You can tell that Meet Me in the Bathroom, the new documentary about New York’s explosive music scene of the early 2000s, is going to misfire from the very first sequence. A 1959 recording of actor Ed Begley reading “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” Walt Whitman’s soaring tribute to New York from his masterwork Leaves of Grass, is laid over a montage of everyday life in the city, intercut with clips of the bands who are the film’s main subjects. Now, I love Whitman, I love this poem, and I love New York. But this sequence does nothing for me, because it has so little to do with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or LCD Soundsystem, except in the broadest, fuzziest terms (it’s all about New York, baby! I guess?). The montage itself is so generic it might as well be a credit-card commercial. The splicing between kids playing in the sunshine and pixillated footage of the Strokes is just awkward.
Other critics have singled out this sequence too, some saying it’s pretentious or takes the film’s subjects too seriously. I don’t think that’s the problem here. I don’t think it’s wrong to suppose that Julian Casablancas or Karen O could be as important to their generation as Whitman was to his; or that “Maps” or “All My Friends” could mean as much as Leaves of Grass. They’ve meant as much, or more, to me. I know what directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace (who also directed the 2012 LCD “breakup” documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits) were trying to do with this sequence. They were trying to, right off the bat, situate the postpunk revival in a long history of liberating, transformative cultural movements that have come out of New York. I admire that boldness and faith in their subject matter. But it just doesn’t land.
Meet Me in the Bathroom (which I previewed for Sydney Film Festival), is based on the 2017 oral history of the same name by Lizzy Goodman. That book (which is named after a Strokes song) is a fantastic read, an instant classic of music biography, a crucial document of a music scene that was as ephemeral as it was influential… and everything this film is not.
The differences between the book and the film (for which Goodman has an executive producer credit and served in an advisory role) are immediately apparent. The book packs a punch before you even open it. The cover image of the first edition is a photo of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs leaning back and spitting a drink into the air, a signature flourish in her stage show that represents everything about the raunchiness, exuberance and intensity of the Yeahs’ music (and the entire scene’s). When you do open the book, it grabs you with its bold attractive fonts that make the intro pages look like liner notes or a club flyer, and a rapid-fire series of pithy quotes to set the stage on the first page of the oral history, such as my friend Luke Jenner from the Rapture stating simply, “Everyone has a fantasy about New York.” Boom, I couldn’t put it down after that. (When I picked it up again to doublecheck some things for this article, I ended up reading a hundred pages because I couldn’t put it down again.) It’s frustrating to compare the compulsive thrills that Goodman harnessed on the page right from the start to the misguided, flaccid opening montage of the film.
And sadly, the film never quite gets it together after that. At best it’s inconsistent and puzzlingly lacking in power; but at times it’s outright sloppy and questionable.
I don’t enjoy panning a film like this. It’s hardly a very commercial or high-profile project (though to be fair it was funded by Vice). It’s clear Southern and Lovelace have a lot of passion for the music and the artists. This music means a lot to me too, and I have some personal connection to this scene — a couple of the interview subjects in the film (and more in the book) are people I call or have called friends.
If you love these bands like I do, there’s plenty that will hold your attention here. There are even a few moments in which the film achieves the transcendence you’d hope for (transcendence that the book achieves in nearly every chapter). Those moments only serve to highlight what a disappointment the overall package is.
As a film, Meet Me in the Bathroom is a rambling experience, painting an impressionistic portrait of a music scene that became a movement. It does this by jumping back and forth between the stories of the bands who defined it. The Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem are primary among those whose meteoric rises are documented, and for good reason. Each of those bands transformed not only the New York scene, but the landscape of rock and indie worldwide; and they did it in different ways, with often strikingly different music, while sharing a context and a milieu.
