Will Hermes is currently a senior critic for Rolling Stone, as well as being a regular contributor to NPR's "All Things Considered," but he has a distinguished history with the Twin Cities music scene as well. Mr. Hermes began writing for the City Pages in the early '90s, and became the Arts & Music editor in '93, a position he still looks back on with deep affection. He is in town tonight to read from his illuminating new book, Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which is a comprehensive and fascinating study of the New York music scene between the years 1973-77. We were able to ask Mr. Hermes a few questions about both his book and his long love affair with music in advance of his reading tonight at 7 p.m. at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Gimme Noise: Can you tell us a bit about your time in Minneapolis and your experience with City Pages?
Will Hermes: I came to Minneapolis from NYC on a fellowship from the University of Minnesota writing program with the idea of pursuing an English PhD. But I began writing for City Pages, and that seemed way more fun than grad school. I'd finished my MA when Steve Perry offered my a job as Arts & Music editor in '93. I jumped on it, and that was that. To this day, it was the best "job" --- as in a show-up-at-an-office-every-day job --- I've ever had.
GN: What was the first concert you went to? And was your love affair with music an immediate crush?
WH: First club concert: Television at CBGBs. First theater concert: Queen at the Beacon Theater (Night At The Opera tour). First arena concert: Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden, followed shortly thereafter by Led Zeppelin, two nights in a row.
GN: Most books covering this time period tend to focus on one specific music scene, yet you cast a wide net over the punk, jazz, hip-hop, and experimental classical scenes of the time. How do you think these disparate genres were intertwined, and how did they inform the creativity of each other?
WH: Sometimes they were intertwined. Jazz players came to the Salsa Meets Jazz sessions at the Village Gate to hone their chops alongside fierce players. And lots of the salsa players were jazz players too, who studied the music closely, but had to be careful about mixing it into their gigs, for fear of losing the salsa dancers, the core of their audience. Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto both struggled with balancing those two elements.
GN: The book, despite being rooted in a very fixed time and place, is breathing with life and vitality, in part due to the exhaustive links you provided so readers can listen and watch the music you are referring to. Was that a vital part of the process for you--making sure anyone who wasn't fortunate enough to experience the scene firsthand was still able to see and hear the music while they were reading about it?
WH: Actually, when I began the book around 2005, YouTube was in its infancy. It wasn't until later that it became a useful resource, when people were uploading old Super-8 movies of gigs they found in their closet, or rescued 2" video reels of Swedish TV appearances, or whatever. I've been posting the more amazing stuff on my book blog, LoveGoesToBuildingsOnFire.com.
GN: Much has been made about specific landmark moments in music history ('67--the summer of love, '91--the year punk broke, etc...), but you chose to focus instead on what some music critics consider a downtime in the evolution of music. What drew you to that time period in the first place, and why do you think some of these eras get overlooked?
WH: The myth goes that the '60s were halcyon days, the dream crumbled, and then everything sucked until punk and disco came to save us in the late '70s. I love both those eras, but the years between were not a downtime at all---they were an amazing transition period where much of the music we hear today was invented. It just happened under the radar, because innovation takes a while to get recognized. At first, the repetition of disco and minimalist composition, the brute noise of punk, and the multi-culti jump cuts of the loft jazz approach struck most lay people as weird. Now, it's normal.
GN: It seems that at the start of the book, the city of New York (and the grime, crime, and poverty running rampant there) really informed and influenced the music of that era. But at a certain point, it seemed like that trend reversed itself, and the city took on the edge and attitude of the music that was created there. How important was that setting for the music of the mid-'70s, and how did the music created there change how New York City evolved?
WH: I think the intensity and aggression in a lot of the music definitely mirrors life in the city during that era, where you had to put on an angry front just to avoid getting hassled or hustled by junkies or whoever. Certainly cheap rent facilitates art-making whose primary goal is not a big paycheck, and affordable loft spaces allowed people to imagine things a club owner or concert-hall promoter could never present, like LaMonte Young's drone performances. One of them, produced by wave generators in his loft, literally lasted for years. Its a good metaphor for a city that really doesn't have have an off-switch.
Will Hermes will be reading from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire and discussing the music of that era at 7 p.m. tonight at the Minneapolis Central Library as part of their Talk Of The Stacks series. The event is free, and will be immediately followed by an after-party where Mr. Hermes will sign copies of his book.