Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Meet Me in the Bathroom

Meet Me in the Bathroom
by Lizzy Goodman

(Harper Collins, 2017)

Full disclosure: I never got the Strokes. For almost two decades now, my indifference to the singles led me to conclude that this was a hype into which I wasn’t inclined to buy.

For that reason, I didn’t rush out to read Lizzy Goodman’s 2017 book Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-11. (Apologies for this two-years-late review.) It’s ostensibly about an entire scene, including LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, both favourites of mine, but the Strokes are the primary characters. Belief in their supposed brilliance is a key to Goodman’s narrative. (It also helps to be an Interpol fan, which I am not.) Aside from my musical biases, this book is also an oral history, an oft-lazy medium of which I’ve grown tired as it’s become the default for most historical music writing of the last decade. But those are my own hangups, ones I quickly got over. I'm naturally predisposed to enjoy a book with a clear thesis focusing on a decade in a particular scene. 

Meet Me in the Bathroom is a delicious read: trashy, catty, enlightening, deluded, self-incriminating, and an encapsulation of (almost) everything that was great and terrible about that time and place.

New York City’s music scene was thought to be down and out in 1999. The onetime cultural mecca was now the last place anyone thought of moving to and starting a band (which, ironically, is true again today, in large part because of the gentrification of neighbourhoods the bands in this book made cool). The only ’90s band in NYC to show any serious promise was, we’re told, Jonathan Fire*Eater, who were to NYC what Mother Love Bone were to Seattle. They blew their chance through a series of ineptitudes. By 1999, fans and journalists (MTV, Rolling Stone and Spin were all located in NYC) were hungry for something new from the streets of Manhattan—and could even be convinced to go cool-hunting in then-desolate Brooklyn. Soon enough, the Strokes became the “it boys” of the scene. 

Why? As I type this, I’m listening to the debut album for the first time (really). The title of that record is apt. Is This It? This was considered exciting? Revolutionary? Inspiring? I get that it was a reaction to the Sugar Rays and the Limp Bizkits of the time, but, c’mon, rock’n’roll is better than this. Thank god for the White Stripes. And the Gossip. And—hello?!!—Sleater-fucking-Kinney.

Closer to my home, were the Strokes a better band than Tricky Woo? Most definitely not. Than the Constantines? You’d have to be kidding me. Than the Deadly Snakes? No. Than Danko Jones? I certainly know which one I’d rather see live. And what about the Mooney Suzuki, a band that is every bit as much of an archetypal NYC garage band as the Strokes, but arrived a few years too early? They get a brief mention in this book as a primary inspiration for the Strokes—Nick Valensi says he was a massive fan and saw them as often as he could when he was a teen—but they weren’t cute enough and they were somehow signed to a Canadian indie (Sonic Unyon) and hence are left to the dustbins of history. I mean, come on, these fuckers are have more rock'n'roll in their pinkie fingers than all the Strokes combined:

More important: the Strokes’ debut came out the exact same month as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ EP. Put those two records on back to back: one is electrifying, a total shot of adrenaline, features probably the most charismatic frontperson of the decade with a killer band behind her, and takes all the essential elements of primal rock’n’roll to catapult it into a new century. It does all of that in five short songs. The other one is filled with malaise, like it was made by piss-drunk trust-fund kids accustomed to the world opening doors just because they’re tall and (apparently) good-looking and play hard-to-get. One of those two records sounds like what it feels to come alive in a big bad city full of possibilities; one sounds like it’s too fucking bored to care.

Lizzy Goodman clearly loves both those records, and my issue with her book is not that she portrays the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as latecomers to a scene that apparently wouldn’t exist without the Strokes and Interpol—which the book’s structure implies implicitly. What rubs me the wrong way is the way the Strokes command such reverence for… for what? For acting like aloof rock stars? For enacting a tired script of what rock stars are supposed to be like, complete with the requisite sex and drugs and rehab narratives? Does no one see what posers these guys are? One of their biggest fans, the writer Rob Sheffield, is quoted as saying, “They saw themselves as stars first, musicians second.” It’s amazing how that Warholian, supposedly punk rock attitude applies just as equally to vapid pop stars whose ambition exceeds their talent, and in the Strokes those two polarities meet. 

