[No one's listened to everything. In Playing Catch-Up, Lindsay Hood dives into the work of a well-known artist for the first time and offers a fresh perspective.]
In late summer of 2010, beloved indie-rock giants Pavement began their long-anticipated reunion tour, slowly making their way across Europe toward a string of September dates on Central Park’s SummerStage. I was 28 and everyone I knew couldn’t stop talking about it. In my tiny corner of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my friends and I started a joke where we would walk into a party and whisper, “We’ve got 10 minutes tops” and then wait. Inevitably, long before the cutoff time, someone would mutter “Pavement” or “Stephen Malkmus.” Every. Single. Time. And so it became known: If you hung out with music dudes, you were going to have to hear about Pavement.
Let’s review some of the press around that long-awaited reunion tour. Pitchfork led with the headline “Holy Shit! Pavement Reunion Is Real,” and Rolling Stone declared “It’s Official: Pavement Tour Exceeds All Expectations” once they saw the show. As the tour got underway, Chuck Klosterman even labeled them, “Greatest. Indie-est. Band. Ever.”
In other words 2010 was not the year to admit that you weren’t a Pavement fan. And guess what? I wasn’t a Pavement fan. In fact, I’d never really given Pavement much of a listen. I’d maybe heard a Jicks album or two, and after watching people lose their shit over these guys for an entire year, I was over it.
In 1992, when Slanted and Enchanted was released, I was 10 years old. My first boombox sat perched on a set of shelves next to my dollhouse and I used it to listen to Mariah Carey‘s self-titled album and, on occasion, Amy Grant. When Kurt Cobain died in 1994, I was aware of and had listened to Nirvana, but I was perplexed by my classmates’ extreme reactions. The next year, I drew a smashed pumpkin in art class to paste on my binder; an attempt to convince everyone that I liked Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, even though I did not. I thought Billy Corgan was a terrible, angry whiner. (Some things never change.) As a classical piano-playing nerd who buried herself in books, I’d yet to experience a revelatory connection to indie or alt rock music. In my eyes, it was yet another index of cool, a test for me to fail as a widely unpopular, often-mocked geek.
What I’m trying to say is that Pavement didn’t register anywhere near my radar. They were a group that relied on mixtape culture to boost the good will and reception of their first full-length album; a band whose essence was the very elusive definition of the word “cool.”
The summer of Pavement’s reunion tour brought back feelings from childhood I was eager to forget. Although I had evolved past my more awkward years; at the time I had graduated with a Masters in Feminist Criticism, I was working in the music industry and writing for MTV, it felt like music was being used as a benchmark to prove that I was still the same dorky teenager. I wasn’t familiar with Pavement and, therefore, I was somehow unworthy of my job and opinions. This knowledge was passed down via eye rolls and offended proclamations (“What do you mean, you never listened to Pavement?!”), and by pretending to ignore the questions I asked out of genuine curiosity. (Because why take the time to explain to a woman what you so love about a band, when you can prove to three other dudes that you know more about the group than they do?) Sadly, I was becoming used to it. These were things that occurred on a regular basis. Once at a CMJ show, a music blogger asked where I worked, and when I said MTV, he proceeded to comment, “So, what are you listening to? Lady Gaga?” At the time, I had Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest on heavy rotation and I have never liked Lady Gaga. As these flickers of casual sexism and notes of disdain towards my corporate workplace grew more frequent, the less inclined I was to take advice from the people who directed it my way.
“Women are called upon every day to prove our right to participate in music on the basis of our authenticity — or perceived lack thereof. Our credentials are constantly being checked — you say you like a band you’ve only heard a couple of times? Prepare to answer which guitarist played on a specific record and what year he left the band. But don’t admit you haven’t heard them, either, because they’ll accuse you of only saying you like that genre to look cool. Then they’ll ask you if you’ve ever heard of about five more bands, just to prove that you really know nothing. This happens so often that it feels like dudes meet in secret to work on a regimented series of tests they can use to determine whether or not we deserve to be here.”
Suffice to say, the mention of Pavement left a bad taste in my mouth and I wasn’t eager to go immerse myself in their catalog. I transferred my thoughts and feelings about the music dudes and projected them onto the band. Why should I try and like music that I wasn’t naturally drawn to? I didn’t want to align myself with this new form of bully; the bro who wanted to intellectually spar and use his musical knowledge as a weapon to knock me down.
