There were still some early morning stragglers left at the party when journalist Lizzy Goodman set about immortalizing New York’s rambunctious ’00s rock scene. The resulting 600-page tome, Meet Me in the Bathroom, is a thrilling, hilarious, gossip-fueled account of the city’s musical renaissance post-9/11, from the rise (again) of rock’n’roll on the Lower East Side to the madcap birth of DFA Records to Brooklyn’s indie rock gentrification later in the decade.
Like Please Kill Me, Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil's definitive oral history of New York punk, before it, Meet Me in the Bathroom is a project of such enormous scale that one of Goodman’s peers tells me it “almost killed her.” It took six years and 200+ interviews to complete, capturing the kind of fly-on-the-wall music journalism rarely seen anymore. Every chapter hits you like the rush of another line in a grotty bathroom stall, as evidenced by the candid excerpts that ran ahead of the book’s publication. We caught up with Goodman this week to find out how she got the dirt, and who’s pissed at her now.
Pitchfork: Considering it all took place so recently, when did you realize you needed to write this history?
Lizzy Goodman: One of the first things I kept hearing was, “What are you talking about? It's way too soon to do that.” I didn't listen. Anyone that thinks it's “too soon” after the internet has existed is probably wrong. The idea began where the book ends. I went to see the then-final LCD Soundsystem show, which of course did not turn out to be the final show. It was a very dramatic culmination of their rise, and this reinvention of dance and rock music. It felt like a crescendo moment, all cymbals crashing: “Oh my god they're at Madison Square Garden.” This is not a band that should necessarily have been there. Famous people are there, there are limos outside. Soon after that, I'd seen the Strokes play Madison Square Garden as well, and they just killed it. They were this robust, powerful, fully formed rock band. Seeing both of those things cast in that light of establishment rockstardom made me realize that something had ended and something was beginning.
A lot of these people ran in the same scene as you, and you worked with the Strokes’ Nick Valensi at a restaurant. In the early days, did you have a sense that these people would become rock’s new demigods?
Absolutely not and 100 percent yes at the same time. When I met Nick, I was in college and he'd just graduated high school and was hanging out in New York playing in this band. I remember when he was playing me very early Strokes stuff, I said, “OK, but Nick you're gonna go to school right? Come on!” I mothered him like a 19-year-old asshole. I remember Is This It had come out in the UK but not in America, and I saw them play in Philly with my best friend. We knew the record back and forth. Afterwards Nick was like, “We played a new song tonight!” And we were like, “Yeah, we know. We know all of your songs.” But there's a big space between knowing your friends were doing something cool, and knowing they'd be rock gods of their generation. I knew that Interpol were amazing. I knew that Karen O was a goddamn rockstar. I knew that Nick's band was the soundtrack to my young life. But I did not know that anyone else would care. Neither did they.
That’s what comes across. There’s a surprising innocence to the Stokes in the book—how much they actually cared, when their whole attitude was that they didn’t. It makes you like them more.
I'm relieved to hear that. Those guys get so much shit and I'm not saying it's undeserved—I don't feel sorry for them. But even James Murphy is like, “Is This It is the record of the decade, I don't know what to tell you, they made it.” As someone who was vaguely a kid sister in that crew, they were such dorks. If I’d had to describe in 2000 to my mom what my friend Nick and his friends were like, I wouldn't have said “sexy rockstar boys”—I'd have said they were naughty, mischievous sweethearts. There's a line about how they were like hanging out with a bunch of Holden Caulfields. That really nails it.
James Murphy, for as omnipresent as he was in the scene, is not someone who feels very known on a personal level. But then you’ve got this part about him discovering ecstasy, with all these people who were there that night explaining how it completely changed him. That’s the type of thing you can't believe you’re reading in print, at least not these days.
I'm so blessed in this book with the most incredible characters—awesome, complex, insecure, hyper-confident, beautiful creative geniuses. One of the things that the best characters have in common is that sense of vulnerability. James is a total god but he's also open. The thing that impressed me the most about James and someone like Albert [Hammond, Jr.] or Karen O is that they're these paragons of cool and they're like, “Yeah, I felt really shitty that day.” In Karen's case, she felt on top of the world but also lonely because she was the only woman in the scene and her bandmates were only friends to an extent. The willingness to get into those more complex emotions is connected to their brilliance.
There’s that bit when Karen talks about meeting Debbie Harry and she wants Debbie to comfort her about her sense of isolation, but Debbie tells her to “just enjoy it while it lasts.” It’s crushing. What was the key to getting those honest moments?
I don't know. We did this event with James [Murphy] and [Nick] Zinner in conversation [at the Strand this week] and this came up. I was like, “Guys! Why did you tell me all that shit?” And they were like, “I dunno!” I don't think it's that they knew me so well. Even with the Strokes, I knew Albert and Nick but I didn't know the others that well. After they became famous, it's not like we hung out. These people knew me as a journalist. They didn't think I was the worst so I had that on my side, but you're still a journalist. Rockstars don't like journalists. I have to thank the oral history form. They all knew other people were talking about them. They knew they were not the central character. They were a participant. It wasn't like any other interview they'd ever done because it was going to be about sounds, sights, smells, a sense memory experience. That frees people up.
Julian [Casablancas] is in the book, which was a huge score—it took a long time. Julian is not a particularly expressive interview. Just show up for 20 minutes for me and talk about your favorite bar in New York City. I can work with that. I'm not a secret rockstar whisperer. It's not that I know things about interviewing people that other people don't. It's just labor and time.
And also maybe a little bit that they want to tell their story in a way that lends itself to rockstar lore. This is not an analytical text that tells you what to think—you lead us to a great party.
I know exactly what you mean. A male in a position of authority in the industry complimented me recently. His first line was, “Oh Lizzy, I'm so excited about the book. I could tell it was written by a woman.” And you're just like, “Oh lord OK, really?! Do go on…” He wasn't being a dick. He said that so many oral histories and rock books are really granular and think-y, and even if they are anecdotal they're like, “Tell me about the guitar sound on blah blah blah…” He said, “This feels like an emotional memory that we're all in.” That's exactly what I was aiming for.
Record reviewing and hyper-analytical music writing has never been that interesting to me. The song is right there. Are you going to describe the Beatles better than the Beatles can sound? No, you're not. For me it's always: How does music make me feel? How is it going to make other people feel? I wanted people to be able to read this book and feel dropped in on an immersive experience that was a moment in time, and felt out of control, fun, and scary. No one who was there had a real grasp on it, either. I wanted people to feel that because I don't know if that's ever gonna happen in the same way again.
There’s so much delicious he-says, she-says. Does the drama continue now that the book’s out?
I was totally terrified of how people were going to respond, people who have bared their souls who now see it printed next to quotes from their bandmates and oldest friends. I have a lot of empathy for that. Everyone who bitches about how rockstars are whiney, go have someone spend five years interviewing everyone you've ever met and print it and then see how you feel.
Some have said, “One day my children are going to be able to read this and know this period that I lived through because this exists.” I feel so overwhelmed that anyone would ever say that! There are a couple people who are pissed off, but I don't care because Karen O is happy and feels like her son can read this one day. These are people whose memories were entrusted to me and I wanted to honor that. Sometimes those two things don't coexist and you have to go with telling the story accurately. At the end of the day, it's nice when they don't all hate you.