The Moldy Peaches, TV on the Radio and the Rapture are also featured — the supporting cast as it were. Their presence is welcome, if only to increase the diversity of artists and styles represented. This scene wasn’t only about white guys with guitars and retro-inspired sounds; it was Black and expansive and experimental too. The Rapture’s role is also significant in that their story involves tension if not conflict with one of the other featured artists, LCD’s James Murphy, who was the owner of their label, DFA Records.
But still, by focusing on these seven bands, it can’t help but lack the depth of Goodman’s book. There’s a lot of fascinating history featuring lesser-known players that’s left out of the film, which makes a difference in filling out the background of this movement.
An especially glaring omission is the formative influence of legendary mid-90s band Jonathan Fire*Eater, who are covered in one of the most fascinating early chapters in the book. Nor is there mention of the Mooney Suzuki or other bands that paved the way for the Strokes and company early on; or venues like Don Hill’s, Bar 13 and Coney Island High that held formative (and often very gay) rock and indie dance nights in the 90s; or the significance of electroclash during this era. All this leaves the viewer with a sense of a scene without a past or a context, other than clips of the Moldy Peaches’ early gigs at the Sidewalk Cafe’s anti-folk open-mic night.
This compounds a recurring problem in the book, and the one thing that bugs me about it (forgive me for this tangent). The book has a tendency to portray New York in the 90s as a kind of terra nullius, a cultural wasteland languishing in the wake of the dominant rock scenes in Seattle and elsewhere. In this view, the city was a place where little of importance happened after the demise of the punk and no-wave scenes of the 70s and early 80s — say, after the closing of Danceteria in 1986 — until the revival happened at the turn of the millennium. This narrative is repeated over and over in the book, from the synopsis on the dust jacket (“As the twentieth century drew to a close, New York City felt played-out as a cultural capital”) to countless interviews in the text (journalist Simon Reynolds: “There was a void in New York, and that’s what DFA tapped into”). In this recent interview Goodman repeats this theme, describing the music scene in New York in the late 90s as “dismal.”
This ignores the vast importance of New York hip hop in the 90s, as well as house and other dance, electronic and club music — forms largely produced and consumed by Black and Latin New Yorkers. One thing any kid who loves hip hop from Sydney to Singapore to Sacramento can tell you, the one thing practically every music fan under the age of 55 can agree on, is that New York in the 90s had a lot going on.
Of course, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s oppressive culture war — which included the forced closure of many of the superclubs that had made early-90s New York a party destination not unlike Berlin is today, and which literally criminalized dancing in bars — made it a lot tougher to play and enjoy hip hop and house in the late 90s (and, as the book argues, indirectly led to the revival of the rock scene). But that rockist view in which there was nothing going on before the Strokes is shortsighted to say the least.
The tension between these forms and the postpunk revival is made explicit in the film by Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches, who talks about being put off by the “bougie house music” she heard in clubs when she first arrived in the city in the mid-90s. It’s a running theme in the book. There’s an entire chapter called “Dance Music Will Save Us All?” that’s dedicated to trashing the club scene just to make a point. One Spin journalist calls 90s ravers “deluded;” another derisively summarizes dance music as “German Balearic trance twiddle-step.” DFA cofounder Tim Goldsworthy refers to the house he heard when he arrived in the city from the UK in 1999 as “shoo bee doo doop doop doop” — this is a dismissal of the deep and soulful house that was popular at Black-dominated parties like Body & Soul.
I spent the entire 90s in underground house clubs in New York and they were not “bougie”; they were places where working-class people of color, along with white working-class kids from the suburbs and displaced weirdos like me, gathered to dance to noncommercial music and let off steam and celebrate life. Yes, there was a lot of bad, generic house played in the big clubs; and as I got older I grew out of raves too. But the interview subjects, even the ones who should know better, don’t seem to differentiate between good and bad club music, or between the superclubs and the underground, in throwing the whole scene out with the bathwater.
It’s frustrating that these tired old rockist narratives that DJs and fans of club music have been battling since the 70s are still being promoted — and even more frustrating when they’re used to vindicate postpunk and indie that I actually love, as if there needs to be a conflict there.