The only thing that makes the Strokes’ trajectory interesting here is how much they shot themselves in the foot. Maybe if they didn’t buy into their own hype, they would have fared better in the long run. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, on the other hand, cancelled lucrative gigs for the sake of her own mental and physical health. That seems more sensible than just being a dick for its own sake. Speaking of dicks, no one in LCD Soundsystem or DFA Records comes off looking particularly great, either. And the less credit given to the vapidity of Vice magazine's impact on the scene, the better. Thankfully, Goodman makes time for square pegs like TV on the Radio, the Moldy Peaches, and Regina Spektor.

Goodman—or, rather, her cast of characters—does a good job of contextualizing the 2000s, when these artists became rock stars at a time when nobody bought records anymore. Anyone born after 1986 grew up never needing to buy a physical copy of their favourite album, which means that record sales were by no means an indication of popularity for this generation. Anyone hip enough to be into this music was also hip enough to know how to find torrents. Interpol found that out the hard way when they signed to a major; their second album was considered a disappointment because there was no significant jump in sales. Then there’s the long-forgotten case of Fischerspooner, who signed a $2-million deal and then quickly faded away into obscurity; if they're remembered at all, it’s usually as a punchline. The rest of these acts deserve better than mainstream narratives will portray them; for that reason alone, in an ocean of boomerphilic books, Goodman's work is essential.

It’s weird, however, which artists Goodman relies on to be in the peanut gallery. Jack White and Ryan Adams and Moby: sure, they all have valuable and entertaining contributions to the conversation. Har Mar Superstar? Uh, okay—hands up if you even remember who he was. Why is Glasgow’s Franz Ferdinand even in this book? Why does the author extensively quote Eleanor Friedberger talking about everyone else’s music except her own in the Fiery Furnaces (they’re mentioned exactly once)? Goodman also relies far too much on bloggers and self-important journos, most of whom are just relieved to be writing about new rock music that isn't Coldplay. Some of them admit to shooting up with the rock stars they’re writing about—what the fuck is that about? I’d be much more interested in hearing Goodman's own opinion. She lets herself off easy here by not having to have one.

Most galling: what’s Conor Oberst doing here? According to Goodman, the Nebraskan native was the most political artist living in NYC during the 2004 presidential election. Weird, then, that the inherently political Le Tigre—an NYC trio, through and through, who were marching in the streets during this time—get exactly zero mentions in the entire book, despite their name being cited on the back cover. Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman is quoted once: to say that she’s happy for LCD Soundsystem’s success. For a book about intersections between rock and electronic music in NYC, with a detour into the politics of the time, it’s frankly fucking ridiculous that Le Tigre is not considered part of this history.

The other major slight is a tiny role for Jonathan Fire*Eater offshoot the Walkmen, whom everyone seems to agree are unsung heroes—something Goodman confirms here by only giving them three pages. C’mon, “The Rat” is the kind of song and delivery the Strokes could only dream about.

Somewhat stranger still is the role of the Killers (Las Vegas) and Kings of Leon (Nashville) in this story, until it’s made clear that these bands reaped the commercial rewards that the main characters in this book did not—mainly because these outsiders were less aloof and more willing to play ball. (In Canada, one could argue that the Arkells are to the Constantines what the Killers are to the Strokes.) By the end of the book, Vampire Weekend come along with the clear intention of sounding like nobody else on the scene, and studying everyone else’s mistakes carefully so as to avoid them. More power to them.

These three bands provide a perfect ending to Goodman’s narrative, along with LCD’s (premature) farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens. One can almost hear the strains of “All My Friends” begin to swell in the closing pages. 

Thankfully, my first impressions were wrong: you don’t have to like the Strokes to enjoy this book. Maybe it’s even better if you don’t, because chances are that any illusions you had about them will crumble pretty fast. But who knows? Despite my gripe with the oral history format, I’ll grant Goodman this: it makes her story much more of a Rorschach test, in which people come across as either cool cucumbers or their own hangmen. The same can be said of this book’s obvious antecedent and major influence: Please Kill Me, an oral history about ’70s New York punk, by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain—a book which every single character in Meet Me in the Bathroom has apparently studied intently, often to a fault. (Then there's the title, borrowed from a Strokes song, which alludes to the cocaine and heroin that was all too prevalent in both decades.)

More important, this book does what all great music writing should: invite spirited discussion, ideally in real life in a bar with friends rather than online anonymity. Was this a time and place in music worth celebrating? Absolutely. Are the characters equally flawed and fascinating? You bet. Will it send you on deep dives back into discographies well worth rediscovering? Hell yes. Would I be lying if I said I didn’t devour Meet Me in the Bathroom in a few sittings, and consider it to be one of the most entertaining music books about an entire scene that I’ve ever read? Yes, yes I would.

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