At 119, a dive around the corner from the Manhattan club Irving Plaza, light from the street creeps through horizontal blinds in the front room, where dusty red velour couches sit vacant near the door. There's a pool table illuminated by a single hanging lamp, but no one's playing. In the adjacent wood-paneled barroom, three of the five Strokes — along with their seven-person entourage — are crowded into a wooden booth surrounding a wobbly table full of empty beer bottles. If there's anyone else in the bar, they surely don't notice.
Someone hands bassist Nikolai Fraiture a package wrapped in newspaper — a gift for his twenty-third birthday. Shadowed by a pageboy mop, his long face cracks with a smile as he tears the paper to find a CD Walkman. Singer Julian Casablancas turns to his girlfriend, Colleen, and bites down on her ear like it's a chew toy.
It's midwinter, and the band's members haven't seen much of one another this week during a brief break from touring. There's a call for another round of shots — Jack Daniel's — followed by a smoke for everyone except drummer Fabrizio Moretti, who shook the habit a couple of years ago. Julian lurches forward and grabs Fab's face affectionately. “Your hands are cold,” the drummer admonishes.
“You know what they say,” Julian counters. “Cold hands, cold heart.” The two pretend to smack each other hard across the face, performing a routine they've obviously done before.
Minutes later, the group sneaks through the backstage door at Irving Plaza to catch a set by Iggy Pop, whom the Strokes met while traveling the U.K. festival circuit last summer. The guys make a rush for the balcony, drawing stares as they go.
The Strokes get stared at a lot. A gaggle of tall, skinny dudes with exquisitely messy hair, ratty, threadbare jeans and thrift-store T-shirts, they are picture-perfect scruffy downtown rockers, each with his own distinct magnetism. Julian is the surly one, his candor apt to be mistaken for asshole bravado; Fab is all sweetness and hyperactivity; Nikolai speaks softly but carries a big wit; guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. is at once suave and jittery, a slightly neurotic ladies' man; and guitarist Nick Valensi is the wide-eyed naif, sincerely polite even when he's loaded.
These are the five childhood friends who have made some of the best music to come out of New York in more than a decade. Eleven songs of springy, swaggering Seventies-style punk rock, the Strokes' debut, Is This It, sold more than 500,000 copies within five months of its release in October, igniting a boom for New York rock & roll. “You've kind of got to ignore something long enough for it to come back,” says DreamWorks Records A&R exec Luke Wood, who signed Elliott Smith and Jimmy Eat World and was among those courting the Strokes in 2001. “Now people are looking again toward the underground for great music. The Strokes are the most commercially successful act to come from such a left place in a long time. Their success has been based on their vision.”
In the fall of 2000, the Strokes were still struggling to get gigs, working day jobs at frozen-yogurt shops or record stores to pay the rent on their Hell's Kitchen rehearsal space. By early 2002, they had logged a gold record, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and sold-out tours in the States, Europe and Japan. “I always kind of thought in the back of my head that this kind of stuff was possible,” Nick says. “But I never would have said it out loud, because it would have seemed ridiculous."
Spend much time around the Strokes and you will see them kiss each other. Hard. On the lips. "In our band," Julian says, "it's like a test of your manhood. Like, 'C'mon, don't be a pussy, gimme some tongue!'" The Strokes — all between twenty-one and twenty-three years old — display a loyalty fiercer than that of most lovers. Aside from the visible affection conveyed in hugs, sloppy kisses and semi-ironic high-fives, there is an intangible camaraderie that can make everyone else feel like they're missing the punch line of an unspoken joke.
"With us, there's a level of humor and intimacy I've never felt with any other friend," Fab says. "I can slap those guys' asses without feeling uncomfortable. That's more than you can say for a lot of people in this world. It's like we're past the point of brothers; brothers wouldn't even do this stuff to each other."
Julian, Nicolai, Nick and Fab all grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side — all children of relatively well-to-do parents. Julian's dad, John Casablancas, founded the Elite Modeling Agency, a fact that is frequently cited by those who feel the Strokes are uptown rich kids slumming it downtown. "Julian is a very humble guy, so he might not say this," Fab says firmly, "but he never lived with John Casablancas. John Casablancas is a very cool guy. But Julian is a very self-sufficient person. He worked as a bartender, just like everyone else worked. We're all very happy — very happy — being sons of people who have worked hard and given us opportunities that a lot of people haven't had. But we're not extra-super-privileged kids. When we got signed, I lent my parents money, because they were broke.”
The Strokes met while still schoolboys, starting with Julian and Nikolai when they were six years old. "We met at a French school, Le Lycee," says Nikolai, deliberately cranking up the volume on a Leonard Cohen record loud enough that it drowns out his own voice. "When we were in fifth grade, there was a water-main break on the avenue of our school. My parents were already on their way to work. I was walking home, and I told Julian I had nowhere to go. He said, ‘Well, I'm going home, come over.’ I stayed over, and we hung out for three days and became friends."
Years later, while attending Manhattan's private Dwight School, Julian met Nick and Fab. Nick had already been playing guitar for several years. With his older sister, he would sit in Central Park and strum Jimi Hendrix tunes. "I always thought I wanted to be able to play any song you could name," says Nick. "But once I started playing with Julian, that's when I really started to understand music." The four lived near one another, and every day after school they would get together and practice.
"We would play in this little room in my house," Fab says, "and my parents would bang on the walls: ‘Stop playing so loud!'" Julian's stepfather and Fab and Nikolai's older brothers introduced the boys to Bob Marley, Jane's Addiction, the Velvet Underground. "Our music was, like, Doors-y, but trying to be classical," Fab remembers. "We all took music classes and tried writing songs, and when we put them together they were this crazy amalgam of insane ideas that we thought was really cool."
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