I’m probably being a little defensive because I myself got bored with the direction house had taken by the end of the decade. I found it had become so insular and tired and loungey compared to the revolutionary impact of the raves and warehouse parties and underground gay clubs that changed my life in the early-to-mid-90s. And that wasn’t the scene’s fault: Giuliani’s policies ensured that lounges were the only places left to play this music (aside from the vanishingly few illegal spaces we could find). Of course DJs gravitated towards loungier sounds when they were stuck playing in actual lounges. It was all quite dire and it left me feeling fatigued and hopeless about music, and about everything. New York hip hop entered a period of doldrums around this time too, of course.
When the Strokes and the Yeahs and their ilk came along in the millennial era I found them so exhilarating by comparison. They revived my passion for rock and indie, and for new music in general, just as they did for Goodman and so many others.
But still, I couldn’t imagine writing “We hate dance and we hate rap,” as the Peaches sing in “On Top.” Not even ironically (and don’t get me wrong, I fucking love the Peaches, but just saying).
Trust me, despite the culture war, despite everything, we had many good times. There was a lot happening.
To position hip hop and dance music as separate from, or necessarily at odds with, the postpunk revival is a slippery slope. I say this as someone who’s moved back and forth between these two worlds for more than 30 years. There’s a long history of dialogue between hip hop and dance and punk and new wave — from Larry Levan playing the Clash and Talking Heads and Pat Benatar, to Blondie’s “Rapture,” to the many hip-hop producers who’ve sampled the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” And yes, LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture, of all these bands, have continued this dialogue and made it explicit in their music, and that rules.
Another thing: this narrative of revival has a tendency to treat New York as a playground for middle-class kids from out of town, ignoring the millions of people who grew up there and may have never heard of DFA Records or TV on the Radio. When native New Yorkers are mentioned in the book at all, they are extras in the background: drug dealers, bouncers at the club, the “scary” Puerto Rican woman who frequented Plant Bar.
The Lower East Side in the 90s is portrayed in the book as a dangerous war zone of drugs and crime – one chapter is entitled “Alcohol, Blow, Crack, Death,” in reference to slang terms for Avenues A, B, C and D in Alphabet City. Quote after quote gasses the reader up about how dangerous everything was back then — “It was scary,” “It was really bad down there,” “Walking out the door you’d see the dealers.” After a while it’s unintentionally satirical. I lived on the LES, on Attorney Street, for years in the mid-90s, and yes it was dodgy. I was mugged in my building lobby once. But to have these narratives hammered constantly without social context — why were Puerto Rican neighborhoods so abandoned and decrepit in the first place? Why were the residents reduced to selling drugs? — gets a bit irritating after a while. My Puerto Rican friends from neighborhoods like Bushwick and the southside of Williamsburg would be the first to tell you how dangerous it was growing up back then. But there was more than just crime and hard times in those places. The book, as much as I love it, largely erases their perspective, while the outsider’s view is hardly challenged.
These are the attitudes native New Yorkers have always hated in “Brooklyn hipsters,” and other gentrifying forces of that era. Among these are the tech bros (as we would now call them) of the late-90s dot-com boom who overran downtown and Brooklyn and made them unaffordable for the rest of us (and who also enabled this music with the rivers of cash they invested in the party scene).
That said, the postpunk revival was a very New York thing all the way through. Like the mid-70s CBGB punk genesis it was so inspired by, there’s no way this movement could have happened anywhere else, and it very much embodied the spirit and attitude of the city — especially apparent on tracks like LCD’s “New York, I Love You” and the Strokes’ “New York City Cops.” That’s one reason I loved it so much. This is why it bothers me when some of the books’ subjects fall back on these reductive narratives about the city.
