Thursday, August 3, 2017
Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 - Lizzy Goodman (2017)
Meet Me in the Bathroom is an oral history of the NYC rock scene in the early 2000's. It is about the Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and DFA Records/The Rapture/LCD Soundsystem. To a lesser extent, it is about the White Stripes, Kings of Leon, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, Fischerspooner, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Ryan Adams, the National, Conor Oberst, the Vines and the Moldy Peaches. And there are even more incidental references to other bands of the era. It starts off with Jonathan Fire*Eater, as a precursor to the Strokes. I had never heard of them before and I thought the Walkmen (which 1/2 of the band eventually became) were a bigger deal.
Jonathan Fire*Eater is positioned in the kind of Velvet Underground role in Please Kill Me, the first band to get mentioned out of the gate, the primary influence from which the scene sprouts. Everybody that listened to the Velvet Underground started their own band. Admittedly, it is a tall task to match up to VU, but JF*E do not directly influence the sound of many of the bands that are later written about, in quite the same way. Regardless, it is an interesting way to the start the book, because it is really more about the scene in the late 1990's. It goes right into the Strokes from there and never lets go. This is really the Strokes book, at least in terms of myth-making and cementing their status as icons.
I am really conflicted about this but I cannot quite put it on the Best Books list. It is really, really good, but it would basically equate it to Please Kill Me and Lexicon Devil. And obviously, Please Kill Me is a classic, and Lexicon Devil was just a blistering experience for me. This book was extremely entertaining though and I loved it. I was sad when it was over, and that to me is one of the signs of a great book. Whatever, I change my mind. It belongs on the list with that qualification.
It is perhaps worth noting that I went to NYU in 2001 and so was the target at which so much of the buzz of these bands was aimed. My friend Danielle burnt me a copy of Is This It. Interpol was a band of NYU graduates (Paul Banks met Daniel Kessler at NYU in Paris, where I would be 4-5 years later). Also in Paris, I went to see the Rapture at some festival type thing at a club in the Bois de Bologne. We would sometimes go out dancing at Favela Chic and I remember my friend Tommy talking about them. One night the DJ played "House of Jealous Lovers" and he was like, that's them! It was pretty awesome, so we went to the show, and afterwards we saw the band and walked up to them with our third friend, Sarah. We were like, "We're from New York too!" And they were like, "Um, cool." They weren't very interested in talking to us, so I always had kind of a weird feeling about them after, but I still got Echoes.
A fair number of the bands featured in here played $5 NYU shows, and I went to almost all of them. I also miraculously got a press pass to the CMJ Music Marathon in the Fall of 2002, and saw many there as well. I was there as the scene shifted from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and gave it to my friends. I recruited about twenty of them to join a potential band, with which we had two very tentative practices. I took guitar lessons and wanted to learn the drums. Finally I convinced my friends to let me manage their band, and got them their first gig. Even though I had no musical talent and could not (and still cannot) play any instruments, I wanted to be around people that did, and I wanted to get involved any way I could. My point is, it wasn't just the Strokes, but the whole scene, that made people want to start their own bands. That kind of situation lends itself well to an oral history.
The atmosphere of New York circa 9/11 also influenced us all. One of the things about this book that elevates it into Best Books territory is chapter 30. I would say that it is the finest piece of writing I have read, to date, on the subject of 9/11. Nothing else had ever so perfectly encapsulated my experience:
Andrew VanWyngarden [MGMT]: "I was a week into my freshman year at college and that's such an impressionable stage. I was a virgin and I was meeting all these new people and was just bright eyed and wow. Then September 11 came and I got so deeply freaked out, paranoid, and just knocked off of my foundation of what reality was that it just totally fucked me up." (203)
There are also a ton of journalists that supply the oral history. The book is dedicated to Marc Spitz, a voluble presence, who recently passed away. Marc Maron is also a contributor and I have been listening to the WTF podcast a lot recently. One of them was with Ryan Adams and my friend actually asked me to go to a Ryan Adams concert in Milwaukee right around when he dissed the Strokes on Twitter. So this is really still topical. Apparently Marc Maron is also putting out a book in October that follows a similar format to this, so I'll probably check that out. Perhaps he was influenced by his experience participating in this, and realized that it is a pretty interesting way to construct a book.
