A story about posers by posers.
So would be the tagline for Lizzy Goodman’s ode to the early 2000s rock and roll scene in New York City if my cynical 15 year old self was writing this review. However, 20 years later I’m a little more forgiving in my estimation of the importance and impact of bands despite my personal opinion of their output.
Let’s start with some perspective. That same 15-year-old self despised Pearl Jam back in 1996 and wrongly viewed them as the “corporate sellouts” Kurt Cobain had professed them to be. There was even an article in Thrasher magazine about a young “fan’s” encounter with Eddie Vedder and the subsequent chastisement for the Ticketmaster fiasco which reeked of opportunism and false rebellion. Fast forward, I’m watching PJ20 and nearly weeping over Eddie’s revelation over the inspiration for “Once,” “Alive,” and most poignantly “Release.” If you’re unfamiliar with Eddie’s familial story, look into it and hopefully you won’t have the ignorant reaction to his music that I had at 15 but have since completely reversed, becoming an ardent Pearl Jam fan. All this is sufficed to say that my self-righteousness occasionally lends itself to complete hypocrisy, and I own up to my personal paradox.
Now let’s consider the Strokes (and for that matter – Vampire Weekend). Again, I was tainted by Buddyhead’s constant condemnations and ridicule of the band and honestly never gave them a chance in hell. The backstory of the European and urban private school upbringing caused me to scoff at their supposed rock and roll credentials. For me personally, rock and roll resonates more strongly with a background in desperation that is overcome. Consider the Replacements story in Trouble Boys or Nirvana’s situation; it’s either make it with the music or be a fucking janitor. When your parents can fund your lifestyle for the rest of your life, there’s never a sense of danger in pursuing your rock and roll dream that everything is going to send you back to nowhere. It’s the same thing Jarvis Cocker was talking about in Pulp’s “Common People,” if your dad can make it all go away, you will never truly understand the struggle.
Now let’s reveal the hypocrisy in my disdain. My wife is the first one to point out my bullshit. She goes, “Well, wasn’t Ian Mackaye’s dad a writer for the Washington Post and didn’t Henry Rollins attend private school?” And she’s right. Also, consider Fat Mike whose dad loaned him the money to help start Fat Wreck Chords. But all I can say is there’s a difference and its inherent in the music. There is some lingering pretension in the Strokes music despite their sterling credentials of influences (Velvet Underground, Television). Another wrinkle in this convoluted story, I am a huge, unapologetic Ryan Adams fan. I love almost everything he has ever done. Can he be a huge douche? Of course. But he is unpretentious in his influences and is earnest in his pursuit of music, and it resonates with me in a way none of the Strokes music does.
For the book itself: First, Goodman completely rips off the structure of Legs McNeil’s seminal Please Kill Me in her word of mouth documentation of this early 2000s New York scene. Second, this is not the New York of Please Kill Me; this is post-dot-com boom gentrification sanitized Manhattan. There is nothing that recalls the ugly, disgusting CBGB’s that does not come off as a self-conscious facsimile. But then again, I wasn’t there. But I was watching it on the Internet and on MTV after it started breaking in 2001 and aside from the White Stripes, I was not impressed.
It’s something one of the members of Vampire Weekend hits on later in the book. Despite himself being from the suburbs and having successful lawyer parents, he rejected the Strokes initially because they came from such an affluent background. He notes the irony in the rejection considering Vampire Weekend are Columbia alumni and styled themselves as a preppy reaction to the Strokes (for the record, despite possible hypocrisy, I find Vampire Weekend completely insufferable – I can admit they are talented musicians but I never want to listen to their music).
The major players in this book are the Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, and the Walkmen. It initially catalogues the scene and bands in Manhattan but explores Brooklyn as Williamsburg becomes the epicenter of hipster-dom. Each band’s story is fairly interesting in its own right, but there’s no earth shattering mythology created in Goodman’s documentation.
Goodman also spends a large chunk of the book discussing James Murphy, DFA records, and LCD Soundsystem. I may be missing out, but I cannot make it through more than one minute of LCD’s stuff. Not my thing. Additionally, the melodrama following the dissolution of James Murphy’s and Tim Goldsworthy’s friendship reads like a sissy slap fight between spoiled rich kids. At least the Canadian band Death From Above was able to reclaim their name.
The book has its anchor in New York but is unafraid to explore concurrent scenes around the country, spending time in Detroit with the White Stripes, Omaha with Bright Eyes, Las Vegas with the Killers, and Nashville with Kings of Leon. Here’s the hypocrisy; I can enjoy Kings of Leon although it’s not hard to hear them as Strokes with Southern accents. I remember when Aha Shake Heartbreak came out, and I think my local record store clerk put it best: “I appreciate what they are going for, and I want to like it, but I don’t know, something is missing.” Despite this possibly inexplicable absence of a deeper substance, these fellows have gone on to be extremely successful compared to their contemporaries (except maybe the Killers). Of all the bands chronicled in this book, the only one I followed very closely during this recorded time period were the White Stripes. Despite your opinions on Jack (and especially his most recent output), every White Stripes album is of extremely high quality and shows their progression and carefully scripted expansion without abandoning their founding premise.
Speaking of the Killers, they at least come off as earnest and genuine in their quest for arena rock stardom and never harbored any qualms about appearing authentic or subversive. Ronnie Vanucci, the drummer, believes this is due to their difference in backgrounds. Most of the Killers families were embedded in the service industry in Vegas and rock and roll was viewed as a way out of that lifestyle. Kings of Leon similarly struggled with an uncertain future as their disgraced pastor father divorced their mother, erasing the years of fundamentalist Christian upbringing with his own hypocritical sinfulness. No doubt, these confused boys turned to the hedonism and rush of rock and roll as an antidote to this rupture in their philosophical foundation.
Here's the dividing line between the Strokes ideas about rock and roll versus the ‘90s bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, etc.). Those ‘90s bands wanted to shatter the ridiculous imagery of poodle hair metal jokesters riding a party train of strippers and cocaine to the top of the charts and reveling in their excesses. They returned the focus to the music itself and not the ends the music would attain. The ironic thing is each one of those bands was at least damaged (significantly or fatally) by the touch of drugs. However, it never seemed like they were enjoying those drugs or particularly condoning them. The Strokes brought back the hair metal attitudes of being rock stars for the sake of being a rock star, making music to take drugs and fuck models to. It just always rang hollow to me. I’m probably being overly reductive, and there’s always the possibility that I’m dead wrong and will see them in a new perspective in the future.
I’m being hard on the Strokes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to create music and reflect their experiences through that outlet. Lizzy Goodman does a serviceable job trying to bring some unification to this rock and roll movement of the early 2000’s. Her extensive interview compilation is impressive. She leaves out the smoldering crater left by At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, which I think was a more radical and profound Molotov cocktail than Is This It. Other glaring omissions that were outside the scope of this account include the critical rise of My Morning Jacket with It Still Moves and Z, which I seem to remember critics losing their shit over and proclaiming MMJ the American Radiohead. In the perpetually ignored South, the Drive-by Truckers released their magnum opus and its nearly as strong followup Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day. But Lizzy was focusing on New York City and / or bands that scored radio hits by emulating the sound of this era. However, I will thank the Strokes for being a counterpoint to Creed, Nickleback, Staind, Disturbed, Godsmack (need I go on?). Similar to the Ramones, they made simplicity and directness in vogue again. As I’ve gotten older, it’s interesting to watch who gets canonized and who gets overlooked. But as long as quality music has champions, it won’t be overlooked and forgotten. So, tell everyone about the bands that meant something to you.
A story about posers by posers.