issue 11   dec 2001/jan 2002
page 7



by Joe S. Harrington

Just the other day I posed this question to the stunning Erin Hosier, a literary agent at the Gernert Company in New York City, where the Strokes hail from. She responded with more or less a litany of worthy reasons why these foppish glambags deserve our collective derision. But, at the same time, like so many people, she also clarified that she does indeed “love” them. Hence the crux of the Strokes paradox: while they come off as the whelps most worthy of an egg bath, at the same time, their first alb, Is This It—the one on RCA with the male transsexual on the cover (but more on that in a minute)—is admittedly pretty good. And I have this theory that the hatred of them is primarily a New York thing—after all, that shit-hole is famous for building-‘em-up-and-breaking-‘em-down and the Strokes haven’t done themselves any favors by being the kissy-face flavor of the month w/ out EVER having paid their dues in the traditional rockband sense. But out here in the hinterlands—I live in Portland, Maine—we don’t really pay that much attention to things like that. To us, it’s almost as if it’s all coming outta the abyss—and the Strokes, as a totally alien force, is one to be reckoned with. The one thing Portland doesn’t have—we have Punk, swamp rock, metal, folk-zydeco-klezmer-lesbo etc. etc.—is a good Velvet Underground soundalike. Which is what the Strokes are: the latest in a long line of Velvets hoaxes, from the Modern Lovers to Human Switchboard. But as a friend of mine once noted when we were noting the similarities between the Dream Syndicate’s “Sure Thing” single and the VU: “There just isn’t enough of this kind of music."
        Good point—as Hosier says: “We need rock & roll. We need it really, really bad. And we've been waiting so long for some new band to come along and make us feel alive again. We feel guilty because we didn't hear about the Strokes from our friends. We heard about them in Newsweek and Spin. Maybe Melody Maker. But we didn't just find them ourselves three years ago in some trashy pub on the lower east side like we used to. Does that mean we're old? Or is this band a made-up sham, a publicity stunt, the Milli-Vanilli of rock? Are their zits airbrushed on?”
        So once again, CONTEXT becomes everything—because I didn’t find out about the Strokes because of the big media buzz that was around them in New York, apparently all summer long. I found out about ‘em coz they happened to play at our little roadhouse up here called the Skinny back in August or September and there was a big hype about ‘em so I figured why not check ‘em out? Noel Ventresco was in town that night, as was Kim Torres, lead chanteuse/guitarist of the fab post-Cat Power aggregation, Torrez. It was from Kim’s fervent THIRST for all things Strokes-like that we began to realize that at least SOMEONE was buyin’ the rockstar hype. Mind you, at this point, I hadn’t even seen a PICTURE of these bozos. And the funny thing was, although I attended the show, I STILL didn’t know what they looked like because the place was so crowded that I never got to actually SEE the band. Just the fact that they’d prompted such an immense turnout was kinda indicative of an actual phenom-in-motion but I could tell there was cynicism already amongst the yokels—a fact more or less driven home at the end of the night when I saw the Skinny’s ample doorman Dice atop what we presumed was a mouthy straggler from the Strokes contingent but actually turned out to be just an unruly drunk. In any case, the sight of the Strokes’ massive tour bus in front of the Skinny didn’t exactly endear them to the proletarian hordes who like their $1.50 Pabst in a paper cup and like their rockers t’ be fellow dungaree-wearin’ grunge boys n’ gals.
        However, one thing I noticed right away was that I liked their music—I don’t consider myself an easy audience either; I don’t usually enjoy live music, nor do I enjoy hanging out in barrooms for the most part….especially in a big crowd. But somehow through the pushing and shoving and elbows and cigarette smoke I was able to discern a genuine music talent pulsating from the stage at the bottom of the stairs. It was, for the most part, a throbbingly simplistic, but yet still tuneful, Velvets sound—always a winner with me—as well as featuring a lot of intricate, high-flying Tom Verlaine type solos. Cynics around me were knocking them (“too simple,” I think one of ‘em said) but I really couldn’t find any argument against their music—and when I finally heard the album a few days later, one of the things that really impressed me was that I actually REMEMBERED certain songs from the live show—and that was pretty astounding considering all the distractions…not just the crowd, but private conversations and the like. To me that proved that the Strokes had that most vital component of a successful rock band—that is, something that makes them memorable.
