‘New York stories in a way are always real estate stories,’ says the journalist Alan Light in Lizzy Goodman’s bustling oral history of the city’s music scene at the dawn of the century. The same goes for all music scenes. Talent clusters and thrives only where there are cheap places to live, hang out, play shows and, crucially, fail.
New York in 2001 was such a location. The Lower East Side was still affordably sketchy and Brooklyn far from hip. When Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio moved to Williamsburg and invited his Manhattan friends to visit, ‘It was like I was asking them to go to China on a single–engine prop plane.’ Now Williamsburg, like Manhattan, belongs to the well-heeled. Gentrification is to Goodman’s narrative what heroin was to grunge: a devouring plague. Her book romanticises, and mourns, the last time New York was seedy enough to allow for a countercultural upheaval.
The subtitle notwithstanding, the heart of the story is the rise and kind-of-fall of that archetypal rock gang The Strokes between their first show in 1999 and their second album four years later. Goodman, who knew the band’s guitarist Nick Valensi from waiting tables, is clearly a Strokes partisan. To me, they were less a great band than people who might play a great band in a movie — a slick reboot of the sordid glamour of 1970s New York.
Immensely privileged, the five members enjoyed ample access to sex, drugs and money in their teens and were jaded before they’d played a note. This premature ennui fuelled their insouciant cool but left them nowhere to go after their 2001 debut Is This It. (Answer: yes it is.) Their frontman, Julian Casablancas, is a human ellipsis, so it’s left to the journalist Jenny Eliscu, an early booster, to sum him up: ‘Julian is both trying way too hard and really just not trying at all.