6 months! I’ve been here for 6 months! The seasons have changed, the end of the year is here, and every day this city feels more and more like home. Sort of. Well, not really, but certainly more familiar. I’ve had good weeks and bad weeks but one thing is certain – I am starting to get to know the city, just like I wanted to. The neighbourhoods are starting to take on personalities, I have favourite nooks and corners, and I’m slowly getting a little bit better at navigating the subway. Very slowly! I don’t know what it is about the NYC subway system in particular, but it flummoxes me more than any other subway system I’ve experienced on a nearly daily basis.
On good weeks I’m just so happy / still surprised to be here, in New York fucking City baby! Reading the New Yorker every week, eating bagels all the time, hanging out in Prospect Park, drinking on weeknights, adding to my never ending list of gigs I want to see and places I want to eat. Dollar slices! On other weeks I feel like I’m being ground down to a fine powder, that I’m working so much just to afford to live here that I can’t even enjoy the stupid place. On these days I’m fighting so hard just to keep afloat, to merely exist, that I’m constantly questioning my life choices. But guess what: I’ve had that same malady everywhere I’ve lived. I think I suffer from a case of terminal existentialism and as it turns out – everywhere I go, here I fucking am!
I’ve read a couple of books these last months that have helped me answer the question, which I am often asked by myself and others, which is: “Why New York?” While the short answer is, “Because I can”, there’s more to it than that. These books have helped me along my NYC studies, and with contextualization. One is an epic large tome called ‘Meet Me In the Bathroom’ which chronicles what you could call the last major music “scene” that “happened” in the city from 2001-2011. Released in 2017, it’s an oral history comprised of dozens of interviews, compiled by journalist and scene kid Lizzie Goodman. Another book that I read was the exquisite ‘Here is New York’ by E.B.White, written in 1948 and long considered one of the classic New York texts.
White’s essay (commissioned for a magazine called Holiday) is so vivid and relatable that I started off by wanting to underline passages, but soon realized that pretty much every line is underline-able. It’s effortless and satisfying, the kind of writing that just makes you smile. Although it describes a physical Manhattan that is long gone, much of what White muses on is still true. The myriad reasons people come to the city, its sheer scale, it’s brilliance and awfulness. I don’t really want to say any more about it lest I ruin it for you – just go and read it.
Although ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’ is an entirely different beast, both books are essentially exploring what it is that makes NYC a place that people continue to flock to. At first I didn’t think I would be able to read MMITB since it’s presented as a collection of sequential quotes, compiled from many many interviews, as opposed to a narrated history. I felt it might feel a little disjointed, but how wrong I was. Once I got into it I ripped through it, a brilliant text for dipping in and out of while eating breakfast or waiting for something to cook. Goodman does a great job of chronicling the build and bust of the “scene”, replete with all of the predictable sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Not to mention the egomaniacs, groupies, slimy records executives and hangers-on that came along with it.
The reason I can’t bring myself to remove those quotation marks is that this “scene” in reality is pretty loose. I mean, The Strokes are basically the protagonists of the story (The boring ass Strokes!), and then a whole bunch of bands in NYC that came out of the commercial bonanza that followed. Not many of them sound alike but it’s more of a same time, same place scenario. “Scene”.
In many ways the era that Goodman paints is so tame and lame – I mean the entire thing pretty much revolves around drinking and leather jackets. So edgy! Except for a handful of exceptions (including the excellent Liars who are pretty peripheral in the book) no one is really saying or doing even slightly interesting or authentic. It’s easy to make fun of, especially considering how spoilt and knuckle-headed and unreflective almost all of them are. This is a “movement” with literally nothing to move people about; politically, artistically or philosophically.
However I will say, by the time I got to the end (did I mention its a GINORMOUS book) I had softened my outlook. Just because very little of the music mentioned speaks to me, and just because almost none of it has had any real lasting impact (for what it’s worth), that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the urge to party and to express yourself and be young. These young guys (yup, guys) were living in a city that already had so much musical history, and rock n roll pedigree. Naturally they were drawn here, and of course they wanted to make their own “scene”. They wanted to wear white pants and stumble around the city drunk and be on the cover of magazines (remember them?), and get all the girls. Every generation needs its music to party to, and plenty of good party tunes came out of this era.
The point is, in both ‘Here is New York’ and in ‘MMITB’: people come to NYC to do things. Because stuff has happened here, and always happens here. I had a friend put it in a good way recently. Basically he was saying that because it’s so difficult here, it makes him work harder. Keeps him from getting lazy, or complacent. If you came here on purpose you have to really want to be here, because it’s not a cruisy ride. Which means you are almost always surrounded by driven, ambitious people. A good or bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for.
Back to ‘Meet Me In the Bathroom’. Perhaps the most interesting this about this “scene” is how outdated it is despite it happening not all that long ago. This is the very last time something like it could happen. Why? Because of the internet, because of ‘me too’, because of 9/11, because of millennials. It is instantly outdated. Goodman is clearly extraordinarily talented, and she interviews some equally amazing female journalists and musicians. But. The only female in a leading role in the story is Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of course) who is obviously fanfuckingtastic, but. BUT. One is just simply not enough. Come the fuck on! The book feels overwhelmingly bro-ey, the word ‘slut’ is used several times, there are groupies in it for godsake. Which is not to say that it isn’t an accurate reflection of a time in the city, which I’m sure it is – and for that it really is an essential and useful text. If a little depressing. Above all, it really makes you grateful for whatever the hell is going on right now with music, with the collapse of the “industry”, the slow implosion of “genres” and “scenes”, the weird blurring of times and location that the internet has allowed for.
What it also highlights is that NYC is not really a music town right now. The musical history will always be in its foundations, and you can see music from anywhere any night of the week, but it doesn’t feel like fertile ground for music here.
I’m not really sure what New York City IS fertile ground for right now, and this is probably why people go around declaring that New York is over. I’m not convinced that’s true, yet. I intend to find what’s going on. Bring on the next 6 months.