Meet Me in the Hall of Mirrors

Published on July 7th, 2017

Alex writes about the fervour over Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom.

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A handful of years ago, I came up with a rule for my writing: don’t write about music that isn’t hip-hop (and even then, be careful). Most of the music I know well enough to discuss isn’t music people would want to read about and – to put it more simply – music is really fucking hard to write about in a way that doesn’t make you seem idiotic. You end up saying things like, “This album feels like the musical equivalent of wearing four pieces of denim clothing when you probably should have worn basketball shorts,” and nobody sounds wise spouting such nonsense. Film is so much easier, because it’s much less difficult to describe an emotional reaction to something that people can actually see.

I certainly run the risk of looking like an idiot here: writing about the band that I will probably (admittedly I’m not exactly sure where this will go yet) discuss at length is like doubling down. But it’s cloudy with a risk of idiocy tonight, and I am the cloud, hear me pour.

That said, despite being pretty obviously about music, this piece is barely about music.

For those running in a certain Twitter circle, the last few weeks have been dominated with early 2000s New York City rock nostalgia, nostalgia brought on pretty much entirely by the book Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman. This book is an oral history of the early 2000s rock scene in New York, and it is a book I have not read (for reasons that will make themselves apparent in time).

The thing that has struck me the most about the release of Goodman’s book is that it seems to be building an odd sort of buzz: the type of buzz that exists so loudly in certain circles that the people in those circles forget nobody outside of them actually fucking cares. Music fans on Twitter talk about it gushingly, Rolling Stone and other outlets make blog posts about ‘10 Things They Learned’ in the book, Vulture publishes a promotional anti-Ryan Adams excerpt, and all of the people reading any of these pieces neglects to realize that their world is not everybody’s. I am going to a party this evening where I am certain I will bring up the existence of this book with somebody, and I’m equally certain I will be shocked when they have no idea what I’m talking about. This, not so coincidentally, happens to be exactly how I felt about The Strokes’ popularity.

Here’s critic Andy Greenwald speaking about the band in Goodman’s book, quoted from the aforementioned excerpt on Vulture: “One thing about the 2000s is that everything happened too fast. The time that passed between Nirvana and Candlebox probably was two or three years. The time between the Strokes and Longwave was like 18 months. And there were diminishing returns. The Strokes weren’t really that big. Everyone needed them to be that big and desperately wanted them to be big, but they kind of weren’t.”

This is obviously correct; history will (and does) show that The Strokes burned brightly and faded quickly. But, oh how bright they were. The Strokes were the musical equivalent of those triple-wicked candles Kubrick famously used to light parts of Barry Lyndon, and they hit the music scene during the last gasp of the music publications – Spin, NME, Maxim’s music offshoot Blender, probably fourteen to twenty others – that would lionize them so.

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It seems stupid to talk about The Strokes specifically in a musical sense, because almost nobody ever really does, but it bears mentioning: their early records are beautiful and almost slightly too precise. They make perfect pop music, perhaps best exemplified by Reptilia: the song manages to simultaneously sound like ideal rock music and as though it was composed mathematically without any real human contributions. This is the appeal of The Strokes musically: they cared so very much about making music that sounds like nobody cares, like they are simply four dudes strumming in perfect time because why the fuck not we’re all going to die eventually. With the exception of singer Julian Casablancas’ contributions, the music of The Strokes is predictable (in a good way). Parts come and go throughout Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, and Fabrizio Moretti’s playing as though their instruments are being played by advanced humanoids. Casablancas’ yelps add a simple human feeling that ends up making the whole thing sound even better.

But almost without exception, what seemed to be the most talked about aspect of them both then and now was that they look and felt like a New York-based rock band from decades earlier. They were notorious partiers, pursuing the nightlife image that so many had before them, and the band’s hangovers were frequently mentioned in the magazine profiles about them. They were meant to represent a certain brand of carefree cool; they were cool enough that their frontman’s last name is a mere one letter away from being the title of Humphrey Bogart’s most famous movie. The Strokes were the modern equivalent of somebody Lester Bangs would have written about, so rock critics took it upon themselves to write about their new musical idols as their previous critical idols had.

