Sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 — Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of the NYC rock scene of the early aughts is everything HBO’s Vinyl tried to be and more. Even better, because it was authentic.
The book follows in the footsteps of other glorious oral history books — I Want My MTV and the SNL-chronicling Live From New York come to mind — in that it gets together the important voices to the story, but also the secondary characters that provide a lot of the color and context.
Goodman’s book is an anthology, totalling nearly 600 pages as it chronicles the rise of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, DFA Records and later LCD Soundsystem, Interpol — but also some forgotten names that laid the bedrock in that scene, and those that followed in these bands’ footsteps. It also takes place during an interesting time — Napster, file sharing and how it influenced the record industry collapse — and also gives a lot of credit to the NYC music writing and blogging scene, which featured a variety of female voices that championed many of these bands in their early days.
It also reads as a eulogy of a time when rock bands were still discovered the old fashioned way. Today, everyone has the power of reading about the opening band of a concert in the palm of their hand while the PA blared a Pandora station tuned to the demographic. Karen O poured olive oil all over herself for the first official performance of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Is anyone willing to take those kinds of risks these days when they know everyone has a camera in their pocket?
In the book, Goodman is able to unlock some extremely personal intel from the book’s key figures. At times, Julian Casablancas seemed able to wrestle away for answering to difficult periods in The Strokes’ history, but for the most part he was an open book. It seems as though the experience of going through these interviews could have served as therapeutic for them in a lot of ways, as they were confronted with some of their darker days. A ton of credit is due to Goodman for unlocking these rock stars and getting them to reveal some deep and dark parts of their history, as well as relive some of their most glorious moments.
What do you learn over the course of nearly 600 pages? Some stuff you already knew. That James Murphy is sort of a prick, but a genius prick. That always seemed clear. But who knew that The Strokes and Julian in particular championed so many other acts trying to make their way? They brought a green Kings of Leon on tour with them, much to their enjoyment but also probably a detriment to their bodies. Julian helped get Regina Spektor a deal and a slot on that same tour with the Kings.
Goodman does a good job at putting you in some of those dingy clubs early in these bands’ origin stories, but also gets access to the decadence and excess that ran many of these bands down at their successive peaks. Many parts in the book will break your heart. Albert Hammond Jr seems to have struggled more than most with drugs — although substance abuse seemed to be a common thread to the debauchery and rough days. Ryan Adams catches some blame in the pages, and he seems genuinely hurt the way his friendship with The Strokes disintegrated.
One thing that makes this such an enjoyable read is how interactive of a read it is. I don’t remember Conor Oberst singing a song he wrote after the election on The Tonight Show in a cowboy suit, but it’s online. Same with the bizarre appearance of Ryan Adams playing acoustic guitar at 4 AM on a Courtney Love special on MTV with The Strokes hanging out. Jack White’s first photo shoot in New York, wearing a shirt Meg White handwrote “New York Confuses Me” on in Sharpie. Also fun was soundtracking the read with the albums and bands that were being discussed.
Overall, it’s a magnetic read that you’ll have a hard time putting down. Paul Banks of Interpol reads as the most honest. I didn’t really find anyone unlikable, except for maybe former MTV VJ Gideon Yago, who always had an air of self-importance when his parts came up. It was also funny to find out that burgeoning pop star Maggie Rogers transcribed some of the interviews for the book while an intern at NYU.
My only criticism of the book is the way the Brooklyn scene seemed disjointed from the rest of the story. The wild and insane stories of the Manhattan scene made Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear come across as boring nerds in contrast. The main point it seemed to served was this was the direction the music business was going, and Vampire Weekend was one of the first bands to really break mostly on the blogs before having much of a live component.
Too many of the best non-fiction books about rock music are about bygone eras. Meet Me in the Bathroom captures the most recent big rock n roll boom, and for those like myself entering their thirties that remember hearing The Strokes in middle school and knowing they were the coolest motherfuckers to come along in a while, it’s a welcome dose of nostalgia.
You can buy Meet Me in the Bathroom at pretty much any online book retailer, such as Amazon, now!
Goodman was on Late Night With Seth Myers a few weeks ago to discuss the book, which should make you want to read it that much more. Observer posted a Facebook Live video with Goodman, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, and Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield. Both videos are available below: