Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

love-goes-to-buildings-on-fireNew York City in the 70’s is always great to write about. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1993, nobody really cared about the decade, but since 2000 it’s been the subject of books, documentaries, movies, fashion trends, and just about everything you can license for profit. So why do we have such a fascination with that decade? Perhaps it was because all the peace & love stuff of the 1960’s were over, and the nation’s confidence was scarred by Vietnam? Or was it the riots here at home? Jimi and Janice were dead, the Beatles had broken up, and whatever feeling we all got from Woodstock was ruined at Altamont. Peace & love, they’d say? Well peace my ass! The feeling was rough, and who could illustrate it best? Bruce Springsteen, the great working-class balladeer! The author Will Hermes describes how Springsteen walked into Max’s Kansas City and felt “out of his element,” but the audience loved it! They weren’t flower children in that audience, but Warhol Superstars. The kind of bands that the Warhol crowd went to see weren’t the Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young types, with fringe jackets and love beads; the New York audiences liked the cross-dressing New York Dolls. It was a sleazefest they wanted! Springsteen’s rough look and rough subjects were perfect for the occasion.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (long title, very punk rock of the author) doesn’t gloss anything, and why would it, given that in the 1970’s, gloss couldn’t even stick. If it did, then it would’ve been spray painted over and ended up looking like a subway car. One of the best parts is the chapter Invent Yourself, where Abe Beam (the mayor, in case you don’t know your history) says “I want to be the matchmaker that brings us together.” The author says “well mazel tov, sorta, the city was bankrupt and everybody knew it.” In strides Patti Smith, with her thrift store duds and unfeminine stick figure. She certainly wasn’t a babe, and come to think of it, she looked like a vampire. Her boyfriend (if they were intimate, which I doubt) was an equally skinny artist named Robert Maplethorpe, who everyone must’ve known was gay. This was no hippy chick in a floor-length embroidered gypsy dress with a flower in her hair-that was San Francisco shit, and this was 1973 New York City. Mayor Beam wanted to be a peacemaker, and it obviously didn’t work. Everyone saw him as a silly little accountant in a silly little suit. He was way out of his depth, over his head, and with the rough look of the time, way more “out of his element” than Bruce Springsteen in a club full of cross-dressers!

I’d better remind everyone here, 90% of the characters in this story weren’t even from New York. Patti Smith was from New Jersey, Iggy Pop was from Detroit, Lou Reed was from Nassau County, the Ramones were from Queens, Warhol was from Pittsburg, etc. Manhattan always attracts outsiders from all over the USA (E.B. White said the same thing in his essay Here Is New York.) Perhaps that’s why the “noo-yawk” accent has vanished, except in Staten Island. But after their careers were established, a lot of these people left the city. Patti Smith moved to Michigan, several Warhol superstars went to other cities (Billy Name went upstate, Viva got kicked out of the Chelsea Hotel and moved to LA), and countless artists and musicians moved elsewhere. Manhattan, bankrupt and derelict, was perfect for men and women who didn’t mind it rough, but it wasn’t a place to raise kids. The schools were crap, the food was lousy, and when you want to have a family, safety becomes paramount.

Those of you who watched the documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell know that NYC in the 70’s wasn’t a place to raise kids, find happiness, drop out, find free love. It was for people who liked it rough. Punk rock, hip-hop, Latin pop, it could only happen in the most non-judgmental city in America, where high fashion meant dirty clothes, and torn jeans couldn’t keep you down. If transvestites could be accepted, then who wouldn’t be?

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