Another major hurdle to understanding Pavement is one of my more controversial opinions regarding the group: I didn’t find Stephen Malkmus appealing. I didn’t like the cadence of his voice. A friend once tried to get me to listen to “Half a Canyon,” and I asked him to turn it off. (To be fair, he should have played “Cut Your Hair,” or “Gold Soundz” to begin with.) In fact, I was pretty certain that the worshiped, beloved, slacker man-child king of indie rock was nothing more than a dick. At the band’s last show in London, on 1999 tour for Terror Twilight, Malkmus attached a pair of handcuffs to the mic stand and declared, “This is what it feels like to be in a band,” only to deny, many years later, that the incident had any significant meaning. How could you love this man? Sure, love goofy Bob Nastanovich, or solid Mark Ibold, or the young, attractive Scott Kannberg. Love Steve West, who is not exactly the greatest drummer — but Malkmus? On stage with his apathetic face, minimal movement and snarky comments?
And yet, because I am a writer who loves music, I did want to understand. I wanted to know why people loved this band so much, and it all started to feel ridiculous. I’d allowed myself, a grown-ass woman, to become so intimidated and put-off by a certain fraction of Pavement’s audience that I’d actually put off listening to them for years. I’d given into my lack of confidence and my unwillingness to prove myself. I thought that if I listened, I’d betray a part of myself that shouldn’t need to listen to any one particular group to prove that she was entitled to have her own thoughts. I’d already earned my spot at the table, I’d worked for years to become a writer. The thought that one missed band, or one missed fact about a band, could unravel the pride of my accomplishments was disheartening at best. And I often let it wreak havoc on my confidence.
Maybe there was another part of me as well, that worried I would actually end up liking the band; that I’d be proven fickle and have to backtrack on all the jokes I made.
So, of course, what happened? By the time I reached “Zurich Is Stained” on Slanted and Enchanted, I realized that, like so very many of my first impressions, I needed to rethink my stance on Pavement. I’d already gone back to listen to “Summer Babe” three times over. And let’s face it: “Two States” is a jam. There’s a driving excitement to Pavement’s first album that’s infectious; it’s an energy that bleeds through onto Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
I’ve always said to friends when I pass along a musical recommendation, “If you don’t like it at first, give it some time. It might find you when you need it. Music has a way of doing this.” I believe that to be true, and that is what happened with me and Pavement.
Halfway through writing this essay, I got dumped. We’d spent a lot of time talking about Pavement. He’d even gotten up one night to play Brighten the Corners for me, and we sat in the dark and listened to it together. I went back to revisit the album, alone in my apartment, and cried through the entirety of “Shady Lane” (“You’re so beautiful to look at when you cry/ Freeze don’t move… A shady lane/ Everyone wants one”) and “Transport is Arranged” (Well I’m of several minds/ I am the worst of my kind/ I want to cremate the crutch/ I know you’re my lady but phone calls could corrupt the morning”). By the time Malkmus sneered the line, “The roast was so perfectly prepared,” on “We Are Underused,” it was quite obvious that he was mocking me directly. I had offered my heart up and it had been rejected. Relationships are idiotic constructs. I was going to die alone, everyone did, and Pavement knew it.
Yet, during the sad weeks that followed, Pavement also turned out to be my salvation. As I made my way through the songs, I found myself settling in to listen to the band’s last album over and over again. Then, one day during the course of this assignment, my editor mentioned that he was eager to see which album would wind up being my favorite. When I finally admitted that, at the moment, it was Terror Twilight, he said, “I think you’re insane,” in a very endearing way that suggested that, while he found my opinion interesting, I was obviously crazy. However, I looked him straight in the eye and replied, “It’s underrated.”
Terror Twilight is full of endings. Malkmus had started to outgrow Pavement. The other band members, becoming more cognizant of this attitude, turned the task of songwriting over entirely to him. He was already moving on. His sound with the Jicks is less casual and more structured than his work with Pavement. I find those albums more cohesive and more relaxed. His sarcasm is not gone, but it’s faded. During Terror Twilight, I can already see Malkmus becoming someone else. In the wake of my breakup, I don’t have any other option but to change as well. Therefore, these songs became a life raft. I love “Ann Don’t Cry,” and “You Are a Light,” and “Speak, See, Remember.” I cling to “Cream of Gold” for comfort (“Time is a one-way track and I am not coming back/ I bleed in beige why’d you leave me so far now.”) These are the songs that ultimately changed my perspective of Malkmus as well.
