just finished reading “love goes to building on fire“, penned by a mr. will hermes, a music critique for the rolling stone and a contributor to NPR, entertainment weekly, etc.  i read hermes’ record reviews in the past and some were really good.  he is not one of the “fun” critiques who you read even if you don’t care for the music they’re reviewing– those select few are an endangered species:  good writers you just read because you want to read ’em.  rob sheffield used to be one.  now he is trying to be the malcolm gladwell of pop-culture.  not so much fun anymore.  or tony rettman and moe bishop of vice.  or like anthony lane reviewing films for the new yorker– even if i don’t care for the film he is reviewing, i still read anthony lane because he is anthony lane.  same with eileen jones of the exiled.

will hermes belongs to the other school of critiques– not really funny, lacking an original unmistakable voice and any original criticism; they instead rely on their encyclopedical knowledge and utilize it to make musical connections.    you read them only when you need to know about a certain band or an album.  you read them for information with no expectation of fun or enjoyment.  alas, they serve an important purpose– pure information and musical associations & history is sometimes precisely what you need.  and most music critiques fall (or file) into this second group.

mr. hermes, who interestingly is named after a famous scarf maker, is a prime example of this second (and predominant) group of critiques.  the depth of his music knowledge seems infinite.  he can probably make a 3-step association between the creaking of your kitchen floor and pre-bleach michael jackson.  a walking, talking google of modern music.

but, unfortunately, he is not fun to read.   as simple as that.  he is as fun as a public radio DJ.  very knowledgeable but scared of his own shadow; opinionated, but in a very inoffensive, politically correct manner.  he is where he should be– he belongs in post-1980 rolling stone and NPR.  who, incidentally, if was writing for this blog, would have consistently fallen under the “circle jerk” category.  that’s why NPR is fitting– it is the biggest circle jerk of all things considered on this planet…

buildings is a very noble undertaking– a play-by-play musical history of the new york scene in the ’70s– specifically between ’73 and ’78.  the book’s full name is “love goes to buildings on fire: five years in new york that changed music forever”.  it has tons of information, trivial facts and anecdotes but it still fails for three simple reasons, first objective, second slightly and third purely subjective:

1. because mr. hermes picked a narrative style that doesn’t fit him and one he simply cannot pull-off; and

2. because the music that came out of new york, with a few minor exceptions, was pure, unadulterated shit…  but he got the title right– that shitty music coming out of new york really changed music forever (for worse); and

3. because he has a huge crash on patti smith.

let’s start with the criticism on style first: mr. hermes tries to tell his story (and information) by personifying the events and anecdotes.  he attempts to do this by using present tense while describing anecdotes or background stories.  it is a good technique to draw the reader into the heart of the story.  a few random examples:

“Patti Smith walked to Electric Lady Studios from her apartment at 107 MacDougal Street on September 2.”

or

“Saturday night, March 15, Felt Forum, early show.  Al Green is falling apart onstage.”

see– he is trying to make you visualize the scene.  like i said, it is a good technique.  but it is a good technique in the correct hands.  mr. hermes doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.  he should have sticked to dry writing instead of throwing in random paragraphs reading like bad, bad fiction…  then i would have had no qualms with his style.

but, the way he is switching between his tenses, and with his cheap shots in new journalism, he completely turned me off, making me seasick.  mr. hermes ain’t no tom wolfe  and buildings ain’t the “the right stuff”– but that was precisely what mr. hermes aspired to write and failed miserably in his attempts.

if he sticked to his regular writing style, which is dry and informative, with its breadth of information, buildings would have been a great book for those who want to know more about ’70s new york music scene.  but he simply had to go third-rate tom wolfe wannabe on us and it literally funked up the book for me…

which brings me to my second (and subjective) criticism of the book– its content.  no matter how well mr. hermes could have written buildings, this criticism would have stood.

i’ll repeat myself: the music that came out of new york, with a few minor exceptions, was pure, unadulterated shit…  and that shitty music coming out of new york really changed music forever (for worse)…

the book consists of five chapters, one for each year it is reporting on.  and each chapter alternates constantly between six major musical styles: rock, jazz, early hip-hop, new york salsa, its evil offspring disco and avant garde music.   he worships each style and it is all flattery– there is no criticism here.

