Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history.
This is a story about being young. This is a story of what we remember and what we forget. This is a story of a lost New York. This is one story of LCD Soundsystem’s 2007 album, Sound of Silver.
It starts as a series of chronological memories descending in reverse, like watching an evolution flip-book work backwards: man slowly slouching into monkey, into crawling beast, into tetrapod and coelacanth, into primordial ooze.
I was there at LCD Soundsystem’s final show at MSG in 2011. We stayed long after the last song, finding ourselves escorted out by security. We chanted, “Because you’re afraid of what you need,” the most trenchant lyric from “Home”. Our voices ricocheted around the concrete concourse.
I was there a few nights earlier in the mausoleum of Terminal 5, on the floor with the super fans, the people who couldn’t necessarily get tickets to the last waltz at MSG.
I was there on a nuclear hot afternoon at Pitchfork Fest in 2010 when the band sort of melted into the sunset, as a sun-blasted crowd danced along.
I was there at Webster Hall in 2010 when the lasers and fog came out during “Yeah”, and the crowd broke into the type of dance party you never see in arms-crossed New York. It was the night the band’s third LP, This Is Happening, leaked on the internet. James Murphy joked about it, asked us to buy it anyway.
I was there at the Music Hall of Williamsburg secret show a few days earlier – the band’s first New York show since the Sound of Silver tour – where Murphy, lit up on a combination of champagne and bourbon, meandered through a loose set of old favorites. It was a practice people paid to see, to be in a small venue with a big band. “We’re just playing for our friends,” Murphy said. I saw an old friend from Capitol Records that night. She told me she could play me the new album, This Is Happening, but only if I came into the 5th Avenue office and if she broke the CD in half when it was over. I laughed, even though she wasn’t entirely kidding. The little, downtown band had become a brand. It was mania of a kind, but so was seeing a band six times in a year. LCD Soundsystem were happening. They happened.
In no small measure, this temporary insanity sprung from the band’s 2007 album, Sound of Silver. It is the band’s masterwork, its thesis statement. The album’s centerpiece, “All My Friends”, articulated precisely the need for proximity that brought LCD Soundsystem fans together again and again. It was a depressing first decade of the 21st century, and screaming, “Where are your friends tonight?” felt best when your friends screamed it with you. And so I thought back about where this began, and where we’ve come. Birthdays are times of appraisal and reappraisal, one of the few moments we have to look back down the hallway of our lives and wonder, however blithely, “How did we get here?” Uncoincidentally, the first line of “All My Friends” is “That’s how it starts,” as if Murphy knew it began there. It’s been 10 years now, and while not being an obscure band before the album’s release, unpacking the complex legacy of Sound of Silver is the elemental origin story for one of the most important rock bands of the century.
Trying to remember when I first saw LCD Soundsystem play was its own odyssey, a personal and cultural one. It was 2007, and I was infatuated with an editor at a website for which I wrote. She was pretty in that sort of avian fashion of certain blonde women – vaguely austere, striking. She was forever cool – the type of person who knew about interesting ideas, who would go on to do and make interesting things, the type of person who had list spots for LCD Soundsystem at Webster Hall. I had heard of the band, even shuffled around to “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” in college, but they weren’t my favorite. She made my handful of cultural references passing for personality feel small, irrelevant – in no small part why I loved her almost from the moment I first saw her standing in a bar on the Lower East Side that no longer exists.
My first LCD Soundsystem show was May 14, 2007, a few months after the commercial release of Sound of Silver. It was a date I’ve only now recaptured after remembering the bar we went to after the concert showed Game Four of the NBA’s Western Conference Semifinals. Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. A quick Google search for “Steve Nash Robert Horry hipcheck” got me to the date, from which I found the show itself. I could have searched for “LCD Webster Hall 2007,” but memory works on its peculiar labyrinthine path. The first time I saw LCD Soundsystem is packed together with a lost relationship and with Steve Nash writhing near mid-court on a Monday night in May 10 years ago.
The show itself is barely a snapshot. I remember James Murphy poured water on the drum kit near the end of the set, sending 16th note spray up into the lights. Drummer Pat Mahoney’s irritation playfully grew. I can’t remember much else.
I wrote about the concert at the time, an overly emotional and hastily written review now lost in the memory-less black hole of failed web publications. The editor and I kissed while pressed up against a pay phone somewhere in the East Village in the wee hours of the evening. I must have written the review afterwards, and it was certainly bad. I was teaching elementary school at the time, and it was a school night. I don’t remember the next day, but it, too, must have been awful. A quick search of my Gmail reveals an email stamped 3:57 p.m. on May 15, 2007 from the editor that reads, “how are you doing today? i feel kind of deathly. im sorry i dragged you out to another bar. i always do that, i dont know whats wrong with me. next time you can tell me to shut up and go home.” I responded, fashionably late, on the morning of May 16, “you can always drag me to another bar. and i bet, once in a while, i’ll drag you.” If I remember these moments fondly, why do they sound so stupid now?
These were the wild times; this was our youth; these were the days for which we would feel later nostalgia. These were our friends, and Sound of Silver was the perfect soundtrack for these feelings. In a sense of the word, this was love. We were there.