The man who first appeared to me as the slacker poster boy in his oversized flannel? He morphed into someone who held my hand while I was going through a painful experience. He became an artist who kept producing music and exploring his interests regardless of public opinion; a man who followed his instincts when the going got tough. He wrote songs where cynicism, bleak disappointment and hope coexist in the same stanza; flipping back and forth between serious verse, inside jokes and nonsense lyrics. It’s beautiful what he manages to accomplish, packing all those fluctuations into a single track.
Often when I’m done listening to Terror Twilight in its entirety, I go back and play “Spit on a Stranger” on repeat for an hour. (“I’ve been thinking long and hard about the things you said to me/ like a bitter stranger/ and now I see the long, the short, the middle and what’s in between”). My love for the album is not critical or objective, nor do I feel the need to defend it. I’m still not different or better, my musical tastes so evolved, my critical take on genres so much more informed, for having taken on the challenge of tackling Pavement. I know what music I like and I know what music I need. My opinion has nothing to do with the fact that “Painted Soldiers” might have come from the little figurines Steve West liked to paint during recording sessions, or that Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) wrote “Kennel District,” or that Gary Young was the band’s first drummer. I do not need to back up my preference with a list of details that you could find on Wikipedia.
Every time I sat down to write, my breakup kept working its way into my opinion, despite my instinct to try and keep things professional. But I will never be the teenager who sat on the floor of her room listening to tapes of Demolition Plot J-7 or Perfect Sound Forever, absorbed in the ’90s mythology that surrounded the band at the time. (Billy Corgan hated them and got them kicked off the bill of Lollapalooza in 1995! They were scared of fame so they made Wowee Zowee. They took meetings with major labels and turned them all down! Malkmus and Steve West were constantly at odds. Everyone hated one another by the end!)
We can only listen to music through the lens of our own personal experience. Therefore, I can only be the adult who plays Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in her kitchen while she makes dinner, figuring out if there’s a way to downplay her current skepticism towards romantic relationships. I often find myself getting lost in the melancholy mess of Wowzee Zowee, an album that previously felt so sprawling and directionless. One day, I spent a few hours shuffling between two tracks, trying to muddle through the abrupt shift from “Best Friend’s Arm” to “Grave Architecture.” But now, I’ve learned to adore its cobbled-together, choppy feel. As soon as “We Dance” begins to play (But I won’t be there to leave you/ Cause I don’t have a clue anymore/ Maybe we could dance together.”), I’m hooked. Since the breakup, I’m cut off from places I’d begun to love and the story we’d been co-creating. My life seemed to be moving in one direction before it took a severe turn, so I no longer need to make sense of Wowzee Zowee. I need to listen to “Father to a Sister of Thought” and hear the sharp sadness in the lyric “I know, I’m breathing into the end” playing against its rambling, alt-country background.
If I am forced to take a step back, I know Terror Twilight will not necessarily hold its place as the shining star of my Pavement experience. I am able to call on my background as a critic and see that Crooked Rain would be a more reasonable choice. Brighten the Corners will return to me one day once the sadness of this recent breakup has faded. I’ll be able to listen to “Here” from Slanted and Enchanted again without tearing up. (“And your jokes are always bad/ But they’re not as bad as this.”) However, I’ve created my own mythology for Pavement. It’s not timely and it’s not historically significant. It’s definitely up for debate and subject to change. But it’s mine and it’s what all of us do. We contextualize and we find our own ways to understand. We find a way into the music that’s of our own making.
In the end here’s the thing I discovered about Pavement. They frame their cynicism within the types of small, unplanned moments you cannot help but cherish. Life is going to happen to you, despite the sarcasm and doubt you carry from your past. You’re still going to recognize and look for the good, hopeful events, whether you believe they’re on the horizon or not. The instinct is there, buried beneath whatever lies you’re telling yourself to get by. By all means, abandon trust in authority or institution. Question it all the time. But Pavement still has faith in those moments, the kinds that exist in the space between the bullshit. I listen so I know I’ll have those moments again. Life will still happen. Terror Twilight remains my favorite, for now.