Goodman’s book does make one nostalgic for a time when there was a kind of clarity within a particular section of the music industry.
The Strokes’ first album Is This It? came out in 2001, emerging from what seemed at the time like a bit of a musical wasteland. Listening to the album now, it’s still easy to be riveted by it: Julian Casablancas’ vocals sounding like someone having broken into the principal’s office and singing over the school PA system; Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr.’s dueling guitar snarls; Nikolai Fraiture’s propulsive and deceptively melodic bass playing; and Fabrizio Moretti’s Energizer Bunny timekeeping.
Soon after its release, it seemed every issue of Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, NME and The Face would have a new bleary-eyed, greasy-haired group of rockers on it, all new saviors responsible for wresting music away from the grip of bubblegum pop, nü-metal, rap-rock, pop punk, etc. This lasted for a bit, until the popularization of indie, the indie-fication of pop, and the rise of music festival EDM, all of which once again tossed fresh earth over the guitar’s grave.
It might seem like ancient history by now, but Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me in the Bathroom, the fruit of years of labor on her part, brings it all roaring back to life.
Goodman’s work is impressive, having gathered interviews from what feels like every cool person living in New York around the turn of the millennium. From here she puts together a sprawling oral history covering fascinating topics like the precipitous rise and fall of the legendary missed opportunity that was Jonathan Fire*Eater (progenitors of The Walkmen), the story behind DFA Records and the making of James Murphy, and the charming origin stories of The Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, and many more. It’s a narrative arc replete with all the stories of parties, drunkenness, promiscuity, and scuzzy apartments you’d expect. The book covers as much ground as it can without being as long as Don Quixote, yet despite its length it still manages to be a breeze of a read, and a moving one at that.
The most engaging dimension of the book, however, beyond the opportunity for vicarious debauchery, is the sheer giddiness with which most of Goodman’s interlocutors remember those years. It’s a giddiness both tender and endearing, as well as a bit sad since it suggests that those years are long gone, as are many of the things that made them so musically compelling.
Ultimately, one gets the sense that what’s missing is not so much the talent and hunger (though there is also that), but the right people around to appreciate what’s good when they hear it, be it an A&R person, a concert promoter, a wannabe manager, a hanger-on or just a pizza guy who told the band they sounded cool, not to mention DJs, club owners, and bartenders who served all the then-penniless bands rounds of free beer.
There’s gossip, sure. If you want to find out who the Strokes dudes dated, what Interpol argued about, what Karen O is really like and what people think of Ryan Adams, it’s all here.
But the real strength of the book – and for which Goodman deserves the most credit – is that it provides a vivid account of what makes a scene happen and the complex networks of interactions that need to occur in order to cultivate and sustain it. In this, Meet Me in the Bathroom doesn’t give in to any easy narratives about how we got from there to here.
Some of the later sections about the rise of indie out of the ashes of the Strokes generation (about bands like Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors) feel a bit tacked-on. I can see why Goodman wanted to include them – and they are as interesting as anything in the book – but they suggest a different story. Perhaps that was the intention and we’ll one day have a sequel.
What these sections do suggest is that the Strokes (as emblematic of a certain moment) had to die in order for a more culturally omnivorous, artsy-cerebral quirkiness to emerge in certain figures in order to facilitate Brooklynization of popular music. It’s a shift from a form of coolness predicated on not liking anything to one built on a solid foundation of Internet-era encyclopedic knowledge.
Ultimately, the book suggests that the upshot of all this was the exportation of New York cool around the country and around the world, which also meant the evacuation of a certain kind of coolness from New York itself. I guess what this made possible is that now the next Strokes can come out of anywhere. But have they? Perhaps not, and perhaps they needn’t; maybe we should stop expecting the Beatles to be reincarnated every five years.
Or maybe we should be grateful. After all, musical guests on late-night shows have arguably never been more varied or more interesting than they are now (how mad can you be when a guy as unpretentious and charming as Mac DeMarco is successful?) Also, since virtually no one can stay popular for very long anymore, there is arguably less pressure on groups to seek popularity at all as long as they find a way to get people to their shows. Mark Kozelek gets to make a living making as many albums a year as he wants, with whomever he wants, in whatever style he wants, because he knows he has enough fans who will follow him (granted, he’s been at it a long time).
But Goodman’s book does make one nostalgic for a time when there was a kind of clarity within a particular section of the music industry. Musical allegiances and a certain kind of connoisseurship mattered and making a great album was worth risking your life for.
If you don’t care about rock or don’t think good music can or should be commercially successful, you are probably cooler than me and this is probably not the book for you. But if you find it mind-blowing that 15 years ago it actually mattered who gave what a good review, read this book. And why not give Is This It? another spin? It’s still a hell of a good album.