The Story Behind the Story of New York City's Last Great Rock Scene
Author Lizzy Goodman shares the stories of The Strokes, DFA Records, and Interpol that went into making her new book ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom.’
The Strokes in 2001 / Photo by Anthony PIdgeon/Redferns
For Lizzy Goodman, the author of Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history of the New York music scene from 2001 to 2011, her moment of revelation came not once, but twice. The first was when The Strokes headlined Madison Square Garden in 2011; the second was the following evening at the same venue when she was dancing among the people sweating drugs in the pit at LCD Soundsystem's farewell show. At The Strokes she was surrounded by her friends and professional peers—but also kids and their moms. At LCD there were bankers in attendance, limos humming in neutral out the front, and Susan Sarandon observing stage left.
"The combination of those two experiences broke the spell of being a part of something and realizing there was a 30,000 foot view of this thing," she explained over lunch in Williamsburg. "All of a sudden I saw the connection between bands I loved who are considered part of the rock and roll canon, like Tom Petty, and these artists. They're our version of that. This was accelerated because of the internet, but suddenly it felt like a punctuation, like something was over. Not in a bad way, but we'd made it. Something has made it!"
Meet Me in the Bathroom (a title swiped from The Strokes' 2002 song) chronicles the ascension of artists like The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and the DFA Records crew. Their music and the energy they bled onstage reinvigorated the New York scene. This in turn inspired a fleet artists internationally, from Franz Ferdinand to The Libertines to The Vines to Arctic Monkeys and beyond. Meanwhile, American acts such as The Killers and Kings of Leon found themselves galvanized, drawn to the Lower East Side dive bars, weaving grit and glitter and sweat and sex into songs that connected with music fans but also drove people to dance—at Don Hill's in New York, at Optimo in Glasgow, at Trash in London.
"It was like a gun went off," Lizzy said. But it wasn't a warning salvo so much as a shot from the starting line: "It's your time, you can get away with this again." Or as Karen O snarled on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut EP: "It's our time, our time!"
"All of a sudden I saw the connection between bands I loved who are considered part of the rock and roll canon, like Tom Petty, and these artists. They're our version of that."
As a wide-eyed young music hack living in London, I covered this shift and explosion exhaustively, particularly since many of these artists came to the UK to create a buzz before returning on a triumphant wave of NME-assisted hype. Even as these artists landed in London every other week, so many of us in the UK were gazing across the Atlantic, palms pressed up against the glass. Sure, the sticky black floors of the Camden Barfly were fun, but I wanted to be partying at 2A, and Lit, and downstairs at Black & White. At the tail end of 2001 I flew to New York to cover The Strokes' New Year's Eve show for NME, turning my crush on the city into a full-blown love affair. Not long after that, through a ragtag network of writers, bloggers, DJs, scene kids, and band members, I became friends with Lizzy. We all shared that sense of excitement, and now we share a history.
So, in the fall of 2012, some 18 months after those seminal shows at the Garden, and probably a decade after we first met, I joined Lizzy at a French restaurant in North London, ostensibly to be one of her first interviewees for the book. We bought a bottle of red wine and proceeded to get very drunk. I read chunks from three diaries I'd scribbled in from the beginning of 2001— when I first interviewed The Strokes for my college paper—through to sometime in 2002 when I first interviewed Interpol, and we laughed our asses off. Almost none of these recollections were suitable for reprinting in Meet Me in the Bathroom, which became a project that spanned five years over 200 interviews, and countless late nights puzzle piecing everyone's story into 640 pages of coherent narrative (we did have a great time, though).
Meet Me in the Bathroom is an impressive document of the time, an oral history that covers the repercussions of 9/11, the advent of the internet and its effects on these artists and the music industry as a whole, and the late-2000s shift to Brooklyn. But what's most impressive is the level of intimacy Lizzy achieves with her subjects. Beyond the scene-setting and subsequent pop culture ripples, more than the titillating hook-ups, drugs, and debauchery, she's managed to extract admissions and reflections that are genuinely poignant. All these memories, the locus points, and everyone's (at times) divergent version of events are distilled into a tome that captures the messy, glorious chaos of New York—the book's central character—a city filled with, as Lizzy puts it "a bunch of striving humans looking to find themselves."