This mythologizing of The Strokes ended up (eventually) making them deeply uncool; I bought Room on Fire last night and I could feel the seething judgment of the clerk. Like so many things that burn brightly, The Strokes were seen as so interesting that everything that made them so was co-opted posthaste (this is the transition between The Strokes and Longwave that Greenwald was talking about). The Strokes’ style was co-opted too: watching the video for Someday feels like watching a modern-day ad for H+M, if H+M were into making advertising featuring too much alcohol and too many cigarettes and exactly one Richard Karn. The Strokes could never last, but it was not entirely their fault.

Recently, rock critic Steven Hyden had Sean Tillman (better known as Har Mar Superstar) on his Celebration Rock podcast to discuss Tillman’s recollections of his time with The Strokes on their first proper tour. The resounding conclusion of the podcast seems to be that ‘well, it was fun, but it was also kind of horrible.’ Tillman breaks from the perception of a rock band that The Strokes and so many other groups have tried to live up to, always forgetting that unless you OD there is a morning to deal with (even if that morning comes when you wake up at 8pm). Tillman discusses how he remains friends with many of the people in the scene, and he talks about how they are almost uniformly relatively normal people now. Julian Casablancas, he says, puts the same amount of dedication into his family as he once put into seeming like a drunk, overly charismatic rock star, because he is a man dedicated to whatever it is he has decided is the focus of his life.

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I have not read Meet Me in the Bathroom yet because I feel bizarre being nostalgic for a period I never actually experienced as it was happening; I didn’t care about The Strokes when they initially became popular, and I don’t think I even heard Is This It in full until 2011. Through most of the 2000s, my fixations were on that which came ten years before – early to mid-1990s hip-hop, the early works of Tarantino, Fincher, and PTA – and I got into The Strokes pretty much right on schedule. In 2027 perhaps I’ll be willing to feel nostalgic for the year 2011, when I finally began to embrace the music of 2001, and at that point I’m sure Ms. Goodman will still be there for me.

(This is the part where the author bizarrely and incoherently transitions into talking about a piece of Southern literature that was published in the 1960s. He does not do this to seem well-read and interesting, but he will not resist the urge to do this even knowing how silly it will seem.)

I recently finished reading The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a book I first picked up for reasons that are both obvious and irrelevant. To say I took to the novel is a profound understatement; at some points it seemed to be about me exactly. Despite taking place over fifty years ago, there are things Binx says in the novel that I’m pretty sure I have said at some point in the past year. And while I never fought in the Korean War, I have seen more John Ford movies than most people I know, so at the very least some of it is applicable.

Now, part of this reaction feels like I’m finding this book at exactly the right time – like a sixteen year old idiot reading Catcher in the Rye – but also I can imagine I’ve found it too late. I used to be most curious to see movies and read books about characters slightly older than me, reading them as a pre-fantasy about what life could be like. (This was the appeal of Cameron Crowe’s Singles to Gen Xers in training, or perhaps Zach Braff’s Garden State for us millennial folk.) Being attracted to The Moviegoer as a 31 year old seems problematic, like maybe I should have loved this book five years ago, as I was preparing for a certain sort of malaise I could not yet fully anticipate.

Binx is a character who is a stocktrader by day (admittedly, very unlike my career) who spends his evenings going to the cinema (admittedly, very much like me). He often discusses how he finds the real people he meets around New Orleans as less fulfilling than those he finds onscreen at the movies; as such, he keeps going to the movies. Reality isn’t that good, he thinks, so he will stay in the hyperreal. (Jean Baudrillard probably loved this fucking book.) Binx wafts through life like so many people in their twenties: he sees movies, he drinks, and he remains pretty much wholly unattached to the world around him. He often talks about ‘the malaise’ of regular life as a condition that exists for us all, and it seems his best idea for warding it off is to ignore everything but his own whims.

Today when I think about The Strokes in the early 2000s, all I can think about is the malaise. It’s a feeling that one tries to ward off by not caring, and The Strokes built their existence on caring too much about pretending not to care. They became so popular with a certain type of person because a certain type of person likes to mythologize their own youth, regardless of whether or not heroin ever got involved. It helps us feel as though we once really lived, so that when the inevitability of death sets in we know that, at least for a moment, we did this world proud.