One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Mark Ronson. In making a point about how rock can be dance music, he describes the experience of being at the Sound Factory and hearing old-school hip-hop DJ Kid Capri tear up the dancefloor with the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” He says he wrote a letter to Jack White and told him, “I wish you could see what it’s like when you play ‘Seven Nation Army’ to a club of seven hundred young black kids at two in the morning. Your music means something to these people.’” This is the kind of inclusiveness and cultural context both the film and the book could have used a lot more of. It’s a welcome counter-narrative to the hipsters’ and Spin journalists’ dismissal of dance music and of Black and brown New York.
But I digress.
It’s not that more material by itself — more interviews or more bands covered — would have necessarily fixed all the film’s problems. It was initially planned to be four hours long, and even if it was stronger I think that would have been too long. They had to make choices about what to cut out. Honestly, I’m glad the film doesn’t cover some of the later, greatly inferior bands like the Killers and Kings of Leon that Goodman includes in the book. But still, it doesn’t have either the scope or the texture of the book and it suffers by comparison.
Meet Me in the Bathroom features no talking heads or narration; it’s entirely made up of archive material — some of it previously unseen home-video and amateur footage. To provide narrative structure, the film makes use of many of the recorded interviews that are the lifeblood of Goodman’s oral history. But it’s really only loosely adapted from her book. Some sections have a familiar flow from the book’s narrative; others go off in their own direction. Sometimes this works: the Peaches’ pranksterish adventures with their videocam in the streets of Manhattan, for example, momentarily uplifts the film.
The intercut stories don’t provide a lot of background information for the viewer who may be new to all this. That in itself is not bad; the film’s production company describes it as “immersive,” and that’s a valid thing to aim for. This music is about all about spontaneity and visceral thrill, and a looser, more rambling approach would be justified, if Southern and Lovelace had assembled it all in more compelling fashion. To be blunt, the lack of talking heads doesn’t mean it’s free of standard documentary tropes.
A few talking heads might actually have been welcome; they might have helped overcome the film’s limitations. I’m not sure if Southern and Lovelace didn’t have access to any artists for interviews (possibly because of pandemic-related logistical problems?), or if they deliberately set out to make an archive-based film along the lines of Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy, two of the best biographical docs of recent years. The reason doesn’t matter; the end result is visually uneven and often uninspiring.
The archive clips of the bands’ formative years are the best thing about the film and the main reason for fans to check it out, but they vary wildly in quality. For all the precious camcorder evidence of greatness being unleashed on an unsuspecting world — such as an early Strokes gig at Mercury Lounge — there are many other bits that seem random, lacking context, or strangely incoherent.
It really feels like they ran out of material after a while. There are instances in which the same clip is repeated during a scene, seemingly just to fill space, a hallmark of indifferent editing. When they lack archive to illustrate a given sequence, they often rely too heavily on music videos and TV appearances, as when the video for LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” runs for a couple of minutes, and you kind of zone out on the video and forget you’re watching a documentary. It’s jarring.
Worst of all, the montages that illustrate milestone events of the era, such as the Y2K scare or 9/11, are truly bargain-basement, coming across like highlight clips on local TV news, or even something you’d see on Youtube. The 9/11 montages are particularly egregious for the way they chime along uncritically with the mainstream media’s narratives about the attack — the nationalism, Islamophobia, and warmongering that made that a dark time in the U.S. It’s not like I expect a detailed critique of U.S. imperialism, but those montages are embarrassing.
True, the collective trauma that New Yorkers (including me) suffered on 9/11 had a huge impact on the culture of the city in those years, and it was an important turning point for this music scene. That definitely needs to be discussed, but preferably without the nationalism. I found the chapter about 9/11 in the book to be quite powerful (in fact it triggered a trauma reaction in me; I remember feeling shaky and having to put the book down).
Southern and Lovelace fare better when they stick to the artists’ reactions to 9/11. The home-video footage of a young Paul Banks from Interpol wandering around downtown streets in a daze, with ash from the collapsed towers hanging in the air and traumatized survivors drifting past all around him, is surprisingly eerie and haunting, and really taps into what it was like to be in New York that day. They should have done away with the generic montages in favor of more of this kind of thing.
