Exclusive Book Excerpt: 'Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever'

Read about the early days of Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and the New York Dolls in Will Hermes' new chronicle

November 8, 2011 11:20 AM ET
Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, 1975 (Photograph by Ken Regan, excerpted from Love Goes to Buildings On Fire)
Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, 1975 (Photograph by Ken Regan, excerpted from Love Goes to Buildings On Fire)
Photograph by Ken Regan/Camera 5, excerpted from 'Love Goes to Buildings On Fire.'

'Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever,' by Rolling Stone contributor Will Hermes and available today, chronicles the period between 1973-1978 during which punk, hip-hop, salsa and other revolutionary forms of popular music were born or reinvented. In this exclusive excerpt, Hermes tells the stories of three era-defining musical beginnings: the collaboration of punk pioneers Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, the early days of the New York Dolls and the legacy of jazz legend Sonny Rollins.

Tom Miller was tripping his balls off on LSD in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. The next thing he knew, a week later, he was in New York City, crashing in a crappy East Village apartment with his old friend Richard Meyers. They were both 19 years old.

They'd met at Sanford, a boarding school for ne'er-do-wells and other types near Wilmington. Meyers was raised in Lexington, Kentucky, a town shadowed by the Lexington Narcotics Farm rehab facility, where William Burroughs and Sonny Rollins, among many others, had taken the cure. At 15, Meyers stole and wrecked a car; he was suspended from school and wound up at Sanford, but didn't last long there. By late '66, he headed to New York City. He was besotted with Dylan Thomas, and intent on being a poet.

Miller stayed in touch and eventually followed. "Will be coming up Friday for good," Miller wrote to him in the summer of '68, scrawling on loose leaf paper in ballpoint ink. "Had first acid trip on last Friday. Fucked me up and I know I found out some shit about everything." In the center of the page is a smiling cartoon figure caught in a whirlpool. Miller added that he'd probably be broke, and hoped Meyers and his girlfriend wouldn't mind him being around. He signed the missive, "Love, Tommy Poop."

Soon enough, Miller had a room at the seedy Village Hotel on Bleecker Street. He also saw himself as a poet. He and Meyers were now in thrall to the French Decadents, Baudelaire and Lautréamont, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Bréton and the Surrealists. Meyers was already self-publishing a tiny poetry magazine, Genesis: Grasp. The final issue, completed in 1971, featured a mysterious woman named Theresa Stern. Her poetry was actually the collaborative work of Meyers and Miller, her photo a composite of the two young men in drag. They liked the female alter ego, who Meyers imagined as a Hoboken hooke; a Stern chapbook called Wanna Go Out? followed.

They also adopted individual aliases – Tom Miller became Tom Verlaine, in honor of the poet; Richard Meyers became Richard Hell, in honor of the locale and Rimbaud's Une Saison en Enfer. Having enjoyed collaborative poetry, they turned their attention to music. Verlaine, who studied classical music and played sax in high school, worshipped Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. He'd begun playing guitar, further inspired by Hendrix, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's John McLaughlin, and the Grateful Dead's improv epic "Dark Star." Shortly after he'd arrived in New York, he picked up a Fender Jazzmaster for ninety-five dollars up on 48th Street, and eventually persuaded Hell to buy a Danelectro bass at a pawnshop on Third Avenue.

Hell, who'd never studied music, was a fan of the Stooges. The two shared a love of the Velvet Underground, for the tight, mid-'60s British Invasion rock of the Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, and the Who; and for the gnarly mid-to late-'60s American garage rock of bands like the Seeds and the Standells. Their taste for the latter had been stoked recently. Verlaine bought a box of old singles from a Hare Krishna kid in Washington Square, and also picked up the double-LP anthology titled Nuggets, released in the fall of '72. A hard-boiled mix of the familiar and the forgotten, it was compiled by a rock critic, musician, and record-store clerk named Lenny Kaye, who called the music "punk-rock" in the liner notes. Like Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music – also curated by an erudite, record-collecting New Yorker – it caught the ears of many musicians. It was a between-acts staple on the sound system at Max's, where Hell and Verlaine would sometimes hang out, nursing drinks and rubbernecking, trying to make the scene.

Eventually they formed a trio called the Neon Boys with their old pal Billy Ficca, who came up from Delaware to join them in the fall of  '72. They tried to recruit a second guitarist the way all local bands did, through an ad in the Voice. Theirs read: "Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted—minimal talent okay." A Brooklyn player, Chris Stein, tried out, but didn't like the material; according to Verlaine, he thought it too fast and uncommercial. A Queens kid named Douglas Colvin auditioned, but was too inept.

The Neon Boys never found a second guitarist, but in April they decided to record some demos anyway, Hell playing bass and Verlaine playing both lead and rhythm. The six songs, including Hell's "Love Comes in Spurts" and Verlaine's "Hot Dog," were harsh and high-strung, in the spirit of Nuggets. Demos cut, they disbanded. Verlaine knocked around as a solo act with his Jazzmaster. Hell went back to the life of a writer, as he imagined it, living in a girlfriend's apartment overlooking the St. Mark's Church cemetery, working in a $16-a-week furnished room on East Tenth Street, where he would set up every day with a bottle of cheap wine and unspool words until he'd filled one single-spaced page. Before the end of the year he'd finished a short novel of surreal, horny, grim metafiction involving two young men, Caspar Skull and Arthur Black, that bore some resemblance to Hell and Verlaine. He titled it The Voidoid.

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