avant garde music– i don’t get it.  call me stupid, ignorant, whatever, but i don’t think there is anything to get.  unless you dissect it with someone who “knows” or you read a monographs on what you’re listening to.  it is finnegan’s wake without the genius.  at least, even though finnegan’s wake is next to impossible to read cover to cover, if you shuffle through it randomly, you’ll find sentences (and sometimes paragraphs) of sheer genius.  what i feel about avant garde music, on the other hand, is similar to what i feel about conceptual and performance art.

just like conceptual and performance art, if you find the right guide you’ll find moments in avant garde music to make you exclaim “ah!”, but that is about it.  it is just a scam like its “art” counterpart– it makes every pseudo-intellectual cream his pants because they’ve been told they should cream their pants.  it is “good” because it is weird and is hard to understand.  it is “genius” because it requires learning a backstory to make sense of.

i once asked a composer friend, who is also a renowned professor of music, what he made of avant garde music, which he taught to his students.  he simply said “i only listen to it because i’m expected to listen, know and write about it.  but i never listen to it because i want to listen to it”.  enough said…

nicholas payton recently wrote “jazz died in 1959”.  i fully concur.  what is left is “post-modern new orleans music” as he calls it. i love jazz.   and i respect the musicianship of them modern guys, from chick corea to herbie hancock, but i simply don’t like their music.  i find it overproduced and lacking soul.  preach me all you want on mahavishnu orchestra, weather report, yellowjackets, chuck mangione, whatever– it is all overproduced soulless musical calisthenics.

give me ellington, give me gardner, give me miles, monk and coltrane in the 50s, give me django, give me bix, give me gillespie, give me the bird, give me goodman, i’m in heaven…   give me anything modern, ie. after a love supreme, for five minutes, and i’ll confess to the kennedy assassination.

hermes canonizes all the ’70s jazz, with its overproduced fusion nightmare with jazz flutes.  he has a few nice anecdotes about miles and monk, two of my heroes, but that is about it.  that 70s fusion will not stand the test of time and was terrible, terrible music.  i don’t want to hear it, i don’t want to read about it.

early hip-hop– i was happy to read about it.    kool herc and his clan– those were some of the best parts of the book for me.  but then hermes ruins it all by coming out with his boy crush on jay-z and ruins it all up…  cool hip-hop died with eazy muthafa e…

don’t even get me started on the new york salsa.  i like brazilian music, i like spanish music, i like cuban music, i like west african music.  but i hate new york salsa with its shrill trebles and beat-box rhythms.  it is an abomination.  furthermore, it begat disco.  case closed, fire up the ole sparky, read new york salsa its death sentence and get it over with.

disco is the worst thing that happened to music.  started mostly in NYC, thanks to homegrown salsa, and ruined the entire 70s and the 80s, leading up to techno and other assorted crap.  before disco music was a social force.  in the heydays of disco and its resurrection in electronic dance music, the force diminished.  disco and electronic dance music begat yuppies.  disco and electronic music cut the brains of the youth in half…  and mr. hermes glorifies disco.  i’m not even sure if a more detailed statement against disco is necessary here.  res ipsa loquitur…

that brings us to what i know best– rock music…  70s rock, in new york city, was shit with a few minor exceptions.  good rock was coming out of elsewhere, not new york city.  granted, there is television with marquee moon, one of my favorite albums from the 70s.  there is also talking heads’ ’77.  two albums mr. hermes raves about, and rightfully so.  i occasionally play ’77 at my parties and many people who heard it for the first time think it is a new band with a new album.  it is that timeless.  ditto on marquee moon– verlaine was a genius…

hermes also raves about springsteen and born to run, again rightfully so.  and of course dylan’s divorce masterpiece blood on the tracks.  two albums i can’t live without.

