From Karen O practising her mike-swallowing technique at a Greenwich Village Mod Club to The Strokes cutting Ryan Adams out of their inner circle for becoming smack buddies with Albert Hammond Jr, the revelations about the 00’s New York scene that changed the world come thick and fast in Lizzy Goodman’s 600-page oral history of the era, ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’.
The book, featuring hundreds of scene players and almost all of the major stars reminiscing about this glorious modern age, is being hailed as the definitive history of the era – so we caught up with one-time NME journo Lizzy to talk cooking with Nick Valensi and jumping in bins with The Vines…
When did you first decide to put this book together?
“I went to see what was supposed to be LCD Soundsystem’s final show at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 2011 and The Strokes playing Madison Square Garden for the first time in the same week. There was something about the tone and epic nature of both of those shows. These two bands who had been record keepers of this era were cast in a new light for me that night, they felt like big fancy grown-up rock n roll stars. Journalistically, it started to percolate that the period of time between 2001 and 2011 had a beginning, middle and end. It took another year to write a proposal and another five years to write the book – it was a delicate little seedling for quite a long time. I saw the story and therefore couldn’t shake the itch to tell it.”
How did you know the main players?
“Nick Valensi and I worked in a restaurant that was right across the street from Grand Central Station. I was taking it all very seriously and there was this guy there who was not taking it very seriously and that was Nick Valensi. He quickly realized that I would be a good person to copy off of in these ridiculous tests they were asking us to do. We became pals that learned stuff off of each other. He would cheat off of me in the wine test and he would teach me about New York a couple of hours in the afternoon.
“I knew the Strokes to varying degrees and I’d known some of them before any of us had got jobs or were old enough to drink legally, so I went back pretty far. Through knowing The Strokes in college, I met a bunch of the bands they were touring with during that time and other young New York bands during the era. Many of whom are covered here like The Realistics, and Longwave. They were all of my favourite bands when I was 19. After I started writing and trying to make my way into journalism, I interviewed a lot of these artists over the years.”
Was everyone hanging out in the same bars?
“Yes! It makes me sick just thinking about it. When I graduated I moved to the Lower East Side, to Rivington and Ridge Street. The bars we went to were The Library on First and Eighth that has this amazing jukebox and all that music was being played on jukeboxes at the time. We used to go to this bar called the Magician, followed not too long later by the Darkroom. One of my early memories was when The Vines were playing Letterman. Bands were sleeping on our floor all the time and I remember Craig running down our street banging trash cans and maybe jumping into them. There was this manic, gleeful misbehaviour that was just another night.”
Why write it as an oral history?
“What’s beautiful about oral history is that it allows the story to really reveal itself. It’s impressionistic because it’s a series of notes on specific nights and specific events. In telling those moments, it hopefully brings to light a collective sense of memory. Fan stories can be told all at the same time so you can get a sense of what it was like in the moment. I had no idea how hard it would be…”
The title refers to a ‘rebirth’ of rock’n’roll, what had happened to it?
“Rock music is eternal, it was always there. I think in this case we had incredible talent reacting to the bleached-out, moneyed bottle service boredom of this Mecca that is New York City. All my first generation characters were like ‘it’s fucking boring here and nobody’s having fun – this is New York, this Patti Smith city, what the fuck are we doing here?’ They didn’t know each other but they all had the feeling that it wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t a model for what they were doing. Mayhem needed to be caused. And when England found out about The Strokes, it launched them in America and people became more open minded.”
Choosing the title ‘Meet Me in The Bathroom’ suggests that a lot of it was driven by hedonism – was that the case?
“Yeah, but it’s important to qualify that. There’s a reason Jonathan Fire*Eater are at the beginning of this story – this is a band that nobody’s ever heard of and that’s because they imploded before they ever got anywhere. It’s a genuinely tragic story because they were so talented. Stewart, the frontman of Jonathan*Fire Eater was – and is – an unbelievably gifted artist with a lot to offer that the world never got to see, and that’s because of drugs. That’s the casualty of hedonism.
“There is an unleashing and unburdening that comes from being young and messy in the living video game or adult playground that is New York City, especially during that time. And tequila is a good lubrication for everything like that. But, there’s a moment where you become a casualty of partying as opposed to partying being a source of inspiration. Debauchery is important but we’re really lucky that, for the most part, everyone’s still alive.”
