By the late ‘90s, New York City had become a rock n roll wasteland. Sure, Madison Square Garden, Roseland and the Beacon Theater meant something to established touring bands. But there hadn’t been any rock of importance coming from the city since Sonic Youth. Seattle was still churning out alt rock and sunny Los Angeles always attracts bands like moths to a flame.
Then the Strokes happened. Then Interpol. Then Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Then TV on the Radio. Then LCD Soundsystem.
New York City reclaimed its place as the center of the rock universe and journalist Lizzy Goodman was on-hand to witness much of the action. Her new book, Meet Me in the Bathroom, chronicles every detail of the New York rock scene’s reemergence from 2001 through 2011. Spanning over 600 pages of raw and vivid memories (incredibly, the first draft was over one thousand pages) that were the hallmarks of the scene, Goodman captured the essence of Manhattan’s sweaty rock clubs and Brooklyn’s blossoming experimental scene through the artists who emerged in post 9/11 New York.
The intensity of putting together all of these complex parts and stories—over 200 interviews were conducted—almost broke the writer. Following a “couple of mini-breakdowns,” Goodman left the Big Apple two years ago for the tranquility of Upstate New York. There, she was finally able to bring her six year writing odyssey to a close. Meet Me in the Bathroom is the result, and it’s spectacular.
“A crazy person decided to do this,” Goodman says of the undertaking. “There were a lot of points along the way where I was wondering what I was thinking.”
We spoke with Goodman about the scene’s gritty early days, what it meant to the city’s recovery from 9/11 and whether or not another a physical location is necessary to recapture rock’s importance within the music universe.
When people read this, they may be surprised at distinctly different the whiskey-drenched Manhattan and the more bookish Brooklyn scenes were stylistically. Why did you decided to construct the book in this fashion instead of writing two different books?
I think of the book having three different eras. The pre-history because it showed why it was a fucking miracle that these bands did anything in the first place for the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the rest of that scene. Rock n roll in New York at that time was shitty. If you were playing in a guitar band at that time, you had no hope. Era two was the whiskey scene in Manhattan, then Brooklyn. I started the idea for the book at the weekend where it ends (in 2011). The Strokes, then LCD Soundsystem play Madison Square Garden on back-to-back nights. Since the idea came to me in that moment, it was clear that the LCD world was a part of the story I wanted to tell and to integrate it with the Strokes world, even though it didn’t in practice. Journalistically, I had to do Brooklyn at the end because that’s where it went, and it’s wild because no one would have predicted it.
Why an oral history instead of a straight narrative?
Basically, it just felt like there was no way to tell a definitive, conclusive, comprehensive version of the story this big with this many layers and important characters. Oral history lends itself so well to conjuring how it felt to be there, rather than exactly what happened. That’s what this tale needed. Sensory reality over literal reality.
Do you think the pre-9/11 era was a response the prevailing Giulianism of the time, whereas Brooklyn is a growth out of Bloombergism?
I think that’s a totally fair read. To reduce that even further, cultural and creative repression and the last vestiges of a derelict New York in the former case, and the latter it’s prosperity. After New York recovered from 9/11, there’s this period of time where New York is their city and all of this money is getting made. Money on the backs of the artists and the back of the idea of cool that they reinvigorated around the world. And, real estate money. The political history of New York intertwines to this too, that’s for sure.
What was the point, in your experiences, was the moment that was pivotal moment where everything changed for the scene and it became bigger than anyone involved?
Probably later than it could have been for other people. I find myself hating saying I was inside of it because it wasn’t like I was tuning guitars for (Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist) Nick Zinner. I was an aspiring young journalist who worked as a second grade teacher for most of the early part of the years that are covered here, and then at PBS and I didn’t get hired at Rolling Stone until the mid-2000s. But, I was in the center of it in that these were my bands and I knew some of them personally, so I experienced the lag between what I knew about them and what the world knew about them.
All of that having been said, I’d have to say probably Saturday Night Live. A moment that stands out is going to see the Strokes play Saturday Night Live and being backstage at that. It was just absurd! It was my friend’s band on TV — not only TV but SNL — it was crazy! I remember going to the after, after, after party when the sun was coming up and I was sitting next to Liev Schreiber on a couch and I remember having a boozy conversation about the Strokes and rock n roll, and I was thinking, “What is happening?!” That stands out as one where the world knew about something that I thought was relatively small.
Will there ever be a scene within rock music remotely close to what happened in New York City or was it the last of its kind?
When things are more spread out — with respect to L.A. — it’s harder to create a scene. There’s several moments in the book where artists bring up this idea of things happening because you’re in proximity to someone else. The on-top-of-it nature of New York creates a Petri dish of happenstance that precedes scene. As long as humans are walking around in actual bodies and interacting with each other, I’m hopeful that there will always be that sort of interplay that sparks creative invention.
A theme I worked from a lot was this idea of the “last real rock star.” This final era of a certain rock stardom is what I mean by that. That includes Karen O., the Strokes and maybe LCD Soundsystem. It doesn’t include Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear.
In terms of the actual scene thing, when I get asked this, I keep saying that scenes are being built for reasons that are more diverse than they used to be. You have a scene with someone else and you may not even have to live in the same place as long as there’s some sort of continuity that you’re working on or some inspiration that you share and get from each other that spreads. It might just spread in a different way than it used to. But do I think that 10 bands in one geographical area are all gonna get record deals anymore? Probably not.
There’s been other scenes — especially within Los Angeles where rap, jazz and experimental are flourishing. So it could be that rock is on its way out.
Don’t discount rock n roll. I’m just hesitant to say that because that’s what people were saying before these bands broke. Literally. People need loud guitars and music about fucking and misbehaving and saying no to power and losing your mind a sweaty pit of people who came to do the same. I don’t think that rock n roll as a language to get people to that place is going anywhere.