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Manhattan, back when it was an affordable mecca for artists, was an incubator for jazz, musical theater, disco, hip-hop, and punk. It’s not surprising, given the impact of the New York’s melange of styles, that the music that defined 10th Century urbanism should have a second life in print. Below are 10 books, both fiction and nonfiction, that delve into the New York music scene.
One of the greatest rock and roll books of all time, Legs McNeil (who helped popularize punk through his influential zines) and Gillian McCain bring the 1970s heyday of Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Television, and The Dead Boys to vivid life in the oral history Please Kill Me. It belongs on the shelf of anyone even remotely interested in cultural history.
Patti Smith was the definition of art-rock coolness in the 1970s. Just Kids is her memoir of the era and of her sometimes fraught relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, who shot the iconic cover photo of her debut, Horses. It offers an unparalleled record of the CBGB New York musical scene during its gestation period.
This novel of 1970s New York features the entwining stories of a group of city denizens whose lives collide during the 1977 blackout. City on Fire features a group of seedy rock musicians whose careers echo that of dozens of up-and-coming acts of the punk scene.
The inspiration for the Ethan Hawke movie of the same name, Ten Thousand Saints is a coming-of-age novel set in 1980s New York. The young protagonist receives his education in the new wave scene burgeoning in the city at the time. The result is an iconoclastic and subversive portrait of New York that nails the DIY-minded musicians who communicated via scenes, posters, and shows at downtown venues.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is the indispensable record of when disco, jazz, and hip-hop merged in New York to create a new modern sound. In the crime-ridden heart of the city, musicians benefiting from cheap rent moved from ramshackle clubs and South Bronx barrios to Manhattan lofts and, eventually, the world stage.
Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom chronicles the early-2000s rebirth of the New York music scene, as bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes composed raucous anthems for a new generation of urban youth. As an oral history, it excels at capturing the energy of bands that reinvented the Factory-era punk sound and combined it with an edgy garage dissonance that rekindled the city’s reputation as the rock capital of the world.
Hari Kunzru’s White Tears is a novel that focuses on the historical white appropriation of black music. It’s a ghost story stretching from New York to the American South. Along the way, we meet aging vinyl junkies, sample-happy hipsters, and the unquiet spirit of a blues musician who honed his craft while working on a chain gang.
A piecemeal tale of record executives, aging punk rockers, and a troubled kleptomaniac, A Visit From the Good Squad uses music to determine its structure, which shuffles backward and forward in time as the tragic lives of the cast unfolds against the hanging city.
Don DeLillo’s classic Great Jones Street tells the story of dissolute rocker Bucky Wunderlick as he enters self-imposed exile in a New York apartment, only to fall prey to a mysterious ailment that strikes at the fundamentals of language itself.
The Talking Heads are the quintessential New York band and This Must Be the Place is the quintessential rock bio. It tells the story of the band’s improbable rise to the art-rock circuit in 1976—the Summer of Sam—and the internal battles that lead the band to its unique sound and eventual demise at the height of their popularity.