“We’re lucky that Albert’s still alive, we’re really lucky that Karen was not injured very badly when she took the fall on stage that she talks about in the book. We’re lucky that Paul Banks [Interpol frontman] is still here, and the Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams. What you see was that all of those people had a moment at which they got off the train. My favourite example of this was when Paul [Banks] talks about his hardcore partying days like he was on a safari, I love that. That’s exactly right. The nature of partying is exploratory and observational. Julian [Casablancas] said too that when that’s your intention, you’re kind of okay because there’s a certain moment when you know why you’re doing it. You’re doing it to see how things might open up in response to late nights and substance abuse, and when it becomes only about substance abuse then you’ve lost the whole point in the first place.”
Was there anything which you uncovered that you thought was particularly outrageous or scandalous?
“The James Murphy [LCD Soundsystem] and Tim Goldsworthy [DFA Records] creative love affair was among the most surprising, heart-rending and moving parts of the reporting for me. They’re both such great, full-throated, honest, brilliant men who came together and had this amazing creative synergy and then fell away from each other. I found that shocking and surprising. What I’m hearing from people on Twitter is that they’re surprised The Strokes were such nice guys. I guess because they’re so good looking and so cool, and they were first, it’s just like ‘Fuck those guys!’ But they were always so nice to me. If those dudes would see me rolling around the Lower East Side when we were younger, they would make sure I had a ride home, or money for a cab. There was just a sense of a gang mentality, family-oriented, ‘you’re with us’.”
How big a role does the NME play in the book?
“Huge. None of it would have happened without the NME, literally. That’s the story of modern pop culture, of Britain and America looking over their shoulders at each other, and I love that. The Strokes and all of these bands broke in England first, and it set off a flare and made everyone back home pay attention. The Strokes weren’t getting anywhere in New York City in the same way as they were after England happened. That set the paradigm for other bands. That’s exactly what happened with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, exactly what happened with Interpol.
“There’s this great part in the book with Luke [Jenner] from The Rapture talking about how he would go to this magazine store on Avenue A and see all of these bands being written about and he’s like ‘Oh my god! They’re gonna find me, it’s only a matter of time… as soon as England finds me I’m gonna be famous’. New York was looking to England to take note of what we should care about in our own backyard. There was an immediate zeal in the British music press that was not mirrored in the US for at least another year or two, so everyone on the Lower East Side was reading Britain’s papers to find out about their own artists.”
Besides that initial explosion of music in New York, has The Strokes’ legacy expanded beyond that?
“The Strokes are one of the most influential bands of their generation. They captured, and represent still, a moment of perfect ascension to rock greatness in New York City at a particular period of time that has not been replaced yet. They’re still the first out of the gate of the last great era of rock culture. And that’s why they can go and headline festivals and almost never play but still cause this clamour when they do.”
Does New York City still feel as magical as that era?
“It’s not that awesome in New York right now. But I also don’t think that that’s wrong. One of the things that I love about music is that if you love music, what you love is not something that’s meant to last. It’s about capturing, and almost celebrating in this joyful, defiant way, the temporariness of everything. New York has been really bleached out by money, it’s very, very difficult for artists to live there. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of lifestyle branding going on. And Brooklyn is still inset with behaviour patterns which have been identified as cool, everything you do there feels like you’re following some sort of subconsciously downloaded guidebook about how one is supposed to live right now. So none of that feels authentic to me, but so what? That’s what happens. The book begins in a place where New York felt burned out to people, and this was their response to it. I think at some point New York comes back to life in this cultural way and we’re right on time.”
What was your greatest gig you saw in that era, and why?
“It’s The Strokes’ show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Halloween show in the fall of 2001. The Moldy Peaches played and I’d never seen them before. They were in their outfits, Kimya was Little Bunny Foo Foo and Adam was Robin Hood or something, and they had a bunch of other people playing who were also dressed up. They were just so irreverent and bizarre and playful. We were 20-years-old or whatever and we were the new generation, the young people. We felt amazing and it was also happening in the backdrop of this horrible tragedy [of 9/11], and you wanted to go show up at this rock venue and see a fucking killer guitar band that had a kind of defiance, a joie de vivre, to show you.
“Everything had kicked off in England a few months before, and they were just amazing. Things had already started happening and the album was out, but it still hadn’t fully happened yet. So after the show we all just went to 2A like we always did, that was The Strokes’ bar. And the seeds of what would become their overwhelming fame had already been planted and were rapidly growing, but we were still just pals that night. We went to 2A after The Strokes show and drank whiskey ’til the sun came up, and that was just another night. So that moment really strikes me as one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen and also a representative moment of this energetic torch passing between the era before no one knew, and what was to come.”
‘Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011’ by Lizzy Goodman is out now