Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

For Will Hermes, the 1970s took a few years to kick into gear -- in particular when it came to popular music. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever examines the sliver of time (January 1973 to December 1977) when, in Hermes's assessment, the budding decade took on a life of its own. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, punk, salsa, contemporary classical/new music, loft jazz, hip-hop (in its nascent form), and disco (in its all-devouring form) were among us. While the Big Apple, itself quickly rotting from budget cuts, was going down the tubes, its music scene had rarely been so vibrant.

What Hermes, a senior writer for Rolling Stone and an NPR contributor, captures so well is the burbling creative energy that gripped the city. If the sixties had hung on past its expiration date, it now suddenly seemed nothing less than urgent to shake things loose. Thankfully there were talents abounding, itching to rework the music in their own image. Hermes has a full deck of mythic figures to draw from, including Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Hector Lavoe, Tom Verlaine, DJ Kool Herc, Laurie Anderson, David Murray, Arthur Russell, and that perennial icon Bob Dylan.

The grass-roots origins of the different genres, as punk developed in cruddy clubs, disco in sweaty gay nightspots, and hip-hop literally on the streets, remains fascinating and not a little inspiring. New York City in the mid-seventies may have been an open pothole of political ineptitude and public indifference, yet this morass is what got resourceful musicians juiced. To his credit, Hermes devotes a good part of his interweaving narrative to what may be -- at least to the broad mainstream of listeners -- the least familiar genre: salsa. The infighting, dirty record company dealings, and missed opportunities that litter the tale can break your heart, but Hermes's lively writing and general enthusiasm make you want to search out gems like The Sun of Latin Music by Eddie Palmieri.

Hermes makes no inflated claims for his chosen era as a musical golden age that we will never know the likes of again. But his big-hearted and inclusive embrace reminds us that the stripped-down aesthetics of such disparate benchmark recordings as The Ramones Leave Home, Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Chic's Le Freak, and Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town are proof that magic can be pulled off the meanest of streets.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."