Is That All There Is To A Fire?

(Illustration by Alex Fine)

How Many Strokes Does It Take To Get To The Center Of Julian?

It all started — for me, anyway — at Spaceboy. Dandy Dan Buzzkirk was behind the counter looking, as per usual, like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.

“Check this out,” he said, before slapping on The Modern Age, the three-song debut by some band called the Strokes. It was everything I liked about Television/Velvet Underground/the Cars/Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. And the singer sounded like he was reciting the ISOs out of the back of The Village Voice through an electric razor. Every song made me want to break a window or smoke a cigarette. I paid cash.

Fast-forward past a gig opening for Guided By Voices, a drunken four-week residency at the Khyber and a star-making turn at Making Time to the after-show party at the Five Spot following a triumphant headlining gig at the TLA. All the local hipsterati were in attendance, hovering at the velvet rope that separated us from the Strokes’ VIP booth.

“Fa-bree-zio!” chirped a Fresh Air producer, hoping to catch the drummer’s attention. There was a tingle in the air. For a few moments we were inside the bubble, looking out instead of in. Even the haters seemed jazzed.

You can sell 3 million albums with the right pose and the right hook, they said, but there comes a time — usually after your first album sells 2 million and the second sells only half that — when sporting the right shades is no longer enough. A time when you actually have to mean it, man — if you want to matter. And that’s the singer’s job.

Imagine, if you can, you are the lead singer of the Strokes. Your name is Julian Casablancas, scion of the Elite Model Management founder and son of Miss Denmark 1965. Your surly slur serves as the perfect foil for the pogo-ing garage rock of your prep school pals. Your rise is dizzying. Within a span of months you go from fliering St. Marks Place to being a savior of rock, according to the hyperventilating British music press.

Now it’s 2006 — two albums later — and the band’s grown beyond the catchy primitivism of the early days. They’ve built their own studio and have been, um, stroking for months. There’s a whole album in the can, First Impressions of Earth, and it’s very cool. All that’s missing are the vocals.

The songs are like streets: Some go uptown, others point to the Bowery, some go sideways and others go nowhere in particular. Your mission, Mr. Casablancas, should you accept it, is to name these streets, give these songs a mailing address or a zip code, tell the cabbie where to pull over, which buzzer to push.

That’s what New York rock ‘n’ roll is about: where the action is. Your job is to take us there — and in so doing prove there’s more inside of you than just tinny petulance and pedigree. But when you open your mouth to sing … nothing comes out. Nothing worth repeating, anyway.

Except maybe: “I’ve got nothing to say.” Crooning like you’re trapped inside a helium balloon or a Human League song, you repeat that over and over again. Each time it becomes a little less ironic and a little more sincere, maddening in its repetition, tragic in its waste, damning in its self-evidence.

And though the vocals will be mixed front-and-center and the distortion will be replaced with moony drollery and Cobain-ish tantrums, no matter how loud you scream, you just can’t fill these songs. The price, perhaps, of being born very cool — but not very deep.