The film’s problems extend to the soundtrack. The snippets of Goodman’s audio interviews are as spotty in quality as the video footage; sometimes the audio is so poor it sounds like it was recorded during a surveillance operation and it’s just unpleasant to listen to. That’s not surprising — some of the interviews may have been recorded on Goodman’s phone, or otherwise under less-than-ideal audio conditions. That’s one thing when you’re transcribing an interview for a book you’re writing, another thing on the soundtrack of a feature documentary.
The listless editing saps energy from important passages of the story. The sequence in which the Strokes and Ryan Adams talk about the bad blood between them, culminating in a hostile encounter in a Midtown bar, falls flat here without the emotional detail that animated this episode on the page. The account of the Strokes’ pivotal live appearance on MTV2 in 2002, playing to an audience in the round, seems like it’s building up to show an exciting breakthrough under a lot of pressure — which is exactly how the book portrays it — but then it ends abruptly without much commentary or even much footage of the show, leaving the viewer wanting more. The late scenes that cover the Strokes’ interpersonal struggles around the release of their second album, Room on Fire, are similarly sketchy — hinting at drama but not really delivering.
Adding to all these problems is something more fundamental: the creators don’t seem to have been able to license very much of the music made by these bands. So the thing that brought you here, the music itself, is experienced only fleetingly throughout. That leaves awkward gaps in the flow of the narrative, and a nagging feeling of emptiness — they’re all talking about this world-changing music but we are denied the pleasure of hearing it as much as we’d like.
In general, the whole thing doesn’t feel so much like a feature film that premiered at Sundance as it does a rough cut. I know the roughness of this film is supposed to be the visual signifier of a gritty, shoot-from-the-hip, often lo-fi school of music. It’s supposed to be a punk film for a (post)punk scene. But this scene produced music that was very cinematic and wide-angle and grand too — think of the transcendent experience of listening to Interpol’s “NYC” or LCD’s “Someone Great” or side 2 of the Yeahs’ Fever to Tell in your headphones. The roughness of this doco doesn’t feel like an artistic choice so much as it feels underdeveloped.
A lot of what went wrong here — the lack of access, the licensing issues — doesn’t seem to have been Southern and Lovelace’s fault, and I’ll give them a pass for that. But still, what we are left with is a mediocre documentary. I’ll paraphrase something Anthony Bourdain once said when he was a guest judge on a competitive cooking show: The problem is not that you burned the broccolini; everyone has a bad day in the kitchen. The problem is you plated it and served it to me.
Now that I’ve said all that, let me highlight some good things. Like I said, if you love these bands, you won’t be wasting your time, as long as your expectations are adjusted. It’s not like there are very many other films out there that feature interviews and rare footage of these artists. Despite their long-lasting influence, their success in the mainstream has only been middling. In some ways they could even be considered underrated (like, how are the Killers and the Arctic Monkeys more successful than the Strokes?). I’ll certainly take an honest failure like this over slick, self-serving wedding cake like The Defiant Ones. And aside from being brilliant musicians, the subjects here tend to be fun interviews. James Murphy could read the phone book and it would probably be worth watching.
When the film is at its strongest, it’s usually when it hews more closely to Goodman’s history — such as when it recreates one of my favorite passages in the book, Murphy’s rambling, salty story of how he couldn’t get along in the studio with Irish electronic producer David Holmes (now a big-time film composer). Interpol’s stories about the mortifying realization that their second album had been leaked to the internet; the Rapture’s frustration over their business dealings with DFA; and Karen O’s account of the free outdoor concert in Williamsburg that the Yeahs headlined on September 11, 2002 are other bright spots. I love the bit when Julian Casablancas tells a TV interviewer, “If I heard about a band like us, I’d think they were assholes.”
