New York City in the late 1990s was undergoing a fair amount of changes. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was cracking down on crime and cleaning up a seedy Times Square, turning its grimy sex shops and crime-ridden streets into a gleaming, Disney-like paradise for tourists (what would New York be without the Hard Rock Cafe?). People seemed to be moving back into Gotham. The city was on an upswing of sorts, though not just economically. Culturally, a new generation of kids was reinvigorating what “New York” music could be. Whether or not they thought people would give a shit is another story.
During a time where Seattle still seemed cool enough (fresh off of the frenzy that was “grunge”), and polished pop stars like Britney Spears dominated the mainstream radio airwaves, New York seemed old and tired. To be a band in New York during this time was a chore, and quite honestly a disservice to your friends (who now had to come watch you play). That whole “New York” thing was done. The Velvet Underground were long gone, the Ramones’ time had passed, and the Talking Heads were forever separated by bad blood. Despite this, bands like the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem found their sound in dingy nightclubs, bars and lofts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn — proving both to themselves and others that there was enough creative juice left in the streets to foster a new generation of musicians.
As an aspiring journalist, Lizzy Goodman visited New York City in the summer of 1999. She had just completed her freshman year of college in Pennsylvania. With absolutely no concrete plan in mind, she felt like New York was an open book compared to her previously structured lifestyle of chores and academia. Coming from a small-town life in New Mexico, she saw the allure of the city as rebellion, youth and an element of the unknown. She was inspired by the silhouette of an idea that drew people like Bob Dylan, Madonna and Lou Reed to the city before her. After college, Lizzy spent years writing about those bands that would come to define this new era of New York. Writing for publications such as NME and Rolling Stone, she had a firsthand account of how many of these artists came to be who they are: from the Strokes’ famous homecoming Halloween show in 2001 to the “final” LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden in 2011. Her new book “Meet Me in the Bathroom” is an oral history of what it felt like to be a part of this new generation of New York rock bands, told by the people who were there. Lizzy spoke to me over the phone about the “myth of New York,” the current state of music journalism and the recently announced television adaptation of the book.
A theme in this book is “New York” as sort of an idea above anything else. Where did that mythmaking of New York City originate, and how has that narrative changed over the years?
Lizzy Goodman: There are a lot of answers that I would buy. I feel like it’s the idea of America, in general. The idea of our country is one where you come from somewhere else to locate yourself. It’s a country founded on the notion of immigration, on the notion of possibility, promise and opportunity. New York is the place that you go to get the deepest, purest essence of that idea. In terms of pop-culture, the people I always think about are [those like] [Bob] Dylan and Madonna — where their origin stories have become the lure of their stardom. Dylan came from Minnesota, changed his name and kind of shed his old self — adopting this new self en route from west to east. Madonna came from a similar part of the world, landed at the airport in New York, got in a cab and said “take me to the center of everything”. These mythic stories get told and retold (whether they’re true or not) about these characters. They have become heroes of our modern pop culture, which is a kind of mythology that we use to tell ourselves who we are. It’s a big fucking thing, it’s only the whole idea of America — reduced to this one thing!
You described two shows at Madison Square Garden as sort of the inspiration for writing this book and documenting this era of music (LCD Soundsystem’s last show and the Strokes the next night) What did both shows represent to you? Was it a “passing the torch” sort of thing?
Lizzy Goodman: It dawned on me that here we were at Madison Square Garden, one of the most famous venues in the world… and there’s this line of black limousines out front. That’s what happens when there’s an event in New York City that has power and importance. There was a sense that this was a destination event for the city that night (both nights) that made me realize that these bands that had been a part of what felt like a relatively small community had become the new establishment rock stars of our generation. That was… notable. It felt like the beginning of a new part of the story, and the end of something I had been participating in. I could see that something was ending while something else was beginning.
You said on “Seth Meyers,” “In a post-internet world, it’s almost never too soon,” referring to the questions about whether or not this era in New York was ready for a reflection like “Meet Me in the Bathroom.” We’re presented with so much information daily that it can be hard to remember that events from an hour ago didn’t happen 10 years ago. Do you think it was too soon?
