In the opening two years of the 21st century, guitar-based rock enjoyed a late burst of creativity. The music industry was still thriving, yet to be laid waste by the internet. Meanwhile, New York, a city that had long been a byword for rock and its associated romance, was on the brink of a musical renaissance – and an awful trauma – before property mania transformed even its most disreputable neighbourhoods, after which affluent incomers could happily live out some dream or other, but the conditions for any kind of exciting culture were too often snuffed out.
This is the backdrop of Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history by Lizzy Goodman, who arrived in New York from her native New Mexico in 1999 and was evidently immersed in everything that happened. Her interviewees – there are 161 – beautifully capture the era, and illustrate its tensions and contradictions, many of which swirl around the band whose tale forms the book’s core. The Strokes were a quintet of affluent young men who had met at exclusive schools, led by a singer whose father had founded the Elite model agency. On the face of it, they were gentrification incarnate. But in the flesh, and on their first two albums, they convincingly celebrated the aspects of New York that were under threat – bohemian squalor, loose living, the idea of the metropolis as a place where twentysomethings discover who they are – and became a potent signifier for the city.
“A band should be a gang, running down the street, chasing a bus, breaking windows, breaking hearts,” offers one of their contemporaries. “Those guys had that.” They also had names seemingly ripped from a pulp novel: Julian Casablancas, Nick Valensi, Fabrizio Moretti, Nikolai Fraiture, and Albert Hammond Jnr (Hammond Snr is the Gibraltarian singer-songwriter who co-authored such huge hits as the Hollies’ “The Air that I Breathe” and Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”; his credit card paid a lot of the band’s early bills). Their music and look tapped into their home city’s past – the Velvet Underground, Television, Blondie – using a minimalist musical format that evoked the limited space and forced intimacies of Manhattan. There was also the prospect of an artistic dead-end, which duly arrived with their pretty awful third album, in 2006. But for a while, the Strokes were a great band: as one of Goodman’s contributors puts it, the “last imprint of that particular brand of rock cool … the last real rock stars”.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Photograph: Chris McKay/WireImage
The scene from which the Strokes emerged centred on a small handful of bars, and such club nights as Tiswas, Squeezebox, Mis-shapes, and the elegantly named Motherfucker. The people who went to them tended to live in the East Village, where despite large swaths of Manhattan falling prey to social cleansing, affordable living and edgy thrills were still available. “The acronym for Alphabet City [the East Village] stood for ‘Alcohol, Blow, Crack, Death’,” says the musician and native New Yorker Moby. Musicians and hangers-on could thus access the requisite drugs – and better still, before the decisive arrival of downloading did for its revenues, the music industry was there to keep everything afloat.
Beyond the Strokes, the beneficiaries included the Brooklyn-based Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Interpol. The former were a trio of misfits who, in the midst of a generation soaked in rock history, made a series of attempts to somehow push their way into the future, using the charisma and talent of their singer, Karen O (Orzolek) and a guitarist called Nick Zinner, apparently known in certain New York circles as “midget Elvis”.
Interpol were an almost comically stylised quartet, who wore monochrome suits and were – as with so many of their peers – indebted to the British post-punk of the late 1970s and early 80s, fond of certain substances, and soon aware of what illicit distribution meant for their careers. The book reaches one watershed point when their second album is unexpectedly leaked online, three months before its release date. “Right there, you see the past is over,” comments their guitarist, Daniel Kessler.
Gossipy anecdotes abound. When the Strokes first visited London, one journalist recalls, one of them “had a phone number – his mother’s, I think, but it could have been a tour manager’s – pinned to the inside of his jacket in case he got lost”. Another associate remembers being summoned to a room in the infamous Columbia Hotel – a west London flophouse which gets a chapter to itself – and beholding all five of the band and their manager, luxuriating in the moment. “It kind of stank,” he says. “Real boy odour. They were all barefoot in bed together and they smelled like rock stars. They said: ‘We just want to tell you, we want to do this for the rest of our lives.’ It was so sweet.”
We just want to tell you, we want to do this for the rest of our lives
That was the summer of 2001. In September came the events of 9/11, which happened when most of the musicians were back in New York. If the essential pop-cultural imperative is to live in the moment, the aftershocks of the attack on the World Trade Center made that obligation more urgent than ever. “The security blanket was just completely torn off,” Orzolek says. If the attackers “could achieve that, then what next? We were living with that danger. People needed release. There was this urgency, all of a sudden, for release … You never knew how long anything was going to last; every moment was ephemeral.” Whether consciously or not, the titles of the albums that followed reflect this emotion: Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights was followed by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, and the Strokes’ second record, Room on Fire.
Inevitably everything was already headed for the usual rock mishaps: drug problems, destructive commercial pressures, the discovery that fame was not quite what they had expected. Any prospect of a next generation of musical New Yorkers fell victim not just to property prices, but to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s use of archaic “cabaret laws” dating back to prohibition, which did for the city’s nightlife. Meanwhile, the spirit and sound of the original bands were channelled by two groups who were much less bohemian and prepared to chase success: Nashville’s Kings of Leon and the Killers from Las Vegas, both of whom are still with us, churning out music that does not signify much at all.
By comparison, the achievement of the Strokes and their talented peers was a blinding flashbulb moment, perfectly evoked by Hammond Jnr, who has now recovered from addiction and is seemingly content to join his fellow Strokes in sporadic reunions. His summary of their brief time at the top reads like an epitaph: “When I look back and see pictures of us, I feel that energy. I was one of them, and I look back and say, ‘I want to be one of them’.”