The Essential NYC Venues of the Early 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' Era

Lizzy Goodman, author of the '00s indie rock oral history 'Meet Me in the Bathroom,' explains what must-know clubs launched the storied New York scene.

the strokes at mercury lounge, the strokes in meet me in the bathroom
The Strokes at Mercury Lounge in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Rebecca Greenfield
The Strokes at Mercury Lounge in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Rebecca Greenfield

The documentary Meet Me in the Bathroom, based on the oral history of the same name by Lizzy Goodman about the late '90s/early '00s indie music scene in New York City, begins with audio of Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes talking about Dirty Dancing. Karen O says, "You stumble into this underbelly, this cool, sexy, you know—" "scene," Casablancas says, finishing her thought, as they describe Baby finding herself in a whole new world on a family vacation. Karen O says it's "like a fantasy" as the film reveals its first clips of the Manhattan skyline and downtown clubs—propositioning the two rock stars and their peers as having the exact same experience, with New York being their Catskills resort and garage rock being their dance.

As history would have it, and is thoroughly reported in Goodman's bestselling book and the new Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern-directed doc, that is exactly what happened to bands like Interpol, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and more. The documentary (out now in New York and Los Angeles, with one-night-only showings nationwide on November 8, and streaming November 25 on Showtime) spotlights that unique New York moment, which, even though it was small and scrappy, was bursting with energy and perhaps more special than any of the immense success many of those bands eventually found outside of it.

"The Strokes are amazing, Karen O's a genius rock star, Interpol is incredible, and look what James Murphy did with his career. It is impossible to express how unlikely all of those eventualities seemed at this time," says Goodman. "Everyone was saying guitar music was over, everyone was saying leather jackets were dead. The idea of sexuality and loudness and the primal nature of the essence of rock and roll was so passé to people. It was like, 'No, we're doing electronic music now. This rock thing is something from the previous century and we're moving on.'"

In New York's Lower East Side, though, there was an "energy," as Goodman describes, and dozens of young people looking to create the artistic, charged up, "really, truly underground" New York that they had imagined. What helped to house and fuel that energy was a handful of bars and music venues.

While many of those places have since closed, they gave the magic of the scene a home, and made it feel both as alive and tangible to New Yorkers as it was. Several of those Manhattan and Brooklyn spots make an appearance in the doc, as it's compiled exclusively of old footage and photographs, but not nearly every essential location. So below, Goodman (who was very much a part of the scene herself) explains what she considers some of the most essential Manhattan venues in the very early moments of the rock scene and her favorite stories about them.
 

meet me in the bathroom documentary
'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Ruban Wijesooriya

The Cooler

Formerly at 416 West 14th Street
Thinking about the early years, The Cooler [was an essential venue]. It's in all the [stories about '90s cult band] Jonathan Fire*Eater in the Meet Me in the Bathroom book. That's where they were playing their early shows.

There's this great story in the book about Karen O being at The Cooler to see a band and running into Debbie Harry. Karen was upset about a guy, crying, and had been out all night, and Debbie Harry was there. So Karen sees her and she's like, "Oh my God, you're Debbie Harry," [and says something to her like], "Isn't it tough being a girl in a boy's world?" and Debbie says, "Honey, just enjoy it while it lasts." I think about that scene all the time.

I think it's both, as Karen points out [in the book]. She thought it was terrible advice at the time, but also realizes that [Debbie Harry] was completely right. That is how you should feel about these moments. But when you're 21, you have no capacity to feel that way about these moments, and yet that's the only way to feel about these moments. I think about that and The Cooler.

the strokes in meet me in the bathroom
The Strokes in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Piper Ferguson

Lit Lounge

Formerly at 93 2nd Avenue
Even though Lit was mostly a bar, there would also be secret shows there, probably completely illegally. Like, "How do they even plug in? What were the electricity requirements?" It was probably not super safe, but I remember seeing some really—in the spirit of the time—dank, rough, wild [shows] that were really key for a certain period of time.

Lit was this total den of iniquity kind of place. To me, the OG debauchery was all about Lit. It was on the west side of the street on Second Avenue [between East 5th and East 6th]. It was this totally unassuming place, like all the great bars are, and you stepped down into this hallway with what I remember as stone all around. It was a cavernous space that had this feeling like a dungeon. There was a bar and then a bit of an open space room with couches, banquettes, and chairs and tables. No part of it was very big. It was like a labyrinth. You'd be in that front part, but then you'd go to the bathrooms, which were in the back on the right, and there would be another little seating area. Then over to the left was where the DJ would be. Downstairs was where bands would play. It was the size of the tiniest, shittiest apartment you've ever been in, but all these people would be in there. When I'm picturing this little tour in my mind's eye, it's like there's [former Interpol bassist] Carlos D. spinning Bauhaus. That's what Lit was like.

What [Lit] brings to mind is that when you come to New York and you're fantasizing about this mythic place—this idea of this place that only exists for everyone who comes to the city. It exists first in an idea of yourself, who you're going to be there, and who else is going to be becoming themselves there and how you guys are going to interact, and this inherently unimaginable alchemy, magic situation that's going to evolve from that. Lit was one of the places where I was like, "It's like the fantasy met reality," and it was like, "Oh my God, this is actually fucking real."

Lit was wild—just as wild as you thought it would be and just as dangerous feeling and just as exciting, and just as many cute boys and just as many cute girls and just as many outfits you saw that you wanted to go home and copy. It was so exhilarating and a live wire of a portal to this thing you would come there seeking.

the strokes in meet me in the bathroom
The Strokes in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Alessio Pizzicannella

Mercury Lounge

217 East Houston Street
If we're talking about venues—not bars, places people played—I would say Mercury Lounge is No. 1 for sure.