The single best part of the film is a series of clips in which Karen O talks with disarming frankness about how exhausting it is for a shy, introverted person like her to maintain her wild, uninhibited stage persona; and how, despite her assertive, take-no-prisoners girl-power vibe, she was still marginalized or silenced in her industry dealings, and still had male photographers trying to shoot up her skirt. Eventually these things drove her to escape the scene and New York itself. It’s a glimpse not so much of the dark side of rock stardom, as the unpleasant, unromantic, even abusive side of it, and the sheer amount of work it takes.
This passage is so compelling, you wish it would go on. Along with a few other high points, it gave me a feeling of sudden longing: finally this film is alive and gripping and communicating something. I wanted more of that.
The best thing about Meet Me in the Bathroom is, paradoxically, that it’s a downer. This was a music scene that exploded out of the gate and then stumbled within a couple of years. The last hour details the crushing pressure, the fatigue, and the mental-health and drug problems that led to disappointing sophomore albums, missed opportunities and listlessness for many of these bands by mid-decade. (The major exception is LCD, who only got bigger and better before their “breakup” in 2011.) There’s an extra-vivid sense of the misery of the music industry, and how fleeting youth culture is. Reverting to standard formula, the film tries to end on a high note (and also returns to the Whitman poem, ugh!), but the aftertaste of disappointment, if not defeat, is too strong to be dispelled.
Epilogue: Some personal notes
That sense of failed ambitions and lost opportunities taps right into my own experiences on the music scene of New York. My time was earlier, in the 90s, and my scene was underground house and raves. I missed the postpunk revival when it was happening in the clubs; I wasn’t going out much at all by the turn of the millennium. I did know some of the players though, because the two scenes had many tendrils connecting each other.
It wasn’t just frustration with where house music was going that drove me away from the scene. In 1999, after a hard couple of years of struggling and burnout, I started going through what I now recognize as a mental health crisis, and abruptly stopped DJing or going out. Living alone in a brownstone apartment I couldn’t afford in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, spending most of my time alone, I pursued a path of meditation and yoga to be more “healthy.” Before the year was out, I fled the city and went to work on an organic farm upstate.
All this resulted in lots of damaged relationships, and effectively ended my music career. The irony is that despite how miserable the scene was making me, my career was starting to go places after six years of busting my ass — better gigs, better connections, people I didn’t even know coming out of their way to buy my mixtapes at the East Village record store where I worked. The owner of the store talked about booking me in Japan, where she was from. I remember a kid stopping me on St. Mark’s one day to ask if I was Jim Poe, telling me he was a fan. I remember thinking, is this how it begins?
But now that was all gone. I didn’t handle my exit from the scene very well at all; many bridges were burned.
Before I left the city, I spent the summer working at Angelica Kitchen, the famous vegan restaurant in the East Village — trying (and ultimately failing) to put my head down, work a regular job, and get my shit together. One of my co-workers was Luke Jenner. He’d just moved to the city and, though he and the Rapture were signed to Seattle’s legendary Sub Pop Records, they were looking to break into the New York scene and do something different there. That something turned out to be highly influenced by dance and electronic music.
At one point Luke needed somewhere to stay for a while, and I invited him to crash at my place. He spent a month in Sunset Park with me, and it was nice. He’s a very thoughtful person, and fun to hang out with. I hadn’t realized how intensely lonely I was that year.
Luke was fascinated by my turntables and my record collection — melancholy reminders of the musical life I’d just severed ties with. He was about the age I was when I arrived in the city in 1993, and, despite my burnout, I couldn’t help but fondly remember how exciting it was to crash land in the city and try to make something of yourself there. I showed him some rudimentary mixing skills and felt a bit like I was mentoring someone, despite how much more musical talent he had overall. One day I came home from work and he was blasting one of my favorite old acid-techno records, “The Deliverer” by Pergon. He told me that’s the kind of energy he was looking for in music.
Working on the farm turned out to be good for my mental health (far better than the meditation if the truth were known). When I finished my time there and moved back to the city at the end of 2000, I was in a much better place. I felt happier, fresher, and more alive than I had in years, even though I was flat broke and didn’t have a stable place to live.
