Thursday 23 January 2020

The last hurrah of the wild men of rock 'n' roll


Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011

Lizzy Goodman

Faber & Faber, tpbk, 621 pages, €22.99

The music landscape has changed beyond ­recognition since The Strokes and their ­luminaries burst on to the New York scene. hilary a white takes a look at an exceptional chronicle charting rock's last great cultural mutation

Hedonistic days: The Strokes were the last rock stars in the traditional, telly-out-the-window sense
Hedonistic days: The Strokes were the last rock stars in the traditional, telly-out-the-window sense
Meet me in the Bathroom
James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem

When LCD Soundsystem wind-up three furiously over-subscribed comeback shows in Dublin's Olympia theatre at the end of next month, a nearby venue will stage an 'I Didn't Get a Ticket Party'. Six-and-a-half years on from James Murphy's spectacular mic drop in Madison Square Garden, even those who came away empty-handed from the frenzied ticket-sale scrum plan on celebrating.

At the turn of the century, when frat-boy nu metal ruled the rock landscape and bubblegum pop vied with superstar DJs and Eminem, the idea of a stubbly, awkwardly pitched studio boffin like Murphy being the hottest ticket of the year would have seemed chucklesome. But not only did the wind change direction, the sea itself did, too. Enter stage right five doe-eyed, finger-clicking New Yorkers with surnames like Casablancas, Hammond Jr and Valensi.

Scoff all you like today at the Strokes but in terms of rescuing a situation by being the very thing the world needed, the story is remarkable. And if you don't believe a line can be drawn between that band and the fans refreshing Ticketmaster's LCD Soundsystem page at 8.59am, then you need to read Lizzy Goodman's exceptional rock chronicle.

New York City was where this huge cultural mutation germinated in the very late 1990s. DJs smashed together post-punk, vintage rock and dance music in club nights such as Shout! in Bar 13. Rough-and-ready guitar bands like Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Mooney Suzuki sweated in rock dens such as Don Hills, CBGBs, Brownies and the hallowed Mercury Lounge. Vintage clothing and Lower East Side boho romance played a part. And despite NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani's drive to clean up the streets, the dot-com achievers came to Lower Manhattan to blow off steam alongside the rock kids. Assisting them were highways of cocaine.

Canny and savvy, the Strokes made flyers and used frontman Julian Casablancas' connections (his father founded Elite Model Management) to rope beautiful people into coming along to their club shows. The tunes had a decadence about them, their choppy, raw lo-fi was underpinned by an uncommon mixture of refinement and danger. Mercury Lounge booker Matt Hickey recalls calling Geoff Travis of UK label Rough Trade at 7am and playing their EP down the phone. Ten seconds in, Travis knew "that was it".

Goodman speaks to 160-odd players around at the time, laying out parallel but intermingling lines charting fellow luminaries Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and The Rapture (whose single 'House of Jealous Lovers' ushered Murphy's DFA label into the music-press conversation).

What seems like yesterday is of course now rock 'n' roll lore, and rightly so. We're reminded that it was just months after the UK release of debut LP Is This It, as Strokes-mania was coming to a boil both sides of the Atlantic, that 9/11 struck. The eyes of the world chained themselves extra fastly to Manhattan Island. New Yorkers themselves rushed out to hug their city amid blizzards of escapist hedonism in wild bars and endless loft parties. Is This It hit US shelves two weeks after the carnage, with the track 'New York City Cops' removed out of solidarity.

"It made it hard for all the people that wanted to be cynical about the Strokes or take shots at them," one commentator recalls, "…they became representative of something larger." New York became a concept worth cherishing and the Strokes and the rest of the acts in their skinny-jeaned slipstream were ambassadors.

There was more to come. Concurrent threads weave in and out from the glut of acts that followed the Downtown gold rush. The White Stripes and Kings of Leon turned up to exchange notes and, in the case of the latter, share in the Strokes' bottomless appetite for debauchery. Casablancas helped launch the career of Regina Spektor and the anti-folk movement spearheaded by the Moldy Peaches et al. As their peers get the recipe right and continue to ascend, the Strokes fall into the law of diminishing returns and addiction.

Embracing Rashomon-like subjectivity, Goodman stands back and lets everyone have their say. The variety of voices and standpoints not only creates a very full-bodied perspective on that era but also rip-roaring entertainment due to the order and thematic lines Goodman assembles them in. Thus, a constant flow of wickedly juicy gossip (who did how much of what with whom), bitchy put-downs (former DFA co-owner Tim Goldsworthy doesn't hold back on his feelings towards Murphy) and awkward contradictions (Ryan Adams denying claims he provided Hammond Jr with heroin).

By the time Murphy and the Strokes did back-to-back Madison Square Garden shows in 2011, the scene and the world around it were very different. File-sharing and playlist culture shrank budgets and expectations, making the Strokes the last "rock stars" in the traditional, TV-out-the-window sense.

But it also meant bands like Grizzly Bear and the brilliant Vampire Weekend were less burdened by NYC rock heritage in both influence and druggy posturing. A more careerist, musically eclectic model emerged in the increasingly priced-out neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. Fitter, happier, more productive, but tamer and less rakish, too.

And if, alas, rock 'n' roll has lost its edge and those days are gone forever, this is a fitting send-off.

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