Noisey: You've been writing about music for many years—contributing to NME, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times —but what was your your entry point into this scene? I know you didn't want to write it, but you have a beautiful introduction about this in the book.
Lizzy Goodman: My editor was right about that intro, and now I feel good about it, in part because I was saved by this world. I wasn't in trouble. But New York and the music, the sense of possibility and freedom that the city represents and has represented as an idea for artists for a long time—to be able to be a part of an iteration of that in our generational period was so key for my development as a human. I was restless. I was this good kid from a good family going to a good school, and I was really out of place at the same time. I was at school in Philadelphia, and I went to New York for the first summer after my freshman year and got a job in a restaurant and met this guy who was working there, too, who played in this band called The Strokes. Nick [Valensi] became this entry point to everything I just said about what New York represents.
I already wanted a piece of that idea, but I didn't know that idea existed in contemporary life. Nick was romantically cynical, and through him I met a bunch of people who are major characters in the book, but I also got into New York bands and bands of kids who were my age making music—The Realistics, Longwave—these artists that really haven't gotten much attention outside of that period of time but deserved it.
God I loved The Realistics!
The great unsung band of this era! But yeah, through Nick and The Strokes, it was a way for me to tap into this idea of what New York represents, which allowed me to make different decisions about my own life: It gave me permission to get a little freer, a little looser, a little more confident that there were other people who wanted to live that way as well. I found a community of people who no one ever knew would be famous but who were also on the same wavelength. That was everything. The music I got turned onto was a result of being interested in the city, like 70s punk—I remember listening to Television and The Clash and all of this stuff I didn't know as a kid growing up in New Mexico.
It seems like a challenge to write this book because for the bands involved, being included maybe gives a sense that your finest moment has passed.
Being asked to do a book on something like that when you're this young is hard. I was surprised and overwhelmed by that, and the level of openness I got. Like Albert [Hammond Jr.] who was just so willing to look at himself, and willing to be vulnerable in conversations about his band. The Albert interview was one where I was like, wow. For a lot of this, The Strokes are still at the frontline, whether they like it or not, and I was genuinely moved by how willing they were to show up for these conversations.
James Murphy was also incredible. Going to early Interpol shows or Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows—those are bands I had some sort of connection to, even if I just drank in the same bars. I didn't know anything about the DFA guys, I wasn't in that world, so what was cool about that was being able to be a journalist about a period of time I'd lived through but also didn't know about.
For me the DFA stuff was the big revelation in the book. Like you, I was also not in that world. I didn't really realize how funny James is, nor how fraught the fallout between him and Tim Goldsworthy was and continues to be. When Tim or James or any of those people in the DFA circle talk about that time and what went down, their recollections and emotions still seem so fresh and ragged.
Totally. It's important to note that the book doesn't really cover the story of LCD Soundsystem—it covers the story of the founding of DFA because by the time LCD launched, the story I was telling had moved on. It's easy to think of James as this powerhouse statesmen of the scene, but when the story starts, he thinks his career is over, that he's this washed up guy who never really made it. He's bumming around, burnt out, in late 90s New York going, "This place is terrible." In walks this cool rock star from England, Tim Goldsworthy, who was in Unkle in the UK and came from this very cool world in Britain. It wasn't that closely followed here, but he knew The Beastie Boys, and as James says in the book a lot: "Tim was cool and I was not." He had that sort of power.
It's so funny to think about that now.