I was in college in Philadelphia and I graduated in 2002, but I came to New York in the summer of 1999 because I wanted to be near the city. It was that signal like, "Come be with me." I was like, "Okay, New York, I'm coming." That was the energy of it. I showed up and I got a job in a restaurant, and [the guitarist of The Strokes] Nick Valensi was also working there. That's how I met all these people, so I was in New York a lot in those early years when a place like The Cooler or Brownies was happening. I knew Nick and his friends were playing in this band called The Strokes, but it was a little premature and before they really converged into the full thing that would become the phenomenon of The Strokes. It was just kids and bands milling around.

[When I was back in Philly], Nick would be like, "We're playing [Mercury Lounge] tonight." This is how I think of the introduction of the Mercury Lounge into even my own idea of what that place meant. Of course, they met Ryan Gentles, who was the booker at the time and became their manager, but if The Strokes got a gig at Mercury Lounge, that was a big deal to Nick. It would be like, "We're playing at the Mercury Lounge, so come up for this show."

I would come from Philly to see them play sometimes, and I remember thinking, "That's some sort of crown jewel of young bands during this time's desire." Like, "What's the cool booking?" It's like, "Whoa, getting a gig at the Mercury Lounge." I always think about, if I'm dreaming and I'm imagining myself at 22, that's the venue I'm in.

interpol in meet me in the bathroom
Interpol in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Josh Victor Rothstein

Mercury Lounge's iconic shows

I always say that the whole story of New York is about being in the center of everything, and worrying you're not in the right place at the right time. It's like you're in the fucking center of everything and you're like, "But wait, what about that party? Were we supposed to be at that?" or, "What about that show?" because you cannot know what is going to be the thing—you only can feel it. That sense of vulnerability—of a low level of insecurity but a pleasurable insecurity—is the nature of the city to me.

I was not at any of those damn [iconic Mercury Lounge shows, like Yeah Yeah Yeahs opening for The White Stripes] for their first show ever at Mercury Lounge. It's one of my favorite parts of the book: [Karen and Nick Zinner] had been bragging around town about how awesome their new band was, but nobody had heard them play. Then eventually, this guy who was their friend was like, "I'm going to call your bluff and I'm going to book you with The White Stripes." Nobody knew who the White Stripes were, and [Karen and Nick] were like, "Oh no, we have to get a band together," and they called Brian Chase, and that's how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played their first show. Of course the rest is history. It's just amazing that that's how it happened.

I wasn't there for that, I was probably studying for something [in Philly], and I didn't see The Strokes' famous residency at the Mercury Lounge. I was invited—I remember Nick being like, "We're playing shows"—and I probably had finals and then was going home for Christmas. They played four weeks and those were famous. My friend Anthony's band The Damn Personals came down from Boston to play; a bunch of bands that played with them would go on to be significant members of this community.

It's really hard to over-express how much this felt like a small, intimate, never-to-be-seen-by-anyone-beyond-the-confines-of-Alphabet-City scene. It felt like the most private thing ever. Nobody was thinking, "Wow, I'm really going to regret not having gone to those Strokes residency shows." What you were thinking was, "I love this band and I want to see them at all costs." That's how I felt. But there were things like, "Oh, I have to study for finals," so I didn't see [the residency].

I ended up seeing The Strokes at Mercury Lounge quite a few times, and I remember seeing very early Interpol shows at Mercury Lounge because my friend [music producer and critic] Sarah Lewitinn was their No. 1 evangelizer. Once Interpol started to kick in, in terms of their notoriety and getting signed to Matador, I already moved to the city and we were living on Rivington and Ridge [in the Lower East Side]. I remember very clearly going from some show at Bowery Ballroom one night—a great show, I can't even remember who was playing—but then Sarah was like, "We're going to finish out the night by going to Mercury to see Interpol." I was like, "Okay, fine," so we did and it was mind-blowing.

karen o and nick zinner in meet me in the bathroom, yeah yeah yeahs meet me in the bathroom
Karen O and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom' | Photo by Toni Wells

Brownies

Formerly at 169 Avenue A
Brownies was even before Mercury Lounge. Brownies closed pretty early in 2002, but it was huge and so important for the first Rapture and Yeah Yeah Yeah shows. It was such a storied spot.

I don't really regret anything—that's not a good word for me—but I try not to loss too hard after the things that I had no chance to see. Brownies is the [now-closed venue] that haunts me, though, because I really was there [in the scene at that time].

I would like to have seen Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Brownies. I remember one night when I was living in New York that they played when people were starting to go see them. Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a bunch of shows at Brownies, but they played one at a time when I was already living in the city. I heard there were some cooler, older rock kids from Rolling Stone and SPIN going because they could get in, and it was a very cool show already at that point because the EP had already come out.

I had never been obsessed with a band and will never be as obsessed with a band as I was and am with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. My boyfriend at the time [music journalist] Marc Spitz had an advance copy of the record and we had a huge party at my apartment I shared with Sarah Lewitinn—apt. 3A, 203 Rivington Street—and Marc brought Fever to Tell. I took it from him, shoved him out of my bedroom, closed the door, played the record for an hour, and then came out in tears and was like, "This is my religion. Whatever else happens, this person, this band, this sound!" The whole thing—what Karen represented, what the sound did to my body and made me feel capable of doing in my own life—all of that got ignited in a huge way in that moment.

[Their show at Brownies] happened before that. I had heard rumblings of them, but somehow, I wasn't invited. I could have been like, "I will stand outside of this bar with my top off until someone lets me in or arrests me!" or some sort of extreme protest to get in, and I didn't do that. Brownies is my pick, [I would go back to brownies if I could].

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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Sadie Bell is the culture associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter and Instagram.