Issue 17: Meet Me in the Myth
The other night, on a friend’s recommendation, I watched a 1991 TV documentary titled Three Irish Writers. It’s an oral history of Dublin’s mid-century literary demi-monde, which uses the lives of three authors—Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien (Brian Ó’Nualláin), and Patrick Kavanagh—as a frame from which to hang archival interviews, readings, and first-hand accounts of poetry, heavy boozing and rivalrous egos in a sometimes judgemental and gossipy city.
Three Irish Writers ambles along unhurried in its erudition and entertaining anecdotalism. It’s also bleak, stained with the tragedies and immiserations of drink. (The interviews with Flann O’Brien are painful viewing.) The film is presented by Anthony Cronin who, as a young poet, had associated with all three writers, and in 1976 had published a memoir of the period titled Dead as Doornails on which the documentary was based.* According to Cronin, when he first started out the received opinion was that a golden chapter of Irish literature—of Jack Yeats, J.M. Synge, George Moore, Sean O’Casey—had long closed, and the modernist innovations of James Joyce had left local opinion divided. “Official literary Dublin comforted itself nightly with anecdote and good whiskey before going home by tram to the suburbs,” says Cronin in his introduction. “But Dublin had become the scene of another renaissance, this time of an almost underground nature […] One of those literary eras, the importance of which is only recognized when it is over.”
A few days before watching Three Irish Writers, I saw Meet Me in the Bathroom, a new documentary directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern. Adapted from Lizzy Goodman’s book of the same title, Meet Me in the Bathroom chronicles the downtown New York rock scene of the early 2000s, a golden era when bands were named after brain clots (The Strokes), European police agencies (Interpol) and conversation filler (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and made music that sounded broadly similar to records made 30 years previously. (These days, instead of a band it would be a podcast or a PR firm named after parts of the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass.) Meet Me in the Bathroom is fast-paced and sexy. A film about the early digital era, it has a wealth of visual material to draw upon: press interviews, fan footage, TV appearances, candid behind-the-scenes video. (Many music docs struggle to stretch a limited amount of archive footage across 90 minutes, ignoring the principle that if you haven’t got the pictures, you haven’t got a film.) If you’re into the music, Meet Me in the Bathroom spoils you for studio outtakes and concert performances. It’s a splash of grainy film textures and hand-held video, meant to evoke the the scrappy excitements of DIY underground culture, even if today this all looks like footage in search of an advertisement for an online bank.
The film’s argument, as you might guess, goes like this. At the end of the 1990s, New York’s run as a centre of musical innovation had sputtered to a halt. (If your musical horizons were bounded by rock, sure.) But then a fireball of new guitar bands set the city alight, led by The Strokes, brattish groups who captured the hearts of the kids and went on to take over the world. (Indeed, someone in the film utters that Great Rock Cliche “we felt we were going to take over the world,” although the world mainly seemed to consist of touring the UK.) The pressures of celebrity, drugs, music industry exploitation (and sexism, faced by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O), and a changing post-9/11, post-crash New York threatened to destroy the dream. But the music triumphed and new myths of downtown were minted.
By today’s standards, Three Irish Writers is the equivalent of watching one of those slow TV films of a locomotive train winding its way through the Lake District. Nobody has any money, everyone has a day job. The men all wear the same grey suits and overcoats, the women all wear the same modest dresses and overcoats, and the pubs wear the same wooden interiors. Everyone in the film, even the young, look old. Dublin is presented as a claustrophobic city that writers attempt to escape from—Joyce and Beckett succeeded, Behan wanted to move to New York but failed—whereas Brooklyn and Manhattan are given as places to run towards. (Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun’ opens and closes the New York film: “Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me” cut to a montage of NYC street scenes, parties, protests, political events.) In Meet Me in the Bathroom nobody seems to need a job—at least, nobody in the film other than LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy confesses to having one—and everyone is good looking and young. Even the old look young. But, perhaps just like 1950s Dublin, everyone wears the same suits and overcoats: Converse sneakers, tight jeans, band T-shirt and leather jacket. In photos of ‘50s Dublin, the men all appear to be leaning backwards as if struggling against a strong wind. In noughties New York, the men all appear to be toppling forward, adopting that knock-kneed-and-pigeon-toed pose that boys with guitars learn from photos of their heroes and believe signals debauched rebellion rather than future back pain.
The best parts of both of these films concern failure. In one darkly funny sequence of Three Irish Writers, a parade of Dublin locals are asked their opinion of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and each one of them describes how unpleasant he was. Through LCD Soundsystem’s origin story, Meet Me in the Bathroom addresses what its like to feel stuck with social anxiety, stood outside a scene looking in, one half of you wishing you were invited to the party, the other half loathing it. The film’s audience knows that LCD Soundsystem ultimately find huge success, but it at least raises the issue that fame is made possible, is even defined by, the absence of others, by those who didn’t make it or who went unacknowledged for their contributions. What any chronicle of an artistic scene leaves out is, well, those who were left out.