Lizzy Goodman: There’s a line from Stewart Lupton [of Jonathan Fire*Eater] in the book, and he describes New York City in the late 90’s as going out and feeling “nostalgia for an hour ago.” I think that’s it. Think of these scenes as recurring — that every group of young people who are creative and want to make stuff are going through a version of what these people did [prior to them]. There’s a pattern to it, sociologically almost. Each one has its own unique characters and those are based on the context in which that happens (in which that scene is born) whether it’s war or poverty, those make unique the way that a particular scene develops. In this case, the internet is a huge one, as well as 9/11. These are the factors that were stirred into the pot of just another group of young, really talented people making really amazing shit. Those were the factors that made our time have their particular flavor.
The “nostalgia for an hour ago” piece is when you feel like everything you’re doing is almost being documented and contextualized in the moment that it’s happening — this is what the internet does. As you’re observing or participating in something meaningful to you, you’re also attempting to put in on your Instagram story. It’s constant nostalgia for the present moment. I’m old enough to remember a time when we went out every night, and there was no record of any of it. It’s just lost to the annals of history and to our own memories. Whereas now, there would have been so much more recorded information about everything that we documented [in this project]. In some ways that would make the job easier, but in other ways harder. There’s this sense that every bit of what we’re living through is being recorded in the moment that it’s happening (and analyzed), and we’re feeling nostalgia for it as it’s happening. Which is why we’re all so anxious all the fucking time, by the way.
Were there people that didn’t remember anything?
Lizzy Goodman: I’m a big believer in the strong, differing recollections of particular moments and I knew that would be the case going in, which is why I chose to do it as an oral history. It’s supposed to feel like a time capsule… It’s not reported fact. You’re trying to tell the truth about how it felt to be there — which is not necessarily the same as the truth about what actually happened. Because each person’s lived experience has value and it’s their truth, while perhaps technically false in certain cases. It’s still the truth for them. It’s not like I’m saying there’s not responsibility to get accuracy — what I am saying is that the goal was never to be like, “What actually happened at this bar on this night was…”. The goal was to give all the people who should have a say in what happened the space and time to say what they remember. The hope, then, is that the truth exists for the reader in being able to internalize (via reading all these different accounts) the sensory, absolute value truth of what happened. Are you asking, if I understand you correctly, how much people remembered or fought with their own memories? Is that what you mean?
Yeah — that’s probably a better way of putting it. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened a week ago depending on how much is going on, so sometimes I know it can be tough to put it together.
Lizzy Goodman: Totally! Ask yourself this: Do you remember what you were doing ten years ago on a Tuesday that felt like every other Tuesday? It’s just not the nature of memory. A lot of these things… It’s partially drugs, it’s partially that there are disagreements, and it’s partially that the nature of memory is not to chronicle things in a fact-oriented way. An event has to happen that makes enough of an impact that you choose to remember it, and in choosing to remember it you color it with your own lense — it’s Rashomon.
I can imagine that it must have been incredibly difficult to build a narrative out of everything. How do you even start? It must have been hard to put everything together once you’ve spoke to everyone.
Lizzy Goodman: Yeah, I mean it almost killed me — seriously. From the process of attempting to sell it to finishing it was six years. The first three were loosely spent researching and gathering information. I thought I was writing, so to speak… sort of synthesizing what I was gathering into a coherent narrative. About three years in, when I was aware that I had to turn something in relatively soon, I realized I had absolutely nothing. I had a ton of stuff but I didn’t have a story on the page yet, and that was very humbling and terrifying. I had to leave the city to get the clarity I needed and the space both physically and mentally from the story itself in order to make the thing that you’re now reading. Yeah, it was just extremely hard. I don’t even know how to talk about how I did it except to say that I wouldn’t know how to do it again.
If you’re interested in the strategy of how it was assembled, I did develop a platform of how to do it and I stuck to that. You kind of cast a wide net, you interview everyone you possibly can, but there were a couple questions that I asked everybody so that I could have some pillars to start to build a story on. One was 9/11, one was the myth of New York, one was the particular origin story of their band or their band, or whatever the thing was that qualified them to be in the project. A version of that I did for each major character. There’s probably, I don’t know, twenty or thirty primary characters in this story (if you think of each band as a character, which I did). New York City is the lead character, and each one of these bands and artists serve to support that primary character’s story — which is the evolution of New York. That was all well and good until I actually started to do it and I thought, “Oh my god, this is an impossible maze of hell and I’m never gonna get out of it, and it’s a miracle if this book doesn’t ruin my career.”