It's hysterical! There's this consistency that you pick up with all these bands—Interpol for sure, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, even Longwave and The Realistics, TV on the Radio too, but a little later—they all had the same thought: this is boring, there's nothing cool going on in rock and roll, the city is dead, so we might as well do whatever the fuck we want. As James says in the book, "This place is dead"—and then he says, "dead exciting." It's like there's a promised land here. James and Tim went on to have one of the great, fertile partnerships of music, and the way they connected with each other shaped the idea to make rock and roll danceable. That was revolutionary at the time—which is hard to remember. It's almost impossible to overstate how influential that pairing has become, and that's why their falling out was really tragic and gory to watch unfold.
You include bands that weren't based in New York. What was your reasoning behind weaving in artists like Kings of Leon, The Killers, and The White Stripes?
The rule of thumb I used was: Did this artist use New York or the idea of New York—which is the central character of the book—as a launching pad in some way? The Kings of Leon's story dovetails a lot with The Strokes because they toured so much in the beginning, but the real genesis of why they belong is because they say they wouldn't have existed without The Strokes, and certainly their careers wouldn't have taken off in the same way. Same with The Killers. Brandon is like, "That [Strokes] record came out and it affected how I went forward the next day with what I played." The Kings of Leon are some of my favorite characters book because they were like, let's have fun with how this happened—they're professional fun-havers. I love their ambitions and The Killers', too. The Strokes gave people the permission to feel like it was possible to be rock stars and that was not true for bands with guitars in 2000.
Who was the hardest person to convince to do this?
Jack White was up there.
Who did you want to get but couldn't get?
Carlos motherfucking D.
Of course! So Carlos D from Interpol, who was arguably one of the biggest personalities of the scene, who peacocked all around the world, being ridiculous and behaving like the most outlandish rock star out of all of them, would not talk to you.
Yes! There's a new subtlety to Carlos's life. I missed my moment. This is what's true about Carlos: he's an extreme personality. So when he was doing this, he was full on, and if I had wanted to talk to him in 2005, I'm sure that could've been arranged and then some.
He probably would have lined up the drugs and tried to coerce you into a threesome…
Sure. And I would have been honored to have been hit on by Carlos D. [ Laughs] But now he's doing something else with his life. There's plenty of people who could have added something, but I think he's actually missing.
He has to live on through other people's stories. And everyone has a Carlos story.
Right. And that's also kind of fun because now he's the phantom of it.
Who is the book's MVP?
Kim Taylor Bennett.
You're up there actually! There's a couple categories with that. I think James is uniquely positioned. When I was formulating the book I was thinking of it as three acts: pre-9/11, pre-the breakout of all these bands, and then there's the rise and global ascension of this idea of New York. The third act is the globalization of New York cool, Brooklyn as a brand, all that shit. James is the only person who has a primary role in each of those stories. In please Kill Me Me, which this book is inspired by, Iggy Pop is that guy: He's the tour guide, he's there for it all and also has an ability to be a voiceover, even as he's telling his own story. James is gifted that way in his storytelling.
"The Strokes played this Milk Studios after party... I remember that feeling, too—like, they're not ours anymore."
His segments were some of the most laugh out loud funny.
Right? I mean, he's going places! This book is also not possible without the cultural critics. Rob Sheffield and Jenny Eliscu from Rolling Stone and Marc Spitz from Spin magazine. All three had a unique ability—they were there, they were fans and belong as characters in the story—but they were able to ground conceptual points about this era in anecdotal shit. Like Jenny talking about when The White Stripes played the VMAs and MTV wanted to do a battle of the bands with The White Stripes and these other garage rock bands. Instead, The Strokes played this Milk Studios after party. This was still really early. And she tells this story about going to the party and there's a girl with a clipboard and she couldn't get in right away. It was like, ohhh. The way she talks about that is very specific—and I remember that feeling, too—like, they're not ours anymore.
I know Marc Spitz's passing is still incredibly raw [Spitz passed away unexpectedly this past February], and you are still grieving the loss of someone both so personally close to you and a person who was critical to the book's existence. But is there anything you want to say about him and his contributions?