but these are exceptions.  good rock was not coming out of new york city in the 70s.  it was coming out of UK, it was coming out of elsewhere in the US.  bowie, clash, sabbath, costello, gang of four, buzzcocks, zappa, purple, floyd, the list is endless, leading up to joy division and then taking a very different turn.

suicide was decent but punk was really coming out of merry ole england, not CBGB.  CBGB is where it landed.  X was the first great american punk band and they came out in 1980.

hermes has a boy crush on them, but spare me the ramones.  they were nothing but a glorified party band.  like cowboy mouth (ironically also the name of the sam shephard play he performed with patti smith) in the 90s. a precursor to the hairbands of the ’80s.   just entertainment.  just a few opportunist boys who saw room for themselves in the CBGB scene.  they won’t stand the test of time.  that’s why they’re a frat-party staple now.

lou reed– what about lou reed?  his post velvet underground work is shit at best.  a few good songs, rest is worthless.  and this is coming from a velvet underground fan…

television, talking heads, springsteen and maybe some suicide– these were pretty much the only keepers that came out of the NYC rock scene of the ’70s…

which brings us to patti smith– i really tried to like her.  as i am writing this, i am listening to horses one last time to find some redeeming words.  but the words won’t come…

patti smith was (and still is) an opportunistic scenester.  hermes has a big crush on her.  like most rock critiques have.  the male of the species has a crush because she was the quintessential female rock star– easy wet dream material for any horny rock loving boy of the 70s.  women critiques loved her because she was the one feminist voice of 70s rock.

but her music was (and still is) shit.  patti smith is nothing but a glorified cover artist.  there, i said it.

she tried to break into the scene as the female reincarnation of jim morrison. she even tells tales of crying over jim morrison’s grave.  granted, her poetry was as bad as morrison’s, but ole jim had the very musical the doors.  patti did not.  jim was a true rock star, patti was a scenester channeling a rock star.  if patti was able to find herself a the doors, she may have pulled something off.  and she tried with verlaine, among others.  but she failed.

even her first major hit was a cover of gloria, a song jim morrison made his own.  and her best song was “because the night”, actually written by springsteen…

hermes even drops a shameful jewel when he is writing about patti smith’s final set in CBGB, where most of the songs are actually covers,  “[she played] the Who’s “My Generation,” which has been part of her repetoire for so long, she’s really a co-owner of it”.  “she’s really a co-owner of it”– my ass.  hendrix is a co-owner of all along the watchtower, otis redding is a co-owner of satisfaction, van (not jim) morrison is a co-owner of gloria, and talking heads is a co-owner of take me to the river.  dylan, jagger/ richards, and reverend al green wouldn’t object.  but i would like to hear what pete townshend would say to patti smith co-owning my generation.  yeah, right…

patti smith is the ultimate opportunistic scenester– starting off with bad poetry and worse acting, she found her niche as a pseudo-feminist jim morrison– without the balls (and i am not saying this in a sexist way)…  her music had no balls.  it was just the right music for the right opportunistic time.

she was a party girl who saw an opportunity and took it.   like nico before her, but with stronger constitution and better con skills.  joan baez would probably be a better analogy though…  same shit, different decade…

she became a drooling icon of horny boys (and hornier male critiques) and a role model of feminist rocknrolla girls.  all part of the master plan for the production “patti smith”.  she is still milking it like the elder feminist rock star– her recent album trampin’ broke out her new persona– as the elder but more sensitive feminist rock star.  the con never ends.  and she just had to include gloria again in the deluxe CD set– just to play it safe…

the male critiques who creamed their pants in the 70s simply by staring at the record sleeve of horses for five minutes ate trampin’ up and the female critiques beatified her as the joan of arc…  but, if you take a step back, ignore all the rave reviews and actually listen to her oeuvre, it is just shit– some barely talented musician playing to the choir…

and this brings me to my conclusion and the best tidbit i got out of buildings:  apparently johnny rotten of the sex pistols said about patti smith and her performance “see the hippie shaking tambourines: ‘Horses, Horses’. Horseshit”.

“horses, horses, horseshit”– it sums up patti smith in three simple words– i can’t agree more…

Advertisements