David Cross also hangs out with the Strokes and there are a couple embarrassing stories that I won't recite here. But the stuff about Ryan Adams is too funny to pass up:
Ryan Adams: "One night I was hanging with the Strokes guys and Ryan[Gentles]. We were really stoned because we were basically always smoking pot. It was very late. Fab would always play me a song that he had written, some beautiful romantic song. So one night, jokingly, I'm also certain Fabby said, 'Dude, what if John Mayer was playing that guitar right now?' And I said, 'I can make that happen.' And they all said, 'You're full of shit.' I said, 'Give me three fucking beers'--because there were only so many beers left at that late hour--'and I'll make it happen. I'm a goddamn genie in a bottle.' And we died laughing. Now, I lived down the block from John Mayer and he'd been talking to me about his new song for a while. So I texted him, because he was always up late back then. I said, 'Come to this apartment. Bring an acoustic guitar. I really want to hear your new song.' I didn't tell them that I'd done it. So everyone is sitting there and I was like, 'Let's all take bong hits.' I really wanted it to get crazy. We smoked some bong hits; I probably did some blow. I started to drink my three beers. The doorbell buzzer rings and I open the door and John Mayer walks in with his fucking acoustic guitar and they were all slack jawed. John sat down and played the fucking acoustic guitar--three or four songs that probably have gone on to be huge--while those guys just sat there staring at me like ,'Oh my god, you're a witch.' The next day John was like, 'Hey man, next time maybe less cigarette smoke? That really hurt my throat.' That apartment was like an airport smoking lounge." (379)
In short, I could understand why Ryan Adams might not like the way he comes off in this story, but I finished the book more interested in him. He's basically one of the greatest characters in the story. He comes up in his own way, as he arguably peaked in his popularity with the video for "New York, New York," which was released at almost the exact same time as Is This It, basically on 9/11, or maybe a week or two later. But he mostly comes up as a friend to, and a potential "bad influence" on, the Strokes. Most others are candid about their drug use, and also use the excuse that 9/11 bestowed upon the city a kind of desperate party-because-we're-going-to-die atmosphere. One reads a book like Meet Me in the Bathroom because it has the kind of gossip that you don't usually read about except in really unguarded stories in Spin or Rolling Stone or on Pitchfork. It is also good for correcting inaccuracies that are awkward to kind of mention out of the blue, but fit perfectly with the subject matter. One of the most striking is about the LCD Soundsystem song "Someone Great." Now, many people really love this song, and I think most consider it the second best song off Sound of Silver after "All My Friends." It also supplies a sizable piece of "45:33" (which I actually bought). Everybody says that this song is about mourning a lost lover. But I found the truth even more touching:
Tyler Brodie: "Do you know about the therapist? I never met him, I don't even know his name, but I do know LCD's "Someone Great" was later written about him."
Tim Goldsworthy: "That's not about a love affair. That was written the day that James's therapist died." (265)
James Murphy apparently did therapy three times a week. The book also touches on "Beat Connection," which gave me occasion to play it just now, and I have to say it is a really great song. I think Murphy sounds more like Mark E. Smith on it than on "Losing My Edge," though he is more on rant mode in that song.
The book is just filled with interesting stories and I think it would appeal to a general audience even if the reader doesn't know very much about the bands themselves. There are also little tidbits about the realities of life as a musician that is yet to "make it" that are particularly amusing. Take, for example, this nugget of truth that I appreciated as the purveyor of MEP:
Chris Taylor: "When I first moved to Brooklyn, Chris Bear, who plays drums in our band, moved into the same loft as me; we built it together. We were in this band, and at that age when you really have the energy and ambition to do all of this. There's just things that you don't care about that allow you to be free and experimental and take big risks and live in a dirty place and you don't give a shit. Rent was really cheap, $600 a month. Chris and I were vegetarians because it was cheaper--we cooked rice and beans so many nights. We priced it out. We knew the cost of the beans and the cost of the rice and we bought the onions and we're like, 'Okay, cool, this whole food element of life is under five bucks.' We can buy a Yuengling, which was like a dollar fifty, which was definitely a choice beer at that time, and that was enough. You find a cheap bike, so you don't even have to take the subway. That and some money for weed, that was your budget. That was all you needed."