How has music journalism shifted since the beginning that trend in the early 2000s? Was there more of a sense of agency over who you could cover? Was the impact of finding a new band and writing about them larger than maybe it is now?
Lizzy Goodman: I don’t know! I’m happy to say, honestly, that one of the ironies of becoming somewhat successful writing about bands is that by the time anyone thinks you’re successful at it, you sort of really don’t know anything about new bands anymore. I am asked often what I’m listening to or what do I think about the state of music journalism right now, and the answer is that I’m sort of the last person to know. When I was 25 I could answer that with great authority and now, It’s like I don’t really have a day in, day out relationship with how music journalism is going on a kind of “new band” level. I will say that I think… there is so much material out there and a lot of it is really good and a lot of it is really bad. The role of the “critic,” for lack of a better word — and I kind of don’t like that word, I want a different word — the role of the critic is very different now. There used to be profile writers and critics. — there used to be this split. You were either a thinky analyst of sound who would write these very sophisticated record reviews, or you were someone they sent out into the world of rockstars to get them to say stuff they’re not supposed to be saying. Those two genres of people were really different. That has changed — magazine journalism doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. Music journalism isn’t really journalism about music anymore, it’s culture journalism.
All of these different categories that used to be separation of church and state have blended. For me, that’s been very beneficial and really exciting. My brain never sat well with any of those particular categories. I really wasn’t a great critic, but I also wanted to write profiles that had more analysis in them about what a band or an artist meant to the society rather than to their genre of music. So the ability to expand the scope of what music journalism has to cover, and no longer have to write in the fifth paragraph of every profile a detailed description of what that band’s music sounds like — I really appreciate that those rules have gone out the window in a post-internet world.
What I was going to say more broadly is that think the role of the music journalist — let’s just say it that way — has always been on some level to help be a trusted voice for people who love music about why something they love is beautiful or great, or to give them more insight into the people who make this stuff. It’s to serve the love of music. The fan is all of us, in theory. The fan is the community of people who feel less alone in life because Big Star exists. That role is more important than ever because there is more stuff being made than ever, and there’s more confusion than ever about what is good and what isn’t, what means what in the culture, what it represents and where it’s coming from. The people I read regularly are more important to me than ever because I’m just so overwhelmed that I need them. Obviously the structure of what music journalism is has been completely turned upside down — as has every other kind of media — but the role is just as important as it’s ever been.
Why do you think England and New York have this call-and-response sort of relationship? Why does England look to New York, and vice versa?
Lizzy Goodman: I mean, I think it’s huge. Britain and America have been discovering each other’s bands since the dawn of rock and roll, feeling insecure about themselves in the context of the other. This is a huge generalization, but Americans think British stuff in general is cooler, whereas Brits think American stuff is wilder… more free. I mean, it goes back to the blues! We’ve seen it in every major era of music. The Americas had previously been the big, lumbering, stinky kids whereas the Brits had been something similar to the Jam — just these sleek, impossibly cool styled, sexy, sort of androgynous beings. I always thought that was very funny, like, “Finally! We get to represent this!” In politics, there’s that famous phrase “special relationship” — between British and American culture we have our own version of that, and with music in general. I feel like in a way that’s familiar — they see what happened here with a certain amount of clarity that we don’t. When it’s in your backyard, you don’t understand it with the same objectivity. You don’t — in some cases — appreciate it. A lot of the American bands that are in this book (Interpol, Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.) are still, on some level, shell-shocked this many people give a shit. As soon as the Strokes struck note one of “The Modern Age,” England knew immediately. There’s a clarity that you have when you view someone that’s so much like you, but also so clearly the other. England and America have that because we’re completely different places, completely different cultures.
You recently announced a TV adaptation. What can you tell me about that, if at all?
Lizzy Goodman: Well, I’d be happy to tell you what I know! We’re working on it, it’s in development. The execution of it has not started yet. It’s an insane feeling to have all these people on board wanting to help bring to life this thing that you work on in private — it’s really strange, humbling and odd. The idea is for it to be a doc-series — so a multi-part rendering of what you read in “Meet Me in the Bathroom” — just visually represented. The people who made “Shut up and Play the Hits” are making this. That notion of experiential documentary-making is what we’re aiming for. So it should feel like you’re watching something visually the same way that “Meet Me in the Bathroom” attempted to make you feel.