Will the Strokes Save Rock & Roll?
Jay Michaelson
November, 2001

Are The Strokes gonna save rock & roll? The usual line you hear on The Strokes these days is “Overhyped, but a damn good band nonetheless.” Fine, fine – but that’s only part of it. Why did the Strokes get so overhyped to begin with? I mean, not every group of five 19-year- olds gets signed to massive record labels based on a four-song EP. So why them? You could look to the music-industry connections, the rich-kid-parent connections, or you could just say “It could’ve been anyone,” and reduce the Strokesomania phenomenon to a simple case of industry spin.

But that doesn’t seem to get it right, because damn but if the Strokes’ songs aren’t really fucking good, and damn but if the band isn’t close to unique on the music scene. Name me, Cynic, three other bands who do what they do. It should be simple, but it’s not. Yeah, there are plenty of post-punk, proto-punk, neo-punk, emo-core, whatever subgenre bands out there, and some of them are fantastic. But how many times can you walk into a show with twenty year olds on the stage who sound like Johnny Thunders, Lou Reed, and Lust for Life-era Iggy Pop, but are more than a revival act?

At this point, the universe divides into two. You’re either one of the people who’s heard of all those guys (or want to), or you’re not. You either get it, the combination of primal, primitivist energy with world-weary frustration, or you don’t (yet). And if you do get it, and you also get Richard Hell, the Dolls, the Velvets, and the rest -- you know that this is what rock and roll is really all about. Not the industry, not the Hollywood poses, glam cliches, the irony or camp, and certainly not the multi-billion industry that fashions pre-fab Ken dolls for teenage consumption. What makes this music still worthwhile, even as it is largely irrelevant and has been largely surpassed by more sophisticated genres, is the way it can penetrate right down into you, right into the anger, love, hurt, and pain, and come out sounding beautiful. You know this, even though you also like a hundred other scenes, even though your disc of Marquee Moon might be next to Miles Davis or DJ Spooky in your CD changer.

And you also know that this is a rare bird, this creature who can, seemingly as a force of nature, combine the go-ahead drive of pure rock n’ roll with enough integrity and intelligence and youth to tap into the essential truth of it, the question of whether it’s possible to care anymore, like Lester Bangs wrote all those years ago about Richard Hell. A little more sentiment, it turns into bathos. A little more muscle, it turns into cock-rock. It’s easy to let it all slip into cliche or self-indulgence; hard to walk the line.

So, where are the Strokes? Have they made good on their promise to be the Heartbreakers of the new decade? And do enough people get it to make it matter?

The show, at Hammerstein Ballroom, was inconclusive. As probably it should be – this is a band that’s been together, what, a year? And has recorded exactly 13 songs (counting the unreleased ‘NYC Cops’). Better for them that they can’t yet be anointed the saviors of rock just yet – they’re under enough pressure already to kick the teenyboppers off the charts, which they probably won’t be able to do.

Here, then, were the good parts. The songs – fantastic. Deceptively simple, like the Ramones. But with breaks reminiscent of Tom Verlaine, and song structures that departed from the standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge format, without hitting you over the head with it. Lyrics are simple, confused, just right. The focus seems to be on the music, which is driving without being macho, melodic without being sweet. The performances -- tight. Strong singing from Julian Casablancas– sometimes Lou Reed, sometimes Iggy, but always no one in particular but himself. You know, rock music is theft. But you still have to have something to add that hasn’t been done before. And that’s what he’s got. Likewise the guitar work from Albert Hammond, Jr., and Nick Valensi. I’d heard this before, but not quite this way. It was old, but it was new. Perfect.

Okay, so the bad parts. The songs were color-by-number copies of every song on the Is this It album. No departures. And, nothing we hadn’t already heard. Only NYC Cops provided something new to the crowd (most of whom, at least where I was, seemed to have downloaded the mp3 anyway). Come on, guys – nothing you’ve just written? Not even a cover? Give us some obscure Dictators track – anything, you know? Casablancas said toward the end, “You know how some bands do an hour and a half of set, and then two hours of encores? We don’t like that shit. We got two more songs, and that’s all.” Fine, man, but we shelled out thirty bucks to come see you – can’t you give us something that we couldn’t have gotten on the record?

What won me over was a sincerity that made me want to forgive the suddenly-famous, million-dollar-advance Strokes. A lot of Casablancas’ frontman persona was bratty – kind of a spoiled, rich kid wanting to get laid. Which, according to a lot of critics, is what the Strokes are all about. The bizarre stage lighting – keeping most of the band silhouetted like some sort of bad outtake from a Pink Floyd tour – didn’t help. But a couple of times, the guitarists betrayed actual joy. And Casablancas seemed at times to break through the poses, saying how amazed he was that the last time they were in New York, they were at the Bowery Ballroom, and now this; or how much the hometown crowd meant to them – you know, little clues that hey, maybe they’re just rock and roll fans, too, and they’re kind of surprised by all the hype, but you know what, they’re like you too.

That’s what all those Blank Generation acts were really all about, right? Breaking through the larger-than-life superegos of the Eagles or Wings. Coming, well, down to Earth. Not much unified the New York scene, musically, in the 70s. Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Backstreet Boys – what did these people really have in common? To me, it was mostly a refusal to engage in bullshit. Of course, rock music is largely about performance and image and showiness. But in the seventies, as now, that aspect of it had ballooned way out of proportion. And so those old New York bands shared an urge to get back to the other part, the part about truth, and rebellion, and energy, and communicating all of that longing and desire through a few simple chords and a 4/4 beat. No pretension, no ironic detached indie-rock hepsterism, no twenty-minute jam sessions, and no frat-rock bullshit either. Just gimme some truth that I can dance to.

Maybe the Strokes will be able to capitalize on this cyclical moment in our cultural taste like Nirvana did ten years ago and the Pistols/Clash/everyone else did fifteen years before that. Or maybe their moment isn’t yet here, and kids want more Britney and boy bands. Dunno. But there were a few moments down in the pit at the show last week that sure as hell felt like rock history was repeating itself, all old and all new, and that, despite it all, This Is Actually Happening.


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