Punk, Disco and Pop at the Brooklyn Book Festival


Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes (Faber and Faber)

For most of the ‘70s, I was only a toddler, so I obviously wasn’t fully aware of what it was like growing up in New York City until the early ‘80s. Yet, I have developed a strong emotional affinity for the ’70s and ’80s–much more than I do for the ‘90s through today. From what I’ve read in books and magazines and have seen in movies and documentaries, the ‘70s in particular was a really tumultuous and yet exciting period from a musical and cultural standpoint–punk rock was exploding and CBGB was the mecca of that scene. But, so was disco, which reached its cultural apex Studio 54.  While New York 35 years ago was a rough place to live, it was also vibrant and full of possibilities.

That fruitful time in New York music history will be the topic of a discussion, titled Creative Life in NYC – Art, Music and Creative Culture in the 70’s 80’s and Beyond, at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday. The panelists will include guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers of the funk rock band Chic, and the authors Cynthia Carr and James Wolcott. The panel will be moderated by music journalist Will Hermes (Rolling Stone, Spin, The New York Times), who wrote a recent book on about the ‘70s music scene in the Big Apple called Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years That Changed New York Music Forever.

A somewhat ambitious work, Hermes’ excellent book  spans from the years 1973 to 1977. It seamlessly weaves the many different musical events happening in the Big Apple: the birth of punk, hip-hop and disco; the popularity of salsa music; and the flourishing of the loft jazz scene and avante-garde music. Among the many players mentioned in the book include the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Television, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Talking Heads, Anthony Braxton, and the Ramones. (Reading these fascinating and diverse stories conjures up memories of the many articles written by the late music critic Robert Palmer for The New York Times in the ‘70s).

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire also puts the music in the historical context of those crazy times when the city was facing bankruptcy (immortalized in the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”) and crime was more prevalent then as compared to now. Along with the then-current events of the day —  among them Philippe Petit’s high wire act on the World Trade Center, Son of Sam, and the blackout of ’77–the book also contains of Hermes’ memories as a kid growing up in Queens.

Le Freak by Nile Rodgers (Spiegel and Grau)

Meanwhile, Nile Rodgers had a direct front-row seat in the New York Seventies music scene, from being a band member at The Apollo to co-leading Chic, best known for the hit songs “Good Times,” “Everybody Dance,” “Dance, Dance Dance,” and “I Want Your Love.” Last year, he published his entertaining and revealing memoir, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, which contains some really wild anecdotes that capture the excitement and decadence of the disco era.

In one episode from the book, Rodgers describes the time when he and Edwards were denied admission to Studio 54, even though Chic had already established itself as a successful band in the disco genre. Rather than being defeated, Rodgers and Edwards later wrote a song from that experience, whose hook went, “Awww, fuck off–fuck off Studio 54–fuck off.” That was later rewritten as “Le Freak,” which became a number one hit. Needless to say, Rodgers and Edwards became regulars of Studio 54—Rodgers even had his own office in the women’s bathroom of the club. After Chic’s demise in the early ’80s, Rodgers helmed hit albums for David Bowie and a then-young aspiring New York-based singer/dancer named Madonna, whom he first saw perform as an opening act for Jenny Burton at the Roxy.

With Rodgers, Hermes and the other authors sharing stories this coming Sunday, the panel event at the Brooklyn Book Festival really promises to be a very nostalgic look back at the most interesting and unforgettable periods of New York’s cultural history.

“Creative Life in NYC – Art, Music and Creative Culture in the 70’s 80’s and Beyond,” with Nile Rodgers, Cynthia Carr, James Wolcott and Will Hermes, will be held at the Brooklyn Law School Lounge as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza 209 Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, on Sunday Sept. 23, 4pm.; free. For information, visit the Brooklyn Book Festival Web site. 

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