        Because, think about it—of all the bands one witnesses in the course of a year, how many of ‘em ever really make a lasting impression? Whereas, for me anyway, the Strokes did—even if the impression was one that had already been firmly engrained in my consciousness for decades, in the form of the Only Ones, Television, Richard Hell & the VoidOids, the Modern Lovers, the Velvets and all the other bands the Strokes sound like (i.e., rip off).         But what’s wrong with that? I think that was my friend’s whole point about the Dream Syndicate: since the Velvets didn’t really make that many albums, and didn’t last that long, we were kinda LUCKY that so many bands picked up the torch. As for the Strokes, it’s kind of the same thing…in the day and age of Eminem and bands who sound like Creed and Radiohead and all these other bands who I’ve never even heard but I know are terrible, how can anyone complain about a band who, by all accounts, sounds like vintage punk/new wave from 1979? And I began to realize that, as far as the Strokes went, I’d yet to hear a lot of specific criticism of their music, even from their detractors. The general knock seemed to be about the CIRCUMSTANCES of their whole existence. By all accounts, most people seem to think the music is pretty good.
       According to Hosier, a lot of the backlash comes from the fact that the band has been made into such media darlings in New York—a fact more or less unbeknownst to people living in the hinterlands (like me, for instance) but an irksome attribute to the over-saturated urban audience who feel these poufy Johnny-Come-Latelys are usurpin’ the spotlight from more deserving—but less lucky—talents. As Erin says: “There are a bunch of equally awesome, if not better, undiscovered bands who will remain so for the rest of their short lives, rock n’ roll pretty boys making it happen all across the American Midwest. The Strokes are New Yorkers who have been milking the privileges that come with it since day one. The lead singer is the privileged son of John Casablancas - the notorious rogue modeling agent and godhead of the infamous ELITE Modeling Agency, (pretty much responsible for the Supermodel phenomenon of the early 1990's). Anytime you have a kid this well connected to NY high society by way of his parents, you're gonna have people who need to bitch. It's no coincidence that there is a heavy presence of models at their shows when they're in NYC or London, which has clearly lead to the band's mystique, at least in the eyes of the press.”

       You’ll notice in that statement, the words ‘New York’ mentioned two or three times—which once again convinced me how this whole Strokes-bashing thing is strictly a New York form of nausea. I decided to write to my friend Lisa LeeKing, who’s the listings editor at the New York Press, a paper who’s gone on record vehemently denouncing the Strokes (Tim Hall’s review in that paper on 10/31/01 called them an “oldies act” and called Is This It, the debut album, “a piece of shit”), to see if it was the band’s dubious “good luck” of having hailed from New York that made them such a corncob in the craw amongst so many hip downtown denizens.
       She wrote back: “I guess there’s lots of reasons why the average music connoisseur doesn’t like the Strokes.” Although Lisa claims to actually not like the album that much, she once again cites their lack o’ dues-paying as the primary reason for her dislike.
       As she says: “They weren’t even playing around town, hanging out or busting their asses like more deserving bands yet they’re the ones showing up in all the glossy mags. Sure they’re catchy and some might even say good-looking, but mostly it’s just hype.”
       I think it’s interesting to note the phrase “more deserving bands” which, to me, seems to suggest what I consider an elite premise by rock fans everywhere, which is that rock musicians deserve respect for plying their rather foolish profession after all these years….that there is indeed any lingering “legitimacy” to rock n’ roll to begin with. Whereas it would seem to me, that since rock n’ roll is more or less a JOKE anyway, the BEST groups are oftentimes those ones who are NOT necessarily a product of organic photosynthesis but who are nigh on completely a producer’s tool or prepackaged hoax. Time and again we’ve seen this phenomenon in the flesh: the Beatles, the Monkees, the Ramones, NWA, Veruca Salt, Kiss, the Sex Pistols—in almost every case these groups weren’t much more than snapped-together entities. Sure, in the case of the Beatles, Ramones, Pistols or NWA, the impetus might’ve been there in the first place, but certainly those groups wouldn’t have got as far as they did without some savvy manager or producer in the background and a LOT of hype. I don’t even have any complaint with groups that are completely snapped-together entities, like the Monkees or Veruca Salt, as long as the group at least acknowledges it. Did you really expect INTEGRITY from your rock groups at this point? Who cares? The Strokes are perfectly acceptable ersatz-bad boys and fleshy enough to be felt viscerally nevertheless.