The book is dedicated to Marc for a reason: It would not exist without him. It's true because of what you can read in the text, but it's also true because he was my coach. I watch a lot of tennis, and in some tournaments, in between games, the coach can come down to the court and talk to their player, and Marc did that for me. Marc was the voice on the other end of the phone throughout this book. Needless to say, it's basically incomprehensible that it's coming out without him here, but I know that he was really proud of it.
He did read it before he died.
Yeah. His only complaint was there was not enough of him in it.
Ha! There's a shit ton of him in it. And he's so astute. He nails it every time.
[ Laughs] Marc was very witty about that sort of thing, he said really nice things about the book, but he would say, "You really needed this person to say that? I could have said that!" According to Marc there could always be more Marc.
Where now? I have these conversations with my friends and fellow editors: Where is rock and roll, and is hip-hop going to dominate the world forever?
Funny, that's where we were when this started: hip-hop is the coolest—well certainly in New York it was like, we don't have rock bands, we have Biggie. I was going to say that these things are cyclical, and rock and roll to me isn't really a sound of music. It's a notion, an attitude, it's rebellion, and all the things that pulled me to New York in the first place. There's a continuum of a sensation and a sensibility that music brings to you that other types of art can bring to you too. You can never count that out. The only thing that makes me not comfortable saying that, and that's what this book chronicles in part…
Is the rise of the internet and its effect on art.
Right, the way digital culture has affected the making art is impossible to fully comprehend right now. What do you think?
It's created so much opportunity, but there's this morass of indie rock that feels very tepid and middling and average, and no one is raising their head above the parapet.
Yeah. But I think what doesn't change is the thing that pulls you to rock music: The internet hasn't changed people's need to misbehave and get free…
But now everything is so documented. It's affected the way rock and roll behavior manifests and the freedom with which we move. We wouldn't have done half the shit we did if we thought it was going to end up as an Instagram story.
Yes and that's a really important point. One of the concepts I stayed close to while writing this book was "The Last Real Rock Stars." Daniel [Kessler] is really insightful about this. He says Interpol's first album is part of one era of music making and their second album comes from a completely different era.
"Sex, drugs, and rock and roll don't get less appealing just because you have an iPhone. People still wanna fuck, they still wanna listen to loud music, people still need to chase youth and abandon."
Because Antics leaked.
Right! It could have been 100 years between those two in terms of how different the landscape is because of the leak. It's important to remember that these artists who are still, to my mind, the last global notion of what cool is, were creatively forged in a pre-internet world. Dave Sitek talks a lot to me in the book about power of being bored.
Which Julian Casablancas talks about a lot: He doesn't have a phone because he wants to be bored in an elevator, not scrolling through emails. It's helpful to be disconnected so the mind can be fertile.
Because the restlessness that I said all these artist have in common, that comes from being under-stimulated by things that make you feel and make you wanna move and laugh and cry and rage, and therefore it forces you to find like-minded people to generate that with. The need for that remains, but the way life is lived now exists in conflict with that space. Dave Sitek left for LA in 2005, which was supposedly when all this stuff was getting good. The energy had shifted. I feel lucky that I was bored in my early 20s because I carry the muscle memory of how that felt and I force myself to seek it out when I'm making work. It sounds like Julian's doing the same thing, that's what Dave is talking about too. But it's hubris to be like, "Kids today…"
Of course. The next generation will find a way that will completely surprise us that we'd never think of…
Because we're too goddamn old! But look: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll don't get less appealing just because you have an iPhone. People still wanna fuck, they still wanna listen to loud music, people still need to chase youth and abandon. Which is what you were chasing and I was chasing, which is what led me here. How they do that is not the business of the previous generation to examine all that closely. It'll happen. I don't really understand how because I don't have to.
Kim Taylor Bennett was always going on about the bands in the 2000s when she was an editor at Noisey, and her fellow editors would always humo(u)r her. Follow her on Twitter.
- New York
- The Strokes
- James Murphy
- Nick Valensi
- marc spitz
- lizzy goodman
- Tim Goldsworthy
- Meet Me In the Bathroom
- Carlos D