I went just under 60 hours without electricity or heat last week. Judging from what I’ve heard and read about the largest winter disaster in Texas — and Austin — in recent memory, that seems to be above the average. Some “lucky” bastards went a day or less, some went around 30 hours, others cleared 70. I had no lights, no warmth and only the bare-minimum amount of mental tolerance required to get through the situation.
Yet I emerged with a bit of a curious byproduct of living in Texas Ice Age Week: A deeper sense of empathy for starving music artists in Austin and elsewhere.
That unexpected new understanding came through a surprise channel: The reading material I chose to get me through those couple of maddeningly dark and frigid days and nights, buried under longjohns, a bathrobe and several heavy blankets. Under my booklight then — and in fact, still now — was Lizzy Goodman’s well-regarded 2017 oral history, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001-2011. I haven’t finished it yet — but that’s OK, because this isn’t a book review. It’s a recounting of how — thanks to the early part of Goodman’s book, her dozens of firsthand sources and rock music lore — I used temporarily substandard living conditions to grow a little.
I bought Meet Me in the Bathroom at BookPeople last month because I hadn’t read a nonfiction music book in a moon or two, and the subject matter was tailored to me. The title is a Strokes song, you may well know. It was a given that they and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — two essential suppliers of my soundtrack for the years covered — would be featured prominently. And rock music documentation tends to bind my spell, in general; I’ve said for a long time I’ll watch any “Behind the Music episode.” Even a two-plus-hour documentary on friggin’ Twisted Sister more than held my interest. So Meet Me in the Bathroom was a no-brainer, and stories involving New York bands of the era that I have much less affinity for (LCD Soundsystem) were just gravy.
But what struck me, reading the book’s early pages while trying to keep my hands warm, was a sort of serendipitous merging of my literature choice and the current environment that no one in Austin chose. Time and again, both explicitly and implicitly, the voices Goodman interviews for the book evoke the spirit and struggles of the “starving artist” existence.
You get the essence of the young musician who comes to New York to make it big, only to barely make rent, live off cheap food and alcohol (and maybe drugs as well) … and, perhaps, struggle just to literally keep the damn lights on. To keep the heat on. Even if the accounts I was reading about didn’t specifically mention losing power, losing heat, and living off a nutritionally questionable diet, doing all these things for just a few days while reading this book awakened a new, deeper empathy.
A couple of examples from the book — first, an early remembrance from Alison Mosshart of the Kills:
When I was fifteen or sixteen I took the Greyhound from Florida to New York with a girlfriend. We didn’t have any money. We had nowhere to stay. We had, like, backpacks. Both of us were art students and the plan was we were just going to walk the streets all night, find somewhere to sleep and make art. After like a day and a half, we were starving, like, “Oh my god I would just kill for a fucking cucumber!” But it was great because we did walk the streets all night! And we did find all sorts of crazy trash and weird things people threw away to make art out of. … And we ended up finding a place to sleep and we ended up finding a shower and we ended up getting fed at some point. And it was beautiful.
Or, take this excerpt in which Zack Lipez, frontman of the UK band the Candy Darlings, recalls when Dave Burton, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tour manager, took Lipez to Mars Bar, a well-known East Village dive of the time:
Dave Burton: It worked like this — if there’s seven bartenders working throughout the week, people had their bartender and that’s when you went to that bar. If that person wasn’t working you didn’t go.
Zack Lipez: I sat down at the bar and he introduced us. She was like, “Oh, nice to meet you.” She took a bottle of Jameson, put it on the bar and walked away. I said, “Oh, this is where I’m gonna hang out.” No one had any money. You went where you would get free drinks. You had to have twenty dollars to leave at the bar for the end of the night. The joke with the bartenders was that there was only one twenty-dollar bill in New York that just got passed around from bartender to bartender to bartender.
There’s plenty of more implicit pictures of hardscrabble life in there, too. New York, of course, isn’t the only place where musicians endure tales of poverty and just getting by. It happens on the regular right here in Austin. And laying in the cold, wearing a winter hat to bed, days piling up without shaving, Goodman’s book made me think of the people leaving behind security to make their dream work.
I thought of all the local musicians who had their biggest or second-biggest source of income stripped away by the pandemic last year, and shifted into the undoubtedly less lucrative world of virtual shows and tip jars. I thought of Mike Melinoe, whom I profiled in 2019, and his periodic bouts with homelessness. And, too, the artists who go to Kickstarter to fund a recording, because they need a little help (or a lot).
Having those basic comforts taken away, even for a couple of days (I lost water for an additional two days afterward), I felt like I reached something more kindred with musicians making those admirable sacrifices. I’ve imagined that kind of daily scrappiness before, sure — but living something like it, even briefly, necessarily deepens my comprehension of what it’s like.
From now on, when I write or read about musicians who are much closer to losing their households than becoming household names, I’ll always have last week’s unconscionable events in mind. Hopefully it helps me fit in their shoes a little more easily.