making any long-term impact. Philip Glass spends so long working on some composition that I started to wonder whether he'd already premiered it and I missed out, and there's some art chick who makes "music" by running her finger around a wine glass. She seems to show up for a page and then vanishes completely. The fellows from the terrific band Television are introduced by their real names and we follow them for a few pages before their stage names are revealed and I understood why I was reading about them.

I certainly brought a busload of my own bias to the book. I'd have been thrilled with a history of the CBGBs and Bottom Line groups; the diversions - and they're not diversions, but a vital and vibrant part of the story - into early hip-hop and salsa music left me skimming without reading at first. But everything in the area at that time gets equal coverage, and it's fascinating. I had never read the details of Patti Smith's horrible injury in 1977; I don't know whether anybody can without wincing. I also had no idea just how many boyfriends she had at the time. Gracious!

The history was certainly fascinating, but I really enjoyed the memoir that weaves through the narrative. The author was a teenager at the time, and not entirely able to enjoy the city's music scene to its full extent, but I do love memoirs of the 1970s. This one shows the New York music scene to be every bit as elitist and backstabbing as any college town's, with acts on the in and acts on the out, and a sense of confusion as to how any of these guys could get their shit together long enough to do anything on the national stage. It's great stuff, and while not at all a breezy read, it's certainly recommended.

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