Sunday, April 6, 2014

New York in the ‘70s: Will Hermes, Martin Gottfried, & Sam Wasson

During an economic free fall, the city 
crumbled, but the performing arts electrified

     When Howard Cosell said, during the 1977 World Series, “The Bronx is burning,” it really was.  Fires in the Bronx and bombings in Manhattan were commonplace in the ‘70s, an era that Will Hermes resurrects with extraordinary detail and an encyclopedic knowledge of the music scenes in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire:  Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever (2011).  Hermes is a senior critic for Rolling Stone, but he writes in the exciting, all-encompassing style of
a top historian that’s accessible.

     He’s amazingly at home in the development of Salsa, the Jazz loft scene, the Minimalist movement in classical music, Soho-Bowery punk, and hip hop Rap.  Rolling Stone has
generally only been strong in the Rock genre, but Hermes revitalizes all of these genres.  His explication of the development of hip hop rhythm and the rhymed talking of DJs at Bronx block parties and rec room hangouts recasts that whole movement completely.  It was about dance and creating a great beat.  The philosophical and political themes emerged much later.  Punk actually started with The Stooges before finding its footing in New York, then being supplanted in London.  

     The other enlightening element becomes the connections that the various composers-performers made with each other, regardless of genre.  This was strongest in the Salsa and Jazz worlds, but also for the Punk and Minimalist musicians.  Hip-hop was practically sui generis and was most emblematic of young people creating an art form almost accidentally with whatever was at hand.  It’s a fascinating book because Hermes keeps referring to other major news and political stories as a background, rather than a context, for the music.  

Signed copy of Broadway Musicals reading
"For Neil—You and I love best these shows
-Martin Gottfried"
     Hermes doesn’t touch upon Broadway, but Martin Gottfried definitively covered the subject in Broadway Musicals – one of the smartest and most beautiful coffee table books ever – and More Broadway Musicals, which showed that the British and money were not substitutes for American ingenuity.  Gottfried was an erudite, accessible critic who died earlier this month.  Neil and I met him when he presented a few years back at the Playhouse in the Park and he was a true gentleman of the theatre.

     Gottfried wrote a number of notable theatre professionals’ biographies, including All His Jazz (1990) about Bob Fosse, who flourished in ‘70s New York.  Gottfried’s book was especially strong in tracing Fosse’s development as a choreographer and describing dance in such a way that a reader with little background in that art could understand it.
Sam Wasson’s Fosse (2013) pushes further on the agony of creation, especially when overwhelming insecurity can lead to brilliant results.  

     One undercurrent in the three books is that economic adversity motivated invention, but also provided an affordable living environment.  Yes, it was falling apart, but unknown and famous artists could concentrate on creation.  Once New York went upscale and became family friendly, the artistic lightning rod dimmed.

No comments: