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

Lizzy Goodman's 'Meet Me in the Bathroom.'
Lizzy Goodman's 'Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Were the Strokes the last rock stars? Well, don't tell Imagine Dragons...but here's the argument that inspires the title of the last chapter in Lizzy Goodman's oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011.

The turn of the 21st century saw the record industry at its commercial peak, teetering on a precipice. Labels were flush with over a decade of high-priced CD sales — many of those dollars going to music the labels had finished paying for decades ago, as baby boomers and gen-Xers replicated their record collections — and the indie-rock surge of the '90s had the labels feeling bullish about scrappy rock bands. The Strokes had the sound, they had the look, and they had the scene. After Napster, what band could ever be the Strokes again?

Meet Me in the Bathroom is the story of a moment that begins with the rise of the Strokes and ends with the rise of Brooklyn. The Strokes were (and remain) a very popular band, but their historical legacy won't rest on their record sales, it will rest on the fact that they stood for New York's reclamation of a torch that, 20 years earlier, it had passed to cities like Minneapolis and Seattle.

As Goodman's sources point out, by the end of the '90s, the leading lights of '80s and '90s rock seemed spent as forces of inspiration. Axl Rose was in cornrows, R.E.M. were adult-contemporary pop stars, U2 were larger than life, Kurt Cobain was dead, and Pearl Jam were busy feuding with Ticketmaster. Mark Ronson, an experienced DJ who was about to become a superproducer, sums it up: "At that time, there were no great rock records that you could play in a hip-hop set." Grunge, for all its merits, just wasn't danceable — and dance music didn't rock.

Enter the Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol: bands with hopped-up rhythms that were influenced by dance music without exactly being dance music. Their peers included LCD Soundsystem, who made dance music that rocked. Everyone was listening to Missy Elliott, and DJs could segue from "One Minute Man" into "Last Nite" without killing the vibe.

Published in May, Goodman's book quickly became notorious for the Strokes' allegations that Ryan Adams was a "bad influence" who encouraged Albert Hammond Jr. to fall into a heroin habit. That made headlines when the book was published, and Adams fired back, rudely. "Julian Casablancas," he tweeted last month, "who got you strung out on lasagna tho?"

(Although Adams, in the book, says "I don't remember doing drugs with Albert ever," he does also say that "I loved doing drugs in New York City so so so so f---ing much." Four sos.)

Maybe the most reliable — and certainly the most entertaining — source regarding those fuzzy years is Har Mar Superstar. The Minnesota native spent a lot of time on the scene (he was a touring support act on the Strokes' first big national tour), and he turns up throughout Goodman's book, sharing stories about everything from the time he played guitar for Kate Moss in a treehouse to the friend who brought Klonopin to relieve Har Mar's ear-pressure issues — and then ended up causing all the Strokes to have "mind-freak-out meltdowns."

(Another fun Minnesota tidbit: Mallrats, the 1995 Kevin Smith movie shot at Eden Prairie Center, was a favorite of the Strokes during the sessions for their iconic album Is This It.)

The book is full of all the war stories you'd expect, plus a lot of cultural context. For example, the way that 9/11, although it inspired a pushback against the Strokes song "New York City Cops" (it was ultimately left off U.S. versions of Is This It, except for the initial vinyl pressing), also rallied tourism and sympathy to the city. Suddenly, being from New York meant something almost mythic, in a way it hadn't before. New York City bands represented something.

Meet Me in the Bathroom also touches on the way that the internet revolutionized music media. Suddenly blogs were where the action was, and the normal rules of the media game didn't apply. It wasn't about getting good reviews: it was about getting attention, at all. Veteran rock writer Rob Sheffield describes the shift in a comment that also offhandedly acknowledges how men's lock on music writing was starting to crack.

The bloggers weren't really critics, as far as I could tell; they weren't interested in arguing about why you should or shouldn't agree with them. They only had time for the bands they liked. If they didn't like a band, they just didn't write about them. But there was absolutely no way to bulls--t these girls. They had zero incentive to pretend to like a band they didn't like. Also, iPods had just been invented, so almost all these girls were part-time DJs, which was now suddenly an incredibly easy job that required zero technical skills or record-collecting tendencies.

The era captured in Meet Me in the Bathroom perhaps peaked when the Strokes and the White Stripes (not a New York band, but part of the indie rock revival) shared a bill at Radio City Music Hall in 2002. It ended, as does the book, in 2011, when the Strokes headlined Madison Square Garden and then one night later, LCD Soundsystem took the venue for what they declared would be their final show. "Over the weekend at Madison Square Garden," wrote the New York Times, "they came to bury the first decade of the 2000s."

The 621-page book also encompasses the Strokes-influenced bands that became, by some measures, bigger than the actual Strokes ever were (the Killers, Franz Ferdinand), and tracks the rise of what journalist Simon Reynolds calls "record collection rock": brainy, referential, and challenging music by bands like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and TV on the Radio that became associated with the arrival of Williamsburg as an international hipster hub around the turn of the decade.

Goodman — who was on the scene herself, and had the connections to make a project of this scale happen — has performed a tremendous service by capturing this oral history now, rather than decades in the future when memories will be even hazier. Her book crystallizes that first decade of the century as a special moment for New York City rock, and for New York City generally.

"That town can have hundreds of personalities," Nashville-via-Detroit resident Jack White says about New York. "I like it better from afar, but I'm always thankful it exists."

The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club is throwing a record party! It's part of the Lit Crawl MN on Sept. 16, 9 p.m. at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Authors Andrea Swensson, Jim Walsh, and Cyn Collins will read from their books about Minnesota music history — and spin some sweet vinyl. Hosted by Jay Gabler, this event is free and open to the public.

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