       They’re better than the Bay City Rollers and probably even better than Hackamore Brick (whom I’ve never heard)—and here’s why: the album opens with a chunky riff called “Is This It” which starts out with a kind of a cascading stream o’ guitar noise and excellent bass work before the open chord chiming comes in, ala the Velvets, and singer Julian Casablancas does his Lou Reed routine. But why shouldn’t he, since Tony Bourdain is also doing it? Like that professed Dictators fan, I’m sure the various members o’ the Strokes have flirted w/ the heroin etc. It’s easy to be a junkie when dad can bail you out w/ in a moment’s notice and not even moralize about it, but just ACCEPT it as a byproduct of privilege (the fruit don’t fall too far from the tree after all). And in Casablancas’ case, there IS an air of richkid snottiness to the whole thing—but then again, there was with Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell as well. Lou Reed was a middle-class accountant’s son, and Verlaine and Hell were boarding school buddies. None of them were REAL rock like, say, the MC5, the Stooges, the Real Kids, the Hellacopters, AntiSeen etc. but that didn’t mean they couldn’t “rock” effectively and that goes for the Strokes as well. The fact they named the album Is This It is almost like a whimsical flip-off to their detractors, as if to say they KNEW that they couldn’t please the “purists” and have no intention of trying.
       So, the question is, judging by the album, is this it? The answer is yes, this is it…it’s just a fucking rock record. What did you expect at this point, something that could change your life? The fact is, as the luscious Hosier pointed out, a good rock record still makes us FEEL good…and the Strokes is a feel-good record that almost everyone digs…except those hipsters who are trying to out-hip the hipsters by saying how “lame” it is. But that’s a gut reaction based entirely on prejudice over their image and rapid rise to fame. What’s funny is, same thing happened to the New York Dolls, Bowie, etc. A lot of men in particular don’t like these glammy upstarts, but the GIRLS sure dig it. It seems like, until this point, only WOMEN have been able to profess their love for the Strokes—which means, for whatever reason, they “stroke” a sensual chord with their music.
       Far from being musical charlatans, they’re more like the Brian Jonestown Massacre who reinvented the wheel by basically LIVING the part…and that’s kinda what the Strokes are doing….it’s almost as if they’re PLAY ACTING….pretending to be rock stars before they really are, because they’re rich and can get away with it…and of course what’s happened is, they’ve been doing it so long that it’s actually WORKED and life imitates art once again.

        Speakin’ of art…back to the album: second track, “The Modern Age,” is a TOTAL Velvets steal, but it’s been a while since I’ve heard one this good: iron-handed toolbox drumming, chunkified guitboxes, and Julian Casablancas singing thru that fucked-up voice vocoder or whatever it’s called, like the one on “Lady Godiva’s Operation”…there are also trilling guitar triplets and a TOTAL Lou Reed Chuck Berry solo ala “I Heard Her Call My Name.” Excellent, excellent work….if the Velvets had done it, there would be no argument. But the Velvets DIDN’T do it because they were burnouts more or less—so you should THANK the Strokes for this one just like you should bow down and thank Scott Miller for his Big Star routine.
       “Soma,” the “hit” on the album, is an interesting track. Once again the static-y guitar bonk that the whole song rests on is kinda reminiscent of a lot o’ late seventies dogfuckers…from those legendary New Yorkers the VoidOids and TV to Brits like the Buzzcocks. And while the Strokes ain’t fit to carry the chrome-plated codpieces of any of the aforementioned, they at least evoke a similar realm (the Cars anyone? Don’t laugh—that first album was pretty fuckin’ great….as good as the Strokes anyway).
       The gratuitously-entitled “Barely Legal” is one of the worst songs on the album, with Casablancas doing his Richard Hell routine—but the thing is, he evokes it WELL! You can just picture him all bug-eyed and he can bark in the same staccato manner as not only Big Dick but also Lou Reed….these guys have big reps for a reason…they wrote the fuckin’ book when yr talkin’ street-punk-poet and Casawankers is totally aware of this fact. I don’t think the Strokes are as arrogant as one might think…I bet you they profess genuine REVERENCE for the whole seventies NY punk underground (and otherwise) which is no worse than the Brits in the sixties doing the same thing w/ the bluesmen…it all comes from SOMEWHERE and maybe the Strokes are just reviving something that NEEDED to be revived—so why hold it against ‘em? This song also features a lot of Tom Verlainesque fretboard whooparounds—which means aerodynamically-possessed solos that are spunky but, in this case, serve as mere window-dressing.
        Speakin’ of which, the Strokes themselves have been accused of being mere window-dressing….looking at the picture on the back of the album they look like any other junkie-glamfag Johnny Thunders look-alikes to me but, then again, I have virtually no connection to the hip downtown environs that the Strokes call home (both physically and, apparently, spiritually) and, admittedly, my idea of a fashion statement is basic Ramones.