On the face of things, the Dublin and New York documentaries have little in common. Three Irish Writers touches on the substance of the writing, but Meet Me in the Bathroom tells you nothing about the music—the work is less entertaining than accounts of the lifestyle it afforded. (And the more you repeat that lesson, the more, over time, the lifestyle becomes the work that people imitate.) Their subjects are separated by half-a-century. One film murmurs quietly in poetic verse and shades of grey while the other shows off in saturated colours and a 21st century twist of cockiness and confessional vulnerability. Meet Me in the Bathroom chronicles a moment that was self-aware of the city’s myth-making mechanisms—gravedigging is big business when it comes to downtown history—whereas Three Irish Writers speaks to a period that was less concerned with that process. Apart from the accident of my watching the two films within a couple of days, perhaps there are no connections to be made. And yet I keep thinking about Cronin’s introduction to Three Irish Writers: “Official literary Dublin comforted itself nightly with anecdote and good whiskey…” Which reminds me of the moment in Meet Me in the Bathroom when we hear one of the musicians say: “I remember thinking maybe New York isn’t the kind of city anymore than produces iconic bands.” And then the follow-up line: “But Dublin had become the scene of another renaissance, this time of an almost underground nature…” Which, in turn, makes me think about how Meet Me in the Bathroom presents its early scenes depicting The Strokes and their friends The Moldy Peaches, starting to play packed out New York clubs.
In 1991, the conjunction on which many an arts documentary tilts its thesis—the “but” in Cronin’s intro—was already a well-worn TV formula: art understood as a series of out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new successions. And it remains so today, even in an era of rediscoveries and revisions that counter prevailing narratives of who did what and when. This before-and-after model affirms an heroic myth of innovation: once upon a time all was sleepy orthodoxy, but then a new movement arrived and turned received ideas upside-down. It primes its audience for a predictable, Romantic ending: the bright comet which crashes to Earth—brought down by the pressures of fame, the tolls of excess, or a revanchist return to order—but leaves art changed for the better. The model is almost always attached to a specific city—Paris in the 1920s, say, Rio de Janeiro in the ‘50s, Swinging Sixties London—each iteration adding voice to a jingoistic anthem of place and implying that if you had only been smart enough to have been born three decades earlier and turned up in the right city at the right time, you could’ve been part of the revolution too.
It fascinates me how often this formulation is repeated, no matter the subject or city. I wonder how many times the story can be recycled. In my experience, art—or music, literature, theatre, whatever your field is—doesn’t work that way. Generations meet and merge, young and old artists talk to each other. Influence is hard to map: it spreads like fog, you’re never really sure of where it starts and ends. Someone always gets more credit than they deserve, someone else is always unjustly forgotten. (If you want to be a successful artist, always be the second or third to make something; it rarely pays to be the first.) Art is never a question of before and after, only during.
*I’m grateful to Colm McAuliffe for pointing me to Cronin’s memoir, and explaining the connection between the book and Three Irish Writers.
—AR Kane, Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala’s band of the late 1980s, made beautiful records. Their musical career spanned shoegaze, alt-soul, hip-hop, pop, dub: it’s hard to say what they were. Luaka Bop reissued their compilation Americana earlier this year, with sleeve notes by the late, great Greg Tate (you can read them here). Dreamy, underrated.
—And from the unclassifable to the miserable classification of every musical note on Earth… Last week, Spotify users received their annual Spotify Wrapped roundup, in which the algorithm tells listeners everything they already know about their tastes, but that heavy metal is now called ‘Dark Harry Potter Librarycore’, that what they thought was hip-hop is actually ’Work From Home Sophisticated French Cafe’ and that their listening habits classify them as ‘The Truffle Forager.’ Three years ago, musician and author Jace Clayton wrote a superb analysis of the Spotify analysis: get your criticcore here.
—If you’re on Instagram, I recommend the NYPL Picture Collection’s account. Recent themed posts, all images drawn from the library’s collection, have included: optical illusions, teeth, juvenile delinquency, animal friendship and fingerprints.
No idea why this one came to my mind today, but I’d be suprised if you didn’t know it: Superstudio: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth. “Starring Gary and Cynthia.” The part which always makes me laugh comes near the end when Gary and Cynthia (I presume) run through a bucolic meadow to the sound of soaring prog rock guitars to enjoy the fruits of their multidisiplinary non-hierarchical critical utopian architectural praxis-based practice.