Meet Me in the Bathroom

Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011
By Lizzy Goodman
[Harper Collins]

So let’s face it. With the exception of the downtown protopunk of the mid ’70s, New York City has never really been a hotbed of musical innovation. And most of the aforementioned innovators of the fabled CBGBs/Max’s era weren’t really from New York: Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine were from Kentucky, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were from New Jersey, The Cramps and The Dead Boys were from fucking Ohio and the Talking Heads were from New England fer chrissakes. Of course, there are a couple or three seismically influential bands whose members did in fact hail from the Big, Rotten Apple: The New York Dolls, The Dictators and The Ramones. But those guys were all from uncool places like Staten Island, the Bronx and Queens. So they were “bridge and tunnel people” who were more or less sneered upon by bohemian Manhattanites – until they were declared fabulous by the tastemakers of the day, that is.

Sure, a lot of important rock ’n’ roll history has indeed occurred in New York. But New York is a carpetbaggers town, a shitty and staggeringly expensive (and supercool and darkly alluring) gathering place for envelope pushers, coattail riders, dilettantes, poseurs and wannabes. New York City is the place to go if you wanna “make it big,” or if you’ve already achieved semi-notoriety elsewhere and you’re seeking to crystallize said semi-fame in the big town. But, to live there you’ve gotta have money or work your ass off every waking moment to pay exorbitant rental prices. As such, it’s difficult-to-impossible to start a band there – or to do anything creative there, for that matter. There are shitloads of people there, and there are always shows galore. So, historically, New York City is a place where lots of great music happens, even though most of the great bands (with the exception of mid ’70s protopunk, that is) that play there come from somewhere else. (You know, Atlanta’s getting more and more like that these days, too. But that’s another rant.)

Yet I must grudgingly admit that there was a brief upsurge in New York rock around the late ’90s to early oughts – led most notably by The Strokes. The Strokes were (and are) one of those love-‘em-or-hate-‘em kinda bands. The Strokes were (and are) an artfully coiffed, oh so fashionable, prefab simulacrum of NYC antecedents Television and The Velvet Underground, tweaked ever so slightly to maximize pop accessibility. Granted, The Strokes chose a couple of very cool bands to emulate, and they emulated them well. And they were (and are) so goddamned cute. So, uh, I guess I loved The Strokes – until I quit loving them after the release of Angles, that is. I digress.

Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 is an artfully wrought oral history that, like The Strokes, is something of a postmodern simulacrum in and of itself. Here, Goodman historicizes post-millennial NYC rock using the exact same format (and, laudably, similar degrees of journalistic diligence, reverence and sass) as Please Kill Me. Granted, Goodman chose a very cool book (actually the best rock ’n’ roll book ever) to emulate. And she emulated it well. (And, judging from her photo on the dust jacket, I daresay Goodman is artfully coiffed and pretty goddamned cute herself.)

The Strokes were the poster boys for NYC rock, circa 2001. But they were by no means the only happening band of the era – nor are they the lone subject matter of Meet Me in the Bathroom. In just short of 600 pages, the book extensively chronicles the careers of everyone from the guitar wranglers in Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen, Interpol, The Rapture and The Mooney Suzuki, to the bratty pastiche of acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio and (ugh!) Vampire Weekend, straight through electroclash (remember that?) and ending up in the electronic dance music ghettos with Fischerspooner, the DFA label, and none other than LCD Soundsystem. Oh yeah – non-NYC outsiders like the Kings of Leon, the White Stripes, Ryan Adams, The Hives, Jet and The Libertines make umpteen cameo appearances, also.

So what we have here is a the history of a certain era of NYC rock – a liminal era that began with the last gasp of popular guitar rock (you know, the “The” bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes) and evolved into the early stirrings of what has become EDM – which has become, basically, today’s mainstream pop. As such, the book is sort of a two-headed beast. The entire book is interesting, but the chapters dealing with the guitar bands are much more interesting. Maybe I should say that what we have here is the history of a certain era of NYC music – a liminal era where rock gave way to some other music that isn’t “rock” per se: where guitars gave way to computers, where song structures gave way to cut-and-paste, sonic juxtaposition, and where the few remaining guitar/bass/drums bands jettisoned the rock-as-rebellion thing in favor of a studied, coy, precocious, “post-irony” kind of post-everything genre hopping bit that’s damned irritating.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not naïve enough to buy the notion of “authenticity” existing in any era of rock. I’m well aware that the fabled movers and shakers of NYC’s mid ’70s protopunk were careerist poseurs trying to glom onto something, anything, that would hopefully make them rich and famous. Still, by posing as rebels, the protopunks were perceived as rebels – and they scared the hell out of a lot of people in the process. By the millennial turn, the best we could hope for was The Strokes’ rich boy rendition of punk gone by and the “The” bands’ garage rehash. And that only lasted for a couple of years.

But what we have now is the sing-songy dots-and-loops of EDM and, even worse, the twee, pretentious musical colonialism of Vampire Weekend, which sounds a lot more like Paul Simon’s Graceland than the Talking Heads, anyway. (Sure, the Talking Heads’ art school melding of funk and Afro pop was a pernicious strain of musical colonialism, too. And those guys were from New England, fer chrissakes.) The vampires of Vampire Weekend are cannily aware of all of this too. As Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig notes, “to be a music fan these days you grow up surrounded by everything, so every album you make is not so much about finding new things, it’s about dismissing things, actually, zeroing in on what you think is cool at the moment. You can always rediscover things and recontextualize things.”

And what’s really scary is that Koenig is probably right. Again, ugh.

Yeah, I know I’m sounding like Old Man Grumpus here, ranting on and on about “kids these days,” AKA millennials, who are fast becoming grown-ass adults. And this time around, I guess the bands of Meet Me in the Bathroom are, aargh, “the kids.” (Many of these “kids” are pushing 40 now, so what does that say about me?)

Basically, Meet Me in the Bathroom is the history of the gentrification of rock ’n’ roll, or what became of it, or what’s (not) left of it. My beef is with the bands, music and style (or lack thereof), not with the book itself. The book is fun and provocative. It’s chock full of good dirt. It’s funny. Hell, it’s an important book, even. Goodman has done an admirable job chronicling the music and youth culture of a certain period in a certain locale, even if the New York scene of the early oughts might indeed be the milieu where rock ’n’ roll experienced its final death throes, over a decade ago.