        “Someday,” the next tune on the album, is another good ‘un and Casablancas is at his rudest. The song itself is based, believe it or not, on the old Stompers’ chestnut “Never Tell an Angel that Your Heart’s On Fire” (a quite pedestrian resource, all things considered)—that, and a bit of the Buzzcocks’ “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.” To me it’s the kind of complex pop music once fashioned by fellow mascara-wearers like the Only Ones back in the seventies: a kind of decadent, sarcastic form of pop. Once again, the guitars are chunky and Casablancas dumps on his New York junkie girlfriends with the phrase: “Darling, your head’s not right.” These guys grew up in the fashion industry, so they’re outright CONTEMPTUOUS of the little scum-rock plebeians—which is why so many of us out here in the hinterlands want to give them a knuckle sandwich.
        “Alone, Together” perhaps best demonstrates the band’s ability to jam effectively. A quirky, horizontal riff it eventually slices into the most intense musical dialogue on the album with the whole band doing their Television routine, including drummer Fabrizio Moretti who does a polyrhythmic Billy Ficca thing that proves he’s not solely a Moe Tucker beat-along. This kind of jarring instrumental interchange is a good move by the band right here in the middle of the album.
       The next track, “Last Nite,” is the favorite of my good friend Jere Mann—he’s a MAILMAN so you get it: this is the most accessible track on the album as far as the plebeians go—and you can be sure that’s just the way the Strokes look at it. I dunno, are they even smart enough? They’re probably too busy looking at themselves in the mirror to even NOTICE other people, and this track is indicative of this kind of alienated posture but it’s still alreet pseudo-scuzz rock with Casa-canker flouncing about in his Armani finest tossing off lines like “my girlfriends ain’t ever gonna understand.” “Ain’t ever” is a long time, but Julian might be onto something—the kids nowadays just ain’t got it. And the girlfriends AREN’T ever gonna understand. But then again, good ol’ Ian MacKaye actually said it all better twenty years ago: “You never did/You never will.”
        Actually, this song sounds like the Clash.
       “Hard to Explain,” which follows “Last Nite,” is probably the most pedestrian track on the alb—a kind of nodding, non-granulated riff that plods on for about two minutes w/ some criss-cross guitars ala Television and Casawanker’s worst vocals ever. Then again, these guys ain’t no ordinary Toms, Dicks or Harrys, these Strokes all have fashion-industry names: JULIAN, FABRIZIO etc. It kinda reminds me of that old song by the Undertones: “I Wanna Be a Male Model.” The Strokes have achieved this prophecy. Their arrogance is palpable, which makes ‘em real rock in the same manner as the Stones. True, it’s a pose we’ve all seen a thousand times. But if that’s the case, if that’s a bad thing, I guess we should’ve detonated the whole thing thirty-five years ago (fans of R. Meltzer take note). You can’t blame the Strokes for being the latest to steal the clothes from the corpse. At least it’s Armani.

"Are you gonna look at the camera?" "No, are you?"

       And a lot of people are becoming believers. When I accused them of being “poseurs,” Kimberlee Torres set me straight: “Poseurs? You will eat those words my friend. This is the best album I’ve heard all year.”
       Once again, who am I to argue, especially since I play the album every day? With rock n’ roll being a smorgasbord of styles as opposed to substances, I think it’s kinda neat that you can just snap in whatever flavor you want that day—today it happened to be the MC5’s Back in the USA, an LP that Is This It isn’t as dissimilar from as one might think.
       Of course the most controversial track on the album is the “banned” track, “New York City Cops”—it’s hard to say if this opus will one day have the same notoriety as previous “banned” tracks like the Ramones’ “Carbona Not Glue,” but one thing’s for sure—given the circumstances of September 11, this song has definitely taken on a whole new resonance…in fact, in certain ways it’s very existence might be the LAST vestige of the whole innocent nineties age where one could actually MAKE FUN of the cops w/ a junkie’s sneer as if it was an ACCEPTED FACT. Not coincidentally, it’s also the track where the Strokes sound the most sincere. In other words, beating up on cops is their thing because the cops ‘re the ultimate proles ‘n, until September 11, no rocker worth his salt wanted t’ be known as a cop-kisser for this reason as well as for many others—chief among them the fact that the pigs’d snatch their STASH! In the New York City of pre-Sept. 11, cops had a lot more time to harass male models and rock n’ roll glamour boys. That’s why, in many ways, “New York City Cops” is the Strokes’ most convincing track. It really captures the creepy late summer nighttime texture of those last few effervescent moments of pre-terror street-life. This is also Casablancas’ best vocal performance—check out the way he almost mutters “it was fuckin’ strange” which even Smitty admitted was total Richard Hell.