Of course, Sound of Silver was more about loss than it was about love. It was a dance record, surely, but it mourned lyrically and in form. Murphy made no secret about his desire to make dance music with analog material – a lost art. At the time Pitchfork called Sound of Silver “[f]ar removed from the compressed, trebly, and overmastered paradigm that’s gripped electronic music in the last decade,” a reference to Murphy’s conservatism. The past was the way forward. To Murphy, the best music happened in New York in the 1970s and ’80s, and it was best to recapture that energy. When LCD Soundsystem played their “final show” at Madison Square Garden in 2011, Murphy had renowned 1980s no-wave band Liquid Liquid open, as if to mark what had been lost and forgotten. The crowd affably played along, while also bringing up Liquid Liquid’s Wikipedia page.
Sound of Silver arrived at a time when so-called “indie rock” was crossing into the corporate mainstream. In June of 2007, I worked for a few months at Capitol/EMI, and the company brought younger people in weekly to ask for ideas about where the industry was going. How could they recapture cool? It seemed no one was buying records anymore, and the major labels went downtown to find some supposed authenticity. The rumor inside the company was Capitol had spent something on the order of three million dollars signing and developing Interpol’s Our Love to Admire. The album was a commercial flop, causing the sort of controlled panic that takes place in a conference room with pitchers of ice water. Sound of Silver also wasn’t selling, though it was critically acclaimed and the upfront investment was less.
I emailed an old friend from the label to ask him what he remembered about Sound of Silver, and he said, politely, that he had been too busy promoting 30 Seconds to Mars. That was my memory, too. The company was focused on Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, the Starting Line, and KT Tunstall. LCD Soundsystem wasn’t a moneymaker. Murphy was rumored in the office to be unenthusiastic about radio and press in general. The album debuted at No. 46 on Billboard, the same week Modest Mouse went to No. 1 with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The next week Sound of Silver dropped to No. 135, and two weeks later it was off the chart. The lead single from Sound of Silver, “North American Scum”, never charted, and Murphy felt so ambivalent about the song the band played it live only a handful of times after the Sound of Silver tour. The radio edit for “All My Friends” arrived too late and never crossed over into the mainstream. Still, the album’s cultural weight outstripped its commercial scuffling.
We listened for the pain. “All My Friends” and “Someone Great”, two of Sound of Silver’s best songs, both deal in unremitting loss: the former with the loss of one’s youth, the latter with lost love. On the album’s closing track, “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down”, Murphy mourned for the city itself. It had become a theme park: an urban experience featuring low crime, rising wages, and the banishing of poverty – what a total buzzkill! – to the edges of the bourgeois fantasy viewfinder. The financial crisis and its somewhat sobering ramifications had yet to arrive. New York’s Disney Downtown was what drew so many young people to the New York Murphy grew to loathe. Only on the Lower East Side could you drink three-dollar PBR’s in a bar that looked like a dive-y living room, a way to approximate blue-collar living at a Happy Hour after your graphic design job. If the feelings were real, the back-lot staging of New York was fake.
The photo editor and I exchanged cheeky emails through the spring and summer, meeting for drinks and shows in a downtown scene we felt edgy but wasn’t. I was emotionally unavailable, which was the only cool thing I could think to do. She was whip-smart and culturally astute, and I was paralyzed by it. It all felt exciting and dangerous, our bizarre halfway relationship, the meeting downtown under the cover of darkness, the sneaking into each other’s lives. But the Lower East Side and East Village of the mid-aughts wasn’t the New York of the 1970s and ’80s – it was antiseptic, a pastiche of what New York might have looked and felt like 30 years earlier with the difficult parts edited out. A real estate developer had begun building a towering luxury apartment building at the corner of Houston and Ludlow, but the real construction project involved manufacturing the faux-edginess of downtown without an edge.
On “New York I Love You…” Murphy sang, “So the boring collect, I mean all disrespect, in the neighborhood bars, I’d once dreamed I would drink.” We were those boring people, and we loved his band. In a cruel paradox, we damaged the city by coming to it. “New York, you’re safer, and you’re wasting my time,” he sang. If the Lower East Side had actually held any hint of danger, we would never have come in the first place. After college, we would have moved to Boston or something.
And therein lies the complexity and the difficulty of LCD Soundsystem and Sound of Silver: Murphy longed for a bygone era, and we longed for his band, for what they represented. The band produced nostalgia. It was a brand of cool that we sought in Murphy and his band. If they were trying to recapture a lost New York scene, we were willing to live for a moment in their dreams. We longed to project ourselves into something real, and Murphy seemed to have greater proximity to it.
None of it was real. Murphy paid his dues in the 1990s New York scene, but he’d never been on the frontlines of New York culture in the 1970s and ’80s. He was born in 1970 in Western New Jersey, first coming to New York in 1988 to attend NYU. On 2005 song “Losing My Edge”, Murphy recognized the absurdity of venerating the past, of having been first, of knowing all the cultural footnotes in a scene. Of course, the song is a list of cultural footnotes, a series of firsts, Murphy leading lyrics with “I was there …” to lay claim to a moment. Murphy often found himself in two worlds, mocking the type of people who beatify nostalgia while also beatifying nostalgia. The song ends with “You don’t know what you really want” repeated 15 times. Not knowing what we wanted, it wasn’t a bad way to consider the problem, the obsession with and rejection of nostalgia.