Dave Sitek: "It was so cheap that you could afford to take risks and fail. If you failed at what you were doing it didn't matter because you were in Williamsburg. If you failed in Manhattan, it was different."
Eleanor Friedberger: I rode my bike everywhere. I got all of these amazing jobs that were so easy and stupid. I would work these office jobs, then go out every night, and I could afford to pay my rent" (310-311)
Speaking of Eleanor Friedberger, she really only has one revealing story, which involves the period when she was dating Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand. I don't know if there will be a "deluxe edition" of Meet Me in the Bathroom that comes out in 20 years (the way Please Kill Me was later supplemented), but I would read it if there were chapters on the Fiery Furnaces, and other bands like Liars and !!!. That is one of the primary criticisms I have of the book. It could have been even bigger and better. Actually there is a brief mention of the Fiery Furnaces record deal. And this classic bomb she casually drops:
Eleanor Friedberger: "It only seemed weird that bands like the Strokes and Interpol were around at the same time as us when they started doing so well and I thought they were so bad. I just didn't give a shit about that stuff." (315)
Oh snap, Eleanor lays it down! Of course no one is obligated to like everything, but she is pretty much the only one in the book that says she didn't like those bands. It would be nice if Julian Casablancas tweeted, "Sad @eleanorfriedberger, I love your music :(," and if she replied, "Okay I guess Room on Fire is pretty okay :)." But I doubt that will happen.
Vampire Weekend signals the beginning of the end of the book. There is a special place in my heart for them, as the subject of one of the earliest posts on Flying Houses. I think that review is a little bit harsh, and I partially disavow it. And actually I think they have gotten better with each album and believe that they delivered on their early promise. Nevertheless, I am not the only one who cannot resist poking fun:
Laura Young: "I was there [at the Strokes' Madison Square Garden show in 2011]. I had seats but I traded with somebody so I could be in the pit. I thought, 'I know I'm a little bit too old for this but I'm going anyway.' I remember seeing these kids that were fifteen years old. I was either talking to them or overhearing them and they were saying, 'This is the first time I'm seeing the Strokes. I listened to them all through elementary school and middle school.' It was so cool to see them there and so excited. I don't know, maybe somewhere, somehow, years from now Vampire Weekend will do some kind of reunion show, but I can't imagine young kids being there saying, 'I love Vampire Weekend so much. I'm so excited about them. I've been listening to them since elementary school.' And if they are, they should be punched in the face." (589-590)
The story of their band is one of the most boring in the book, primarily because they all seem to have their lives together. The reason why I think I hated them so much before is because everything just seemed sort of effortless and easy for them. I doubt that was true, and the story of how Ezra Koenig lived with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and all these other people in this quasi-bohemian house-studio is pretty interesting.
I haven't really talked about Interpol and they are a major part of the book as well. Paul Banks is quite entertaining in almost everything he says. Even though he sounds like he's really serious and kind of weird from his lyrics and singing, he is extremely self-effacing and claims to have no talent.
Paul Banks: "...'Like now to college kids, we're old people?! How the fuck did that happen?' I don't feel like I look that different but apparently I'm an old guy now. You know, I'm the guy trying to pick up eighteen-year-olds. 'Hey, kids, want some reefer?' Just kidding." (575)
The gaping hole in this book is Carlos D. He is often talked about--many myths are made about him--so his absence as a contributor feels all the more striking. He maintains an air of mystery.
In almost every other dimension, however, Meet Me in the Bathroom feels very complete and authoritative. On third thought I don't think I'm going to add it to the Best Books list--but it was definitely the best book I read in the past year. I'm not sure I'll read it again, but I think everyone should at least read it once.