The end of The Moviegoer is relatively simple: Binx accepts a simple life (albeit one that involves marrying his distant cousin) where his wife runs an errand for him as he tends to his family on his brother’s dying day. We all live the same life eventually, some of us are merely better at delaying it than others. Some, on the other hand, delay it so entertainingly that people write goddamn books about them.

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I can’t recall exactly what got me to finally check out The Strokes’ discography, but I’m sure Under Cover of Darkness was prominently involved. It remains my favourite song they ever released as a collective. In the music video, the group populates an empty concert hall, performing in various locations as Casablancas walks through them until they all end up onstage together in tuxedos. The implication of the video is that, in the past ten years, they transitioned from being the cool kids walking around aimlessly to a group of tuxed-out musicians performing for exorbitant prices in extraordinary theaters.

The idea is all very tongue-in-cheek of course, but the playing with the passage of time runs throughout the clip; it’s no coincidence Casablancas throws his mic stand during the line, “Everybody’s been singing the same song for ten years,” mimicking his own action from the Last Nite video. They even explicitly reference the video for You Only Live Once by beginning Under Cover of Darkness with a few quick cuts of the 2006 video, a video that ends with the band seemingly drowning in tobacco tar; the suggestion of Under Cover of Darkness’ pre-song intro is that the band is now a group of ghosts performing songs from a different time. The song itself even sounds like a slightly-too-perfect version of a Strokes song from a decade previous*. To further drive the passage of time home, there is a ticking clock motif running throughout the early parts of the video.

*To be fair, this is exactly the appeal of the song.

Digging a little deeper, the video ends up commenting on the interpersonal relationships of The Strokes themselves. During the recording of Angles (the album Under Cover of Darkness was the lead single for), the band was sans Casablancas in the studio, sending their frontman tracks to write to, and then Casablancas would e-mail back his vocal tracks. The days of the band hanging out in New York all the time were just another ghost to pretend to play in this video. Like what happens with so often with bands, the people you want to hang out with at 32 are not the same people you wanted to be with at 22.

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There was a time when a workless Tuesday in my life was followed with a night of whiskey and beers out at a local alcohol proprietor with a compadre or five. Whether or not I’m remembering this all correctly is left to the few who could recount such stories to a journalist who will never ask. Now the equivalent Tuesday involves me drinking whiskey and writing for a while, before downing a couple beers during a Sidney Lumet film from 1957. I currently recall the former as a wonderfully lost time in my life, and I’m sure I’ll one day remember the latter the same way. Either way, it will all be recollection, and most of it will accidentally be false.

The Strokes and so many others like them grew up and became, as Tillman says, normal-ish people. At some point, he argues, they realized that the morning does come, and that there are negative aspects to the unreal reality they had been living in. Sometimes, you go too hard and an amp nearly crushes Karen O’s skull, and nobody wants that for Karen O.

This is simultaneously why The Strokes remain interesting and wholly misunderstood; they were big, Mr. Greenwald, just in such a specific way that it didn’t fit the commonly agreed upon definition of the word. They became the sign o’ the times, and a sign o’ the times gone by, despite the fact that they may never have wanted to be in the first place. They had their moment in the sun, and we thought they did it so swimmingly that somebody wrote a book about it (and then somebody will write another [and then somebody will write another {and then somebody will write another}]). It was a time to lionize, a time so lionized that we made it feel more momentous because we wanted it to mean something, even though the point was it didn’t.

One theory of mine is that we will one day look back on our generation as one that – instead of starting bands in our garages – started fledgling media empires. Years ago, I wrote for somewhere between three and five thousand wannabe publications. I never got paid, because nobody ever gets paid. Those publications were all run by good people, but they were all run by people who were wrong about what they could accomplish. Without exception, these publications have since shut down. With the exception of one, I don’t know any of those people anymore, nor do I care to. We were just people who made miscalculations about the world together. And then we got older.

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