Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
I’ve been going to rock shows in New York for 10 years now. Some of the bands I saw early on (Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Killers) are now super famous. Others who should have been (Giant Drag, The Realistics) remain woefully obscure. But one thing that unites the rock girls and boys in the city is they’re all impressed by James Iha. It’s partially his look: the shock of bleached hair, the nonplussed stare, sophisticated-but-unpretentious sense of style. But it’s also his vibe: he’s genuinely classy, a rarity in a world that (rightly) prizes rudeness over decorum. But Iha’s always managed to be both compelling and polite. The combo is kryptonite for posturing cool kids; I’ve seen the guy walk into a bar packed with rock boys in a state of full on preening aloofness and watched them all crumble. He’s cool like that.
“I’ve seen the guy walk into a bar packed with rock boys in a state of full on preening aloofness and watched them all crumble. He’s cool like that.”
So when I heard that James was coming out with a new album Look to the Sky and would be playing the Mercury Lounge in support of it, I had to be there. The record is willfully dynamic, Iha told me, inspired by sources as varied as My Bloody Valentine, Cindy Sherman and Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, which directly influenced Iha’s video for the dynamic single “To Who Knows Where.” But it was something Iha said about Patti Smith’s new-classic Just Kids, and its impact on his creative process, that really got me thinking about the weird eternal youth inspiration. “It deals with what a young artists goes through to make something happen out of nothing in New York City,” he summarized. Totally.
The idea that life in New York City no longer contains the kind of struggle that produces great art is one you hear a lot and for good reason. Art making is a luxury most of the city’s residents can’t afford; it’s literally too expensive here to spend much mental capital on creativity. And when you read Just Kids it’s clear the city is not as desolate and promising as it used to be. The scene where she’s just ganked a steak from the grocery store and runs into Sam Shepherd and he puts his hand in her trench coat pocket to feel the slab of raw meat? That shit does not happen here anymore. But I also feel like this argument has been made at various points throughout the city’s history, and yet the art keeps getting made.
It’s odd that this energy of combative, defiant newness should have been so present at Iha’s show. I mean, aside from the fact that he’s already established, the audience he pulled was — as expected — chock full of industry veterans and other rock and rollers, including Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne and Hurricane Bell’s Steve Schiltz, who played guitar with Iha. But there was this other contingent in attendance as well: young, ecstatic bros. I don’t know what’s up with this, but apparently Iha’s got a core fanbase in eager frat boys, the kind of dudes who’ve just graduated with finance degrees and wear expensive madras shirts but, when alone at night in fancy apartments, possibly air guitar in their underwear and secretly get Pavement and, like, Mastodon.
Walking in the newly cool and dry air on the way home, I checked the baseball game score: the Yankees won. They’re an old team at this point, filled with many players walking that fine line between legend and contender, but they’re in the postseason once again with a real shot to go all the way. It was a fitting end to the night. The New York City rock spirit ages, but it never gets old.
Look to the Sky is out now via The End Records. Stream it at teamcoco.com.