It may be that there is no way to write a definitive history of a particular cultural scene of a particular time and place that doesn’t reveal itself to be simply the story of a loose group of acquaintances who all got drunk in the same five-block radius for a few years in their twenties. (Ask Hemingway.) The New York–specific subset of the genre is the romanticization of, then regretful lament for, the lost grimy glamour of those bars and neighborhoods of the writer’s youth, a fantasy city eternally dirtier and more dangerously sexy 10 or 20 years earlier, a wonderland of mostly consequence-free bad behavior lost forever to gentrification. Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011, which has been excerpted in New York magazine and praised by Pitchfork, Spin, and Rolling Stone, recounts in oral-history form the triumphant narrative of a rock renaissance, led by the Strokes, that culminates in the international takeover of urban bohemia by a more domesticated Brooklyn Style™.
The book is tons of fun, full of juicy gossip and catty score-settling, as principals and hangers-on take the opportunity to offer their contributions to the first sweeping account of their heyday. I read all 600 pages in a day, breathlessly, as one does when histories begin to be written about one’s contemporaries, with particular attention to people I knew, compiling a personal mental list of omissions, inclusions, and alternate takes. Like Goodman, I spent my 20s in the world of New York rock in the decade in question, and several friends, acquaintances, or people I’ve worked with are quoted in the book. My perspective on that world only minimally overlaps with Goodman’s—for neighborhood, swap the Lower East Side with Williamsburg and Bushwick; for revivalist style, exchange sweaty black-leather garage rock for sweaty black–T-shirt punk; for passing fads, replace the electroclash trend that gave us Fischerspooner with the Balkan music craze that coughed up Gogol Bordello; for parties, switch MisShapes for Rubulad; for bars, substitute Max Fish with the Sweetwater; for Kokie’s, well, Kokie’s—but this mostly serves to underscore the width and depth of New York nightlife, and how selective any telling is.
This is Goodman’s version of the story. While the nature of the oral history is that the author’s voice is absent but for a short introduction, Goodman’s sympathies, as expressed by her editing hand, are clear, and not entirely in sync with the somewhat inaccurate subtitle Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011. The portraits of the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and Interpol are loving and comprehensive, and she takes the time to memorialize half-forgotten flameouts such as Jonathan Fire*Eater, precursors such as the Mooney Suzuki, and a handful of influential, if short-lived, blogs. But the book opens in 1995 with the aforementioned Jonathan Fire*Eater. Four-hundred pages later it has only reached 2003, and by 2004 the party is perceptibly winding down. The final 100 pages sprint through the “Birth of Brooklyn,” followed closely by the death of Brooklyn, or at least the gentrification of Williamsburg, dated here to around 2007. The artificial framing by decade is awkwardly justified by the fast-forward in the closing two chapters to the “final” LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden in 2011.
In this imbalance lies a second weakness in the blueprint of the book: a reductive binary between acts identified as “Manhattan” vs. those labeled as “Brooklyn.” The Manhattan bands are sexy, genially seedy, coke-sweating old-school Lower East Side rock stars of the first half of the decade: the Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In contrast, the so-called “Brooklyn bands” of the second half “remaking New York in their own nerdy image” (as the book’s jacket puts it) are a caricature of sexless, pretentious, dressed-down, “uncool kids”—“very technical musicians” who “don’t really present themselves as rock stars,” and are “bright,” “more grounded,” “less sensitive,” “reasonable,” and “practically minded”: TV on the Radio, the National, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend (also, confusingly, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a self-consciously artsy band who are held up in some passages as hard-drinking East Village party-starters and in others as reluctant, unglamorous anti-stars living and working in Brooklyn). Vampire Weekend—whose association with “Brooklyn” is aesthetic rather than geographic—comes in for particular abuse, with one blogger saying, “I can’t imagine young kids … saying ‘I love Vampire Weekend so much. I’m so excited about them’ … And if they are, they should be punched in the face.” DFA Records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy adds, “This new generation, it makes me feel sick … kids playing fancy chords on fancy synthesizers just because they kind of sound cool.” The ubiquitous Har Mar Superstar says, “The whole Grizzly Bear scene, MGMT, do they even party? ... They just never lived that grimy thing. I don’t think they even came to the East Village until after we were done with it, until we destroyed it.” When, 40 pages later, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe fantasizes about creating a testimonial for gentrified Williamsburg entitled We Warmed It Up for You Fuckers, it creates the peculiar spectacle of one book containing successive generations’ curdled nostalgia pouring downhill in five-year increments.