“All My Friends” became a sort of anthem in our limited social group, as it did for so many others our age. It’s still one of my favorite songs. Like Murphy, we also experienced a strange loss, that sense of impending doom that only your mid-20s can provide. It wasn’t a city for which we mourned; it was our youth. We were getting older, and yet we weren’t old yet. I hadn’t pictured living past 25, not a death wish exactly, but I just couldn’t picture myself as an adult. I assumed the universe would kill me by 25 to save my imagining or living life as an older person. When Murphy sang, “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life,” we took him too seriously. We broke up with people, had our hearts kicked in, drank too much, and stayed out too late. We listened to “Someone Great” as a burn and a salve on emotional wounds. We raged against the dying of youth. I remember one weekend afternoon in 2009, playing Sound of Silver so loud in our Park Slope apartment that our next door neighbors knocked on the door to say they couldn’t hear their television. Every excess felt necessary. This was our offensive solipsism.
I was there at Arrow Bar, sometime in the late-aughts, it might have been the summer of 2008, smashing our hands against the ceiling as the DJ played “All My Friends”. We screamed, “When you’re drunk and the kids leave impossible tasks/ You think over and over, ‘Hey, I’m finally dead,’” bouncing up and down, running out of air. Sparks, the unholy mixture of caffeine and malt liquor, was still legal, and on this night, or it might have been a different one, they were free through a promotion. Arrow Bar practically vibrated until it closed. I remember spilling out onto Avenue A at four a.m. bar time, one of those few moments the city holds a hint of its old self. I tried to hail a cab with the editor as we watched someone throwing up florescent orange onto the sidewalk. I remember seeing my friend Nate waving at me through the cab window as we pulled away from the bar and sped up Avenue A. Like the song said, “If the sun comes up/ And I still don’t want to stagger home/ Then it’s the memory of our betters/ That are keeping us on our feet.” The editor and I sailed off into the night with the feeling: I was there.
All of it was an exercise in privilege. Murphy hadn’t opened his wine bar yet, but we all bathed in the remaking of New York without realizing it. It was cultural and actual gentrification – Murphy trafficking in the past, his New York fan base wanting desperately to feel something authentic while not seeing how the city had changed, the ways in which we’d changed it, how this new New York made Murphy’s band and their cultural impact possible. It wasn’t a loft party of squatting artists where we saw them play; it was Music Hall of Williamsburg, Webster Hall, Terminal 5, and Madison Square Garden. If we’d gone in search of something that felt old and good, we’d found a thing that was new and enmeshed in corporate apparatuses. When Murphy’s band returned this year, they did so, in part, for the big festival paydays, and I don’t necessarily blame them. If we were there, we are here now.
It wasn’t sustainable, which was part of the allure in the first place. The editor and I broke things off. She started dating the guy she would later marry. Jobs that seemed like dalliances moved from avocations to careers. Some of our friends moved out of the city. I spent less time wondering if and when I would die. Eventually, I stopped thinking about dying young altogether. Depending on the terms of the deal, I now might trade a stupid decision for another five years of life.
Nostalgia still tempts the mind to remember itself too fondly, to remember experiences with all the messy stuff edited out, to not address what must be confronted. We had helped drive up prices in New York, relied on the policing policies that made New York “safe” but crushed the civil rights of those around us; we spent our money thoughtlessly on consumption; we delighted in a fantasy of a New York that never was while ignoring the one we helped make. We progressed inexorably toward a wine bar – either owning or patronizing one. You couldn’t enter or exit the wine bar; everything was now a wine bar.
Murphy had tried to help us. On the Sound of Silver title track, Murphy mutters: “Sound of silver talk to me/ Makes you want to feel like a teenager/ Until you remember the feelings of a real, live emotional teenager/ Then you think again.” Of course, adults long for their youth, not remembering how awful and bizarre it felt at the time. Nostalgia for youth represents a psychic trap, so too did LCD Soundsystem. We lived in a protracted adolescence while Murphy worked his conservative magic. He longed for a past he never lived, and we created our nostalgia on the fly. I never went to see LCD Soundsystem to see them play music; I went to remember the person I was when I went.
When the band got back together, I began remembering with more exactness. Nostalgia involves much forgetting, and seeing LCD Soundsystem take to festival stages around the globe reminded me a bit too much of who I had been and how I constructed an identity around a series of silly gestures, expenditures, and performances. Regret is a trap, too. Sound of Silver is still an empirically excellent album, an important album, and I’m glad I saw the band play live over the years. It all comes back to that first night at Webster Hall. Like kissing against a phone booth, it’s easy to not remember the long wait for the L-train home, the anxiety about the deep shitiness of your loft apartment, how you’d probably spent money you didn’t have that night, both the profound difficulty of your existence and your unaddressed privilege. That’s closer to what it felt like to being there. Those are more accurate memories, but then the romance is gone.
Maybe it was never there in the first place.