It’s hard to imagine New York as a rock ‘n’ roll graveyard, but that was very much the case in the 1990s, when the city’s music scene shriveled under the sanitized, no-fun initiatives of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a growing corporate aristocracy. Leather jackets were nearly extinct, usurped by penny loafers and pleated pants. But as history has demonstrated time and again, these depressing cultural voids often become the soil for new artistic roots, and in still-unscrubbed neighborhoods like Alphabet City and Williamsburg, the seeds of dirty, messy rock music were getting ready to sprout.
In her terrific new book, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001-2011, author Lizzy Goodman has meticulously traced the story of that revival, from the dance parties that spawned a community of young rock fans, through the trauma of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the violent spasms of the recording industry, to the rise of era-defining bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, The National, Vampire Weekend and others. Goodman, who found her own way into the New York rock scene of the early ‘00s as an aspiring journalist, spent the past six years interviewing just about everyone who played a role, including members of the aforementioned bands as well as Moby, Ryan Adams, Jack White, Mark Ronson, comedians Marc Maron and David Cross, journalist Rob Sheffield, Strokes manager Ryan Gentles, James Murphy’s DFA Records cofounders, and dozens of others.
Goodman visited the Paste Studio recently to talk about how she compiled and sorted hundreds of interviews, how the internet killed these radio stars, and whether New York can ever be cool again.
In the late 1990s and early ‘00s, New York was basically dormant, musically. There were no good rock bands coming out of the city in the ‘90s, or the ‘80s for that matter.
Goodman: Yeah, it’s really almost unimaginable at this point. There’s some line in the book that I just love—I think it’s from one of the guys in Jonathan Fire*Eater and later The Walkmen—where it’s sort of like, “Listen, being in a band in the late ‘90s, was like the worst thing you could do to your friends.” Ugh, I have to see your band play? That’s part of my social network now, that I have to go and support you and your band? Rock ‘n’ roll, leather-jacket-cool…no. Absolutely not. That was not supposed to be any sort of “next thing,” certainly not commercially.
People think of the turn of the century as the period when Rudy Giuliani had scrubbed New York clean. But the neighborhoods where these kids were making music, like the East Village and Williamsburg, were as dingy and dangerous as ever. Did that have much to do with the genesis of this group of bands?
Goodman: There’s a great quote in the book from Tunde [Adebimpe] from TV on the Radio. I think it’s in the 9/11 chapter of the book, and he basically says that he thinks 9/11 kind of pressed pause on what was otherwise this buildup of gentrification energy, of kind of cleansing energy. People think, exactly as you were saying, that politics and real estate are a huge part of any New York story, any urban story. The politics were Giuliani and these sort of draconian, no-dancing cabaret laws, which are hilarious. He had been spending all this time famously shipping squeegee men out of the city and relocating people. And then Bloomberg and money was coming shortly around the corner. That was happening, and these bands kind of got in under the door, and then there was 9/11 and the way that pressed pause on this otherwise overwhelming force of gentrification and cleanliness and de-dingifying that we now see epic results of. There was this bubble. There was just this pocket of time from 2000, pre-9/11, to 2003 or 2004, where the city wasn’t sure it was gonna recover yet. People were saying, “No one is ever gonna move here, tourism is gonna be down.” It’s hilarious now, given what we’re dealing with—a juice press on every corner. But it was like, no one is ever gonna come here again because it’s a terrifying place. For rock kids, that’s like camp. Fantastic. Nobody with any money is gonna come here, and there are gonna be no tourists? This is gonna be our town.
New York is a place where, for generations, artists have come because it is this idea, as you mentioned before. Is it possible for it to lose that forever?
Goodman: I don’t think so. One of the things—and this is may be part of the problem for people who actually live here—but the New York brand is more powerful than ever. That’s what the end of the book is about. It’s called Brooklyn now. New York has become Brooklyn. There’s a Brooklyn in every European city. That’s where you buy your striped shirts and your vinyl records next to some handmade candles that actually are kind of good and not hippyish next to some sort of chocolate next to the coffee that’s been roasted by the guy down the thing and you can go and visit him. That’s Brooklyn. It’s just in Vienna, or it’s in Prague or it’s in Brasilia.
Another integral part of this story is the explosion of digital music, which basically killed the era of major labels throwing money at new bands. The Strokes were maybe that were really lavished with expensive dinners and plane rides across the world. What effect did that change have on the scene in New York?
Goodman: An alternate title for the book, or a kind of an organizing theme, was “The Last Real Rock Stars.” Because the wining and dining, velvet jacket, private jet, A&R ‘70s rock excess [was over].
Nick Valensi and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes in 2004.
No possible inkling that this would ever not be the way it was…
Goodman: Totally. The reason for that is covered in the book. It’s so interesting how the economics work. The music industry was incredibly rich at this time because of CD sales and all these baby-boomers buying records that they had had on vinyl and re-buying them on CD, and people having money. CDs were like, $18.99. It was ridiculous. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera—the Mickey Mouse Club takeover of pop culture—Backstreet Boys. Just oodles and oodles of cash. You don’t question it. It was just sort of like, they were looking for the next thing, which is the nature of the recording business.
They didn’t think it would be the Strokes.
Goodman: They did not think it would be the Strokes, but when there was inklings from public consumption that it would be something like the Strokes, it was like, “Great, because we really need something.” It was like, “Napster, just go sit in the corner over there. We’ll deal with you later, because we’re really powerful.” It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, for sure. There is something kind of beautiful about that in retrospect, and the bands talk about this. They were like, “I was just gonna take this for all I could while it lasted.” I think in terms of the effect that had is, what you see is that the difference between a character like Julian Casablancas and a character like Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend, who are separated by maybe five years in actual age or something like that, basically the same generation, those two humans are like night and day in terms of the type of artist they are, the type of rock star they are, what they represent to their audience, what they represent to the business.