       That leaves two more tracks on this opus that, you know, might be the only one they ever make—that is, if Casablancas dies of an OD in the next two months or whatever. Which is probably the best thing that could happen to a band like this who’s probably already peaked. In any event, “Trying Your Luck,” is a toss up for worst song on the alb along with the aforementioned “Hard to Explain.” Neither of ‘em are particularly bad, just boring. Boring’s alright, in fact in the annals of indie-rock it’s pretty much the currency—BUT the Strokes are a band who’ve proven that they don’t have to be boring. So why should we settle for less? (Especially since they’ve had their whole lives to make this album and if they hadn’t spent as much time fucking around with the fag fashion stuff they could’ve made TWO albums by now…)        Fortunately, being the calculated hype that they are, the Strokes KNOW BETTER than to let the alb end on a flat note (which perhaps more organically conceived groups—cf. Sebadoh—wouldn’t have known about…ultimately to their chagrin). For this reason, “Take It or Leave It,” the set closer, is a pulsating caterwaul that easily draws comparisons to the Velvets, VoidOids and Television. The Strokes are part of a new breed of bands that also includes the White Stripes, the Mooney Suzuki and Gluecifer, who are capable of inducing GENUINE excitement and footstomping glee by utilizing the most basic rock formulas. Simplicity has proven to be genius in rock time and again, and perhaps, in their cynical quest to unearth the ulterior motives of the Strokes, purists have overlooked the fact that what lies at the core of their sound is a rudimentary thumb-sucking throb.
       I’ve always maintained that it’s perhaps best not to know too much about the artists in question—the whole cult-of-personality that surrounds musical figures, from Charlie Parker to Eminem, is basically what’s killed music. The Strokes are victim to this cult as much as anybody (admittedly, not by accident). But their sound is unique—OK, so it sounds like some of the ancient punk vanguard, like the Velvets and Television. Sure, it’s a bubblegum version—by staking out the same turf as the masters, the Strokes have already ascertained that they will NEVER surpass them. The Strokes are Velvet Goldmine for real, or maybe the stage version of Please Kill Me (before the screen version has even been writ). But they’re not attracting aging ex-punkeroos like Tony Bourdain or John Holmstrom with this sleaze-vaudeville routine—they’re attracting YOUNG KIDS and, more specifically, young girls! So they’re convincing somebody that scuzz-rock lives. And perhaps it’s a whole new generation who never even knew scuzz existed and now are looking for it where it dwells. The Strokes have been successful on an almost evangelical level of scuzz dissemination.
       So are they the trash compactors of rock n’ roll? That’s the big question. A lot of people would like to run them THROUGH one, but that’s a different story. I think it’s kind of funny in this day and age when conservative columnists like Peggy Noonan are writing things like “a certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since September 11” that creeps like the Strokes flouncing around flicking their wrists as if they were foppy Jaggeresque royalty. Timing is everything, and, given current circumstances, the Strokes’ stand-up decadence routine couldn’t have come at a worse time—notice how quickly they extricated the offending track, “New York City Cops,” off Is This It as soon as the furor from the aftermath of Sept. 11 set in? Seeing THESE GUYS walk into, say, a downtown Manhattan COP BAR in the wake of Sept. 11 would be ALMOST as scintillating of a theoretical juxtaposition as the time the Massachusetts paisley-rock band Abunai’s van broke down in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and they had to go into Benny’s Pool Hall and ask directions. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well with the locals, with Thompson in his paisley shirt and Joe Turner with his ponytail.
       The Strokes, for now, have learned to buffer such consequences. As Hosier noted, their placement in all those year-end top 10’s is sure to piss off the purists even more—for a band whom they consider “overrated” and overexposed” it will be the final blow to any hope at “credibility.” But unless a person lives in New York, that “overexposure” isn’t even tangible… admittedly, I don’t read rock magazines, other than ones I’m in, but I could’ve easily ignored the Strokes altogether. Although I have virtually no exposure to the hit lists and record charts, I did happen to glance recently at the Billboard chart they reprint in the Boston Globe and saw that the Strokes album wasn’t in the Top 20, which means they’re no Nirvana—which means, at this point, all “great white hope” bets are off.
       As for the album cover, I still say it’s a man, which would only make sense given the Strokes’ art and fashion connections (i.e., they know a LOT of drag queens). Then again, as my friend Chris Irving once said about Roxy Music’s first album: “Eeeeeh, actually it’s a drawing!”
       Which is fitting for a band who are a total cartoon character anyway.