I even planned a second phase of my DJ career. I went out and bought a bunch of postpunk, no-wave and reggae records with the money I didn’t have (you know, ESG, Bad Brains, Metro Area, the usual records you buy when you’re going through this phase) and thought I would rebrand myself as an eclectic dance/rock fusion DJ.
That never worked out. Reestablishing myself proved difficult for a bunch of reasons: I was working early mornings at Integral Yoga Natural Foods in the West Village, my music connections were too frayed and damaged to count on for very many gigs, and I’d stopped drinking, so going out itself was a chore. Eventually I gave up again, though by now I was happy to just work for a living, packing out organic vegetables every morning and talking music and baseball with my coworkers.
I’d lost touch with Luke, as with so many other music people, but after a couple of years I started seeing him around again, because it turned out the DFA studio was immediately next door to Integral Yoga on West 13th Street. He was always cool with me, and we always said hi to each other, but it was obvious we were moving in different directions. Since I wasn’t going out anymore I never made it to any of the Rapture’s early gigs in New York; I never even thought of asking.
Another old mate I saw hanging around outside the studio was Marcus Lambkin, the Irish DJ who eventually became known as DFA recording artist Shit Robot, and who was integral to the DFA origin story as one of the figures who gave James Murphy his push towards dance music. My old crew of DJs, the Funky Soul Rebels, was friendly with Marcus and his Plant Records partner Dominique Keegan in the mid-90s; we hung out a lot and sometimes got booked for the same parties.
So when the explosion came I missed it completely. I got into these bands not from firsthand experience in the clubs but through reading about them in The A.V. Club, and recommendations from friends.
(Out of all these bands, I’ve only seen Interpol live in New York, at Radio City Music Hall in 2005. They were amazing, but seeing them on such a storied stage couldn’t help but make it seem like the peak was already over. I saw LCD and the Rapture live here in Sydney years later, after I moved here, and again they were both great; the LCD show was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I had tickets for a Yeahs show here last month but it was cancelled.)
Despite “missing out,” I loved this music so much and it had a massive impact on my life, however privately that impact was felt. Mind you, I was 30 when Is This It came out, a fair bit older than the target market. But it made me feel so young and energized. It reminded me of why I got into alternative music in the first place. The Strokes and the Yeahs and Interpol (and, looking beyond New York, the White Stripes and Flaming Lips and Belle and Sebastian) gave me flashbacks to those primal high-school days when the Bangles and R.E.M. and the Cure and Hüsker Dü were all that mattered.
It had been so long since I’d felt that feeling. Music had been a hustle, or a popularity contest, or a heartbreak, for so many years. Suddenly it was a joy again.
In retrospect there’s no shame that I was now engaging with music like any other working-class New Yorker, listening to it on my Discman at 6am on the train to work. I could just dive into the music, without having to worry about guest lists, and social games I was terrible at, and impressing people who didn’t like me.
But still there was some lingering pain and bitterness. I remember what a weird, melancholy experience it was when I bought the Rapture’s breakthrough album, Echoes, at Target in Queens, where I lived, in February of 2004. This was five years after I first ditched the music scene, and I remember thinking that if I had stuck around, I would have probably been playing promo copies of it in clubs. I would have been at the launch party. Instead I bought it off the rack next to the Eminem and Korn CDs at a major discounter. Getting it home and unwrapping the shrinkwrap of the CD by myself on a cold, overcast Saturday morning in my sublet in Elmhurst, and putting the disc in my roommate’s 5-disc player. The band’s brilliant, abrasive fusion of dance and rock filling up the living room, disrupting the grey morning quiet — and making so much damn sense, given what I knew about Luke, and given my entire life in music.
My mind flooded with complicated feelings, among them regret. But it couldn’t be reduced to just that, it wasn’t that simple. I was happy for Luke, and happy with who I turned out to be.