A few people in the book actually say, “We had no idea New York was going to be the next Seattle,” referring to the grunge era of 10 years before that. But those Seattle bands, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with Cobain and Vedder, became global superstars. The New York bands never really transcended the indie realm.
Goodman: As soon as the Strokes were on this ascension, there was simultaneously a sinking ship happening beneath them. Label reorganization, restructuring, the condensing of all these labels. That’s part of it, for sure. Whereas Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and all of the artists that got signed in the wake of that benefitted from a very robust business set up to capitalize on the fact that everyone in America was buying flannel and was sort of mutually reinforcing itself throughout the culture, this idea of alternative cool. There was just money behind that and there was money being made everywhere. So I do think that that’s part of it, and you could say that the Strokes didn’t sell enough records to support it. Napster happened before the Strokes’ record came out, and nobody knew what to do with it, and that continued to be the hugest problem no matter what band you are. It cut into everybody.
Or was it also something about the bands themselves?
Goodman: At the end of the day, the Strokes were an underground band, and someone like Kings of Leon were not, someone like the Killers were not. I think of it much more as an idea in advance of what kind of band you want to be. Julian and those guys, when they were forming their band, they wanted to be Guided by Voices. That was their dream. They were serious about that. Part of that is, there was no model for all the reasons we have discussed. It was not a sane thing to say at that time, “I would like to be in a rock band, and therefore I will be rich and famous and have a French chalet.” That was crazy talk. That was not going to happen for everyone, so partially there was no model. They saw themselves as a small, kind of semi-fringe…They loved Blonde Redhead. Those are the shows I would see those guys at. The Kings of Leon walked into RCA, and they were like, “Yup, I’m going to be a rock star like that guy.”
Let’s talk a little about how you actually created this book. It’s an oral history, with a slew of amazing interviews with pretty much everyone who was there, so it’s totally reliant on the memories of the people you’re talking to. Is it difficult to get them to dig deep and pull out these details?
Goodman: It’s a lot to talk about this stuff that happened a long time ago. These people are all living their lives and making art. It depends on what mood you catch them in, what time in their own creative life. You want people’s general impressions for the sound, sight, feel, taste of the thing, but you can also be like, “So I heard that this particular night, or this particular show, or this particular day in the studio went this particular way, can you tell me what you remember?” And then that’s the fun part, because it’s like, “No it didn’t! Absolutely not!” or “Yeah, totally. Oh my god, I can’t believe he told you that.” Then it starts to snowball, and that is really fun. I’ve said this before, but contradiction is not your enemy in life, if you ask me, and it’s certainly your friend in oral history.
Your subjects also know they’re setting the historical record. Were you ever interviewing someone whose perspective is really important to this narrative, and you’re thinking to yourself, “What he’s saying right now is not true.” Do you throw it all in, or do you try to work it out?
Goodman: You do have to have some journalistic integrity as well—just a bit. I did not print anything that I thought someone was willfully bullshitting me about. Early on in the process of putting this out, I heard the word “gossip” a lot, and it’s meant as a compliment and not as a compliment. I’m fine with that word; that’s how people talk in real life.
This book is ultimately about the music. Which were your core bands? I will admit, when the Strokes hit in 2001, I was smitten for good; DFA Records dance-rock was not as much my thing. I thought James Murphy was kind of a…anyway, wasn’t as much my thing.
Goodman: [Laughs] James bursts through the door.
I was actually gonna say, he’ll find me and kick my ass.
Goodman: He’s a very athletic person.
I read that his dad was a football player. That makes sense; he looks like a football player.
Goodman: James can fight, so heads up.
So the epicenter of it for you was what?
Goodman: It was the Strokes, first, because I knew them. Well, and the record. And because I was in a position through dumb luck to have heard so much of that stuff so early and had been at really small shows really early and had been exactly the right age. It was like my friend’s band ended up being really good, and that never happens, so I was really fortunate in that way. But I think the beating heart of me for real, in terms of once I was in that world what I connected with the most is Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It does have something to do with Karen being a woman and just feeling like I knew this stuff was for me. I knew the Strokes were for me, I knew Interpol was for me. As a true fan, I would go to those shows and feel found. But it was different to have a girl onstage.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2006.
And that girl in particular.
Goodman: And that’s what great about all these people: Julian is an amazing rock star, James is an amazing rock star, Karen is an amazing rock star. They’re just absolute-value amazing rock stars, gender has nothing to do with it. And that’s what I mean—she wasn’t a ‘girl rock star’. She was just like them, these other people that I was falling for, but I could really be her. Not actually, nice try, but in theory. But there was something really cool about just having this woman around that was just as rad as they were, if not radder, and all the dudes were obsessed with her and thought she was the best rock star.
And she was the best “rock star” of the whole crew, in terms of being a frontperson, the style and the craziness.
Goodman: She was unhinged and gleeful, and you’re just not supposed to do that as a girl. That’s very bad. I don’t even think I knew how repressed I felt by those ideas until all of these artists, not just her. She was the lightning rod of an unburdening that had already begun with the Strokes and some of these other bands that get mentioned in the book that never got famous. Like, the Realistics were my other favorite band. The Strokes and the Realistics. I would never miss a show. They had already set me off, and then Karen pushed me right over the edge. No more law school, no more teaching second grade, I was like, “bye!”