Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby


  • Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes—Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
  • The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever—Alan Sepinwall
  • Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece—Ashley Kahn
  • Binocular Vision—Edith Pearlman
  • The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright—Jean Nathan
  • Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times—Tom Nolan
  • Alys, Always—Harriet Lane


  • Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever—Will Hermes
  • Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times—Tom Nolan
  • Alys, Always—Harriet Lane
  • The Interrogative Mood—Padgett Powell

A man—handsome, mid-fifties, balding, or even bald, if Bruce Willis is the only actor available—lies in bed reading a biography of Artie Shaw. His probably young and probably pneumatic wife is lying next to him, bored and a little petulant, because he is so gripped by the book that he’s paying her no attention. (This guy has no kids, by the way. That’s how he gets so much reading done. And also he has this incredible bedroom, with buttons that make lights dim and music come on and cinema screens drop from the ceiling and all sorts.) This is really weird, like something out of a science-fiction film, because Artie Shaw was a bandleader and a clarinettist, and this guy, the Bruce Willis guy, doesn’t really like jazz, as far as we know. So immediately the audience is gripped and all like, WTF?


The same guy (Willis? Depp? Pitt?) is lying by a swimming pool in the North African sun. He’s reading Will Hermes’s book about New York music in the mid-’70s, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. The mystery deepens. How has the Hermes book led to the Shaw biography? In just a few short weeks? Hold on to your hats! It’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Maybe I have overplayed the extraordinary cultural journey that I have made since the last time I wrote in these pages; maybe the story of me sitting by a pool and/or in bed, reading and/or listening to my iPod, would not, after all, make for an entertaining but intelligent multiplex cinematic experience. I’m just trying to convey excitement, so shoot me.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire was my holiday reading over a short winter break. (In Marrakech! I wasn’t even changing locale to make it more cinematic!) Hermes’s book is a prime example of the sub-genre that has probably emerged as my favorite over the last few years: readable, rich, and intelligent nonfiction about the roots of creativity. The subtitle is Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, and the cover illustration is one of those crowded black-and-white cartoons featuring a bunch of caricatures. And as I could make out all the key players—Jerry Harrison, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Joey Ramone—straightaway, I pretty much knew what these years meant. I was nineteen in 1976, and I bought all the relevant records pretty much the day they came out. So I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting, and I was prepared to abandon Love Goes to Buildings on Fire quickly if the stories seemed too familiar, or if the book was poorly written or lazy.

I didn’t know what I was getting into. Hermes set himself the task of writing about all the music that was being made in NYC between 1973 and 1977: the CBGB’s crowd, yes, but also the salsa of Eddie Palmieri and the Fania All-Stars, the loft jazz of David Murray and Don Cherry, Steve Reich’s “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” the birth of the twelve-inch single, and the very beginnings of hip-hop. Hermes’s diligence and enthusiasm are reminiscent of the work Mark Harris did for his phenomenal book about the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967, Pictures at a Revolution: there’s that same sense of almost intimidating scholarship which somehow never manages to overwhelm the narrative. Movies are made independently of each other, however; music, especially music being made in the same crowded (and crumbling) city at the same time, leaks everywhere. Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen played together at the Bottom Line, and were working next door to each other in the Record Plant, hence “Because the Night.” Philip Glass invited the Talking Heads to Einstein on the Beach after he’d seen them play at the Kitchen. The disco DJs started picking up on the new salsa records that were being made. Of course, you ache to be there, hearing it fresh, but unless you are a frankly dislikable show-off who knows everything about everything already, a lot of the music described so thrillingly in this book will be fresh to you anyway. I ended up buying a half dozen salsa compilations, some unfamiliar disco tracks, (yet another) Television live album, and then… well, things got a little out of hand. By the pool in Marrakech I wanted to listen to something that sounded messed-up, like New York City in the mid-’70s; I had some Television on my iPod, and Tom Verlaine’s lyrical, jagged guitar playing scratched the itch for a little while, but everything else sounded too orderly. When I got home I bought one of David Murray’s free-jazz albums, but for someone who’d pretty much only ever listened to music in 4/4 time it was a little too scary. I dug out the little jazz I had—Miles Davis and John Coltrane, because I am a walking cliché—and listened to that for a while; but Hermes had somehow, and without even intending to, persuaded me to listen to pretty much every jazz record made between 1950 and 1965. So I’ve heard Mingus and Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Hank Mobley, Coltrane and Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper and Harold Land, Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra and Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver and Clifford Brown. I haven’t listened to anything else for six weeks. I don’t love them all, but I’m giving everything a shot, in the same way that you might give every film at a festival a shot.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Nick Hornby is the author of six novels, the most recent of which is Juliet, Naked, and a memoir, Fever Pitch. He is also the author of Songbook, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for music criticism, and editor of the short-story collection Speaking with the Angel. His screenplay for An Education was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in North London.

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