In some ways the regret was rational. I had a lot of talent and knowledge as a DJ that I’d worked hard on developing since 1992, and I let it go to waste. I had so many connections in New York, so many opportunities, and I just dropped out. I’m not saying I could have been a once-in-a-generation talent like James Murphy. But maybe I could have done some cool things, and contributed something original. My instincts were there. I was mixing house and techno together in a way no one else in New York was really doing. Multiple people have told me a certain mixtape or a certain set of mine changed their lives. I dreamed of a new fusion of dance and indie as far back as the mid-90s.
I don’t dwell on regret so much anymore. I spent a few years in the last decade working on reviving my DJ career here in Sydney, and it was fun, especially since it no longer felt like life and death. But it also reminded me of all the reasons I quit in the first place. Now that I know I’m autistic, I know why it was always a struggle for me, and why — as much as I love a good gig or a good party — I was often happier in quieter settings, having a more personal experience with music. I know why I always sucked at schmoozing, why I had such problems focusing and thinking strategically about my career, why there was such a disconnect between my musical vision and what I could accomplish, why the whole thing caused me so much anxiety.
I’m better at looking after myself now, and my priorities are different. Music is still central to my life and my well-being, but nowadays I also find fulfilment in my family, in special-needs parenting, in my writing, and in contributing what I can to socialist organizing.
One reason LCD’s “Losing My Edge” resonates so much with me is that James Murphy is my age and all his thoughts and fears about young musicians coming up behind him have been exactly my thoughts and fears at so many points in my life. At least one line of that song, “Playing Daft Punk for the rock kids,” is something I literally did back in the day. He captures that weird mix of regret and resignation so perfectly.
For all these reasons and more, Meet Me in the Bathroom (both the book and the film, despite my objections to it) was a lot for me to take in. It’s both thrilling and melancholy to revisit all this on the page or on the screen. There are so many places and things detailed in this history that I’m intimately familiar with. The scuzzy bars and lounges and record stores of the East Village that are the setting for much of the story are so familiar and fresh in my mind, it’s like a dispatch from back home, even though it’s been 20 or 25 years in some cases. But there are also plenty of reminders of broken friendships, personal turmoil, mistakes, and loss. It feels like a documentary of my life, for better and for worse.
In case it’s not already obvious, it’s this wellspring of emotions that made me want more from the film!
A few years ago when I posted about reading the book, Luke commented and said he couldn’t remember whether he mentioned me in the oral history or not (if he did mention me in an interview with Goodman, it’s not in the published version), but he wanted me to know I was part of the story. I thought that was so nice and generous of him, even if a bit overstated, considering how tiny my role was. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy and validated. Luke of all people would understand what I went through, I think. He’s been very public about his mental health struggles, and how his music career made him feel unhappy and unstable before he stopped drinking, pulled back from the touring life and shifted his own priorities.
It’s so strange and funny that, more than 20 years on, the Strokes and the Yeahs and Interpol are classic rock now – in other words the music that made me feel young again when I was 30 and “old” is now old itself, and some of the kids getting into it now weren’t even born then. I’ve lived to see so many revivals and rebirths and new waves come and go, but there’s something about this era in particular that refuses to age and feels more relevant than ever.
One more thing: I don’t mean to hammer the “disappointment” narrative. All of these artists are doing fine. The Yeahs are touring again. The Strokes’ last album, 2020’s The New Abnormal, is excellent. Luke put out a wonderfully adventurous solo album that same year (see the embedded Bandcamp link above) and he seems happier than ever. It’s probably just as well that none of them got as big as Radiohead or Pearl Jam. They are still beloved by new generations, as I found out when I hosted a listening party for Turn on the Bright Lights at Classic Album Sundays Sydney a couple of years ago and most of the audience was half my age. And their influence lives on in younger artists, from Parquet Courts to Wet Leg, as yet another wave of exciting, life-affirming new postpunk breaks upon us.
Feature image credit: Voy/ullstein bild via Getty Images