At 2A, the East Village bar across the street from the basement studio where the Strokes recorded their first EP, Casablancas runs into an old friend, a large Puerto Rican with dreadlocks named Nestor.
"You probably don't remember how we met,"says Nestor.
Casablanca responds in the negative.
"We were at Spa and all of a sudden Julian comes up to me and says, 'If you were a girl I'd kiss you," Nestor recalls. "I backed off. And then he told me that his band the Strokes were playing at Mercury Lounge, and if I came he'd be my best friend forever. No one knew who they were then. So I went, and it was really hot. The air conditioning was broken, so I left after three songs. Then I saw him later at the Cherry Tavern and told him I'd seen the show, and he bought me a drink."
An elderly Asian woman walks past selling bootleg CDs: Radiohead, Beck, Nirvana.
"How much?" Casablancas asks.
They are five dollars.
"I'll give you a buck."
She doesn't even entertain the offer.
Casablanca owns only three CDs: the two discs that haven't disappeared from his Bob Marley box set (Confrontation and Uprising) and The Essential Johnny Cash.
"I would've bought that Radiohead CD for three bucks," Casablancas says after the sales woman leaves. "But then you might write about it, and I'd run into them backstage and they'd say something about it."
Casablancas is afflicted by something called the press. Every so often, he imagines his words blown up in big type in
Magazines and tries to take them back. After putting down Neil Young's voice, he backpedals, "Not that I hate Neil Young or anything." I ask him if he is always like this. "You know how bands have to decide what to wear onstage?" he says. "We just decided that we would wear what we wanted to wear onstage all the time, so we wouldn't have to think about it. So that's what I do when I speak now. No matter who I'm talking to, I always talk like I'm doing an interview."
Over time and beer, however, his disclaimers stop, his conversation loosens and his jokes get sharper. Casablancas is blessed with a quick wit, and if you listen close enough, you hear him delivering off-the-cuff comments that, when spoken in his slow, slurred voice, seem twice as funny.
Out of earshot of two girls who have attached themselves to his side tonight, he explains that he didn't go to a strip club until recently, and he doesn't like them: His first experience with a heavy-grinding lap dance so scarred him that as soon as he got home, he had to beat off twice.
As he tells this story, the jukebox fills the room with the strains of Sam Cooke's soul-stirring "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the girls gather round. All time stops for Casablancas. "When I hear 'A Change Is Gonna Come,'" he says, "it frustrates me."
Why? "No matter how hard I try, I can never be that good," he answers.
One of the girls asks if he's ever considered singing lessons.
The following afternoon, I meet Hammond at Tower Records in the East Village. He is sporting several days of stubble and a pinstriped secondhand sport coat over an inside-out T-shirt. He too will be in the same uniform every night I see him. His CD collection was stolen when his apartment was burglarized last year, and he is replacing the inventory — Ziggy Stardust, by David Bowie, 69 Love Songs, by the Magnetic Fields, and three CDs by Guided by Voices, a band that, according to Fraiture, the Strokes aspire to be like: semipopular, making enough money to survive and staying in the game long enough to release more than a dozen albums.
Hammond is excited to go home and listen to his new CDs. "It's like buying a bunch of pornos and waiting to jerk off," he says sagely.
On display in the next record store, Other Music, is a CD by the young Australian garage-rock band Jet. "They make me not want to play music," Hammond says. He finds their look contrived, their music empty, their songs too same-y and their CD overhyped. These happen to be the exact criticisms that people have leveled against the Strokes in the past.
"In the end, I know why people make fun of us," Hammond says. "I think in interviews we come across as weird, pompous people. Then when they meet us, they realize we're nice. I like being nice. I want to be nice for people."
Actually, what people don't realize about the Strokes is just how serious and hardworking they are, particularly Casablancas and Hammond. (In the early days, Hammond booked shows and harassed record executives, claiming to be the band's manager and using the pseudonym Paul Spencer, taken from an old fake ID.) Hammond's passive, grinning, soft-spoken exterior belies a sense of gamesmanship and ambition.
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