It is also worth mentioning, in the context of the lament over the gentrification of both neighborhoods, the air of material stability that pervades the book. The rich-kid critique of the Strokes (singer Julian Casablancas’ father founded Elite Model Management, guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. “moved to New York with a credit card that his dad paid the bill for,” with his dad “buying amps and guitars for the whole band,” and the band met at a series of Manhattan private schools and “always had cars”) never stuck, but it’s not just the Strokes. “Rich dudes,” says journalist Gideon Yago, “with dot-com money got into the business of opening bars or starting record labels,” then, after the bubble burst, “with a little severance pay … started to go into making music.” DFA co-founder Tyler Brodie “had just inherited money,” he says, and then his father, “who had a lot more money … bought the Plantain building with the intention of giving it to me.” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy “inherit[ed] a lot of money.” Vampire Weekend “probably would not go hungry if they decided to do other things.” In fact, there’s probably little more authentically East Village than well-off young people slumming at the Mars Bar—but it’s not the story they like to tell afterward. Like hipster, gentrifier always means someone else.
The question of whether old-fashioned, leather-clad, coke-snorting, model-dating rock stars on the 1970s model are inherently preferable is taken for granted. It also seems possible that the apparent prudishness of younger musicians is the natural decency, or discretion, of a generation raised on new language about sexual propriety and fearful of online public shamings for off-the-clock behavior.
Oral histories are first and foremost triumphs of access, and Goodman lightens her lift by including the voices of many fellow music journalists. (Half of the interviewees are musicians, and a noticeable bulk of the rest are writers, publicists, and other rock institutionalists.) One feels the palpable projection onto the Strokes of journalists’ inherent weakness for mythmaking and longing for mythworthy bands. The recurring theme of how cool and handsome the Strokes—and to a lesser extent Interpol—looked, how they “dressed like rock stars,” “actually wanted to be rock stars,” “acted like rock stars,” and “smelled like rock stars” underscores that the story was as much about the desire for a band like the Strokes as it was about the Strokes. The picture emerges of a clubby mass of rock professionals somehow manifesting, via barely sublimated lust, a golem in tight pants and pointy boots to enact a resurrection of the 1970s downtown. This is ultimately a conservative vision.
Finally, for a book nominally about New York City rock, Goodman devotes an unusual amount of space to non–New York bands—whole chapters or extended sections dwell on the White Stripes (Detroit), the Hives (Sweden), the Vines (Australia), Franz Ferdinand (Scotland), the Killers (Las Vegas), and the Kings of Leon (Nashville), not to mention Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst, who lived in the city temporarily but are not generally considered New York acts. The throughline here, again, is the Strokes. It is Goodman’s early friendship with Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi that she identifies as her “portal” into the rock ’n’ roll NYC of her youthful dreams, Valensi from whom she “learned to play the city like a video game.”* She was “a kid sister in [the Strokes’] crew,” she told Pitchfork. “They were naughty, mischievous sweethearts.” There is a sense of a book that began its life as something like The Strokes: Their Precursors, World, and Influence but was then reconceived and unevenly expanded to fill out a wider statement on the Please Kill Me model.
But if Lizzy Goodman’s idealized vision of “magical years” “chasing New York City” goes uninterrogated, it’s in the service of what appears to remain her uninflected enthusiasm for the romantic ideal of being young and in New York, in all its “expansive and intimate … feeling of rebellion, of possibility, of promise, of chaos.” As attempts to amplify one’s youth to international significance go, Goodman and her crew of interviewees have a strong case: The influence of the Strokes was real, the argument that they “really did create the blueprint for the international hipster look of the aughts” (with help from the Vice Media empire) is defensible, and good-looking neo-garage bands named some variation of the Plural Nouns proliferated in New York, London, and beyond for years. Books like Goodman’s feed the dreams and ambitions of the annual influx of young people who will themselves move to New York, get in trouble, make art, feed rising rents in their own neighborhoods, and finally memorialize their own “youth and abandon.” (The self-conscious modeling of the book on Please Kill Me only underscores the cyclical nature of the phenomenon.) It is, for that matter, my story as well, different only in the particulars. The first drafts of the next cycle have already been seen in memorials for clubs like Death by Audio, and the countdown to sweat-hazed memoirs about Shea Stadium shows in East Williamsburg and Hasidic landlords in Bushwick begins now.
Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman. Dey Street.
Joining the ranks of the classics Please Kill Me, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and Can't Stop Won't Stop, an intriguing oral history of the post-9/11 decline of the old-guard music industry and rebirth of the New York rock scene, led by a group of iconoclastic rock bands.In the second...
*Correction, June 23, 2017: This article originally misidentified Nick Valensi as a Strokes drummer. He is a Strokes guitarist. (Return.)