Malkmus for the people!

By Jason Diamond

Reunions are sometimes inevitable, as is the talk of why the band reuniting decided to get back together after how ever many years.  As the fans of these artists, we can only really hope it’s for all the right reasons, and the bundle of money we will pop out to see said reunions will be worth it.

We have 60’s obscure folk singers come back to more attention than they ever had back in their heyday, 70’s punk bands still spouting off the same rebellious lyrics to a crowd of teenagers who might not even be able to fathom exactly what “Alternative Ulster” even means, and we have 80’s bands touring the “oldies” circuit, sometimes playing their one-hit-wonders twice in a set.  As of recently, we have seen groups from the 90’s indie underground pop back up to acclaim in  a blog-fueled world that they may not have had fifteen years ago.  My Bloody Valentine had the hype, but would they have played top of the bill at Coachella in 1991?  Did people really care about Polvo as much as they do now?  Jesus Lizard, okay, well, they have always had their core of people who want to see David Yow do things that would turn Iggy Pop white (myself included), but Pavement reuniting is an entirely different bag than all of them.  The equal level of fanaticism and disdain this band has gained is almost second to none of their contemporaries, and whether they are reuniting to pay off home loans or because they genuinely feel like they have unfinished buisness is something we may never know.  But who really cares anyway?  In 2010 when the band take the stage in Central Park, as long as they play all our favorite songs, those of us who love the band will be able to sing, and in many cases of Malkmusian crooning, stretch the cryptic lyrics into the summer night, and I think we will be pretty satisfied – even if the band go out the back stage door with bags of money, looking like indie rock Monopoly men.

I’ve always had a theory about Pavement fans, and that is unlike almost any other band I can think of, each individual fan has not just a specific song they relate to, but one of cryptic plays on words that Stephen Malkmus did better than anybody since Mark E. Smith* of The Fall.

With that in mind, I decided it was an appropriate time to test my theory about Pavement lyrics, and after asking a dozen or so people I like and whose opinions I respect, it shocked me a bit that with the exception of two folks picking the same song, nobody picked the same set of lyrics.  Below are a few.

did you see the drummer’s hair!” From the song “Cut Your Hair” picked by Vincent Cacchione from the band Soft Black

And the check when it arrived, we went dutch dutch dutch!” From the song “Shady Lane”, picked by Jesse Sposato of Sadie Magazine

pick out some Brazilian nuts for your engagement” From the song “We Dance” picked by Brad Haggert of Crystal Stilts

“I don’t need your summary acts / To get into the narrative age”
[which I always thought said: “I don’t need your summer reacts
to get into the narrative aim…” from “Old to Begin”, picked by Ari Messer, contributing editor at The Rumpus

Someone took…in these pants” from “Shoot the Singer”, picked by Jens Carstensen of The Giraffes

You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.” From the song “Shady Lane”, Sarah Pollock from 826NYC

George Chen of Zum picked some in-between live song banter that Malkmus was/is famous for:

“This one is from the Fab Four from Liverpool – Echo and the Bunnymen.”

James Yeh of Gigantic Magazine displayed the kind of fandom of somebody that takes the music of Pavement quite seriously:

re: favorite pavement lyric: Hmm, that’s a good question! Well the one that’s at the front of my “hopefully one day will be published novel-in-stories thing” is from “Spit on a Stranger”:

“Honey I’m a prize
And you’re a kitchen
We make a perfect match”

This is what I misheard for years. As you may already know, the actual lyrics are:

“Honey I’m a prize
And you’re a catch
And we make a perfect match”

Which obviously I don’t like nearly as much. If we’re talking about something I like, as was originally intended, I guess it would be from “Gold Soundz”:

“So drunk
In the August sun
And you’re the kind of girl I like
Cause you’re empty
And I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past”

And finally, from a guy who wrote what could be (in my mind) considered one of the finest pieces on Malkmus buddy/cohort/sometimes bandmate, David Berman (July/August ’09 issue of The Believer), chimed in. Justin Taylor beaking it down via e-mail:

1) from Gold Soundz- “So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like, because you’re empty, and I’m empty” This doesn’t need explaining, right? Some of the other ones do.

(2) “Box Elder”- pretty much the whole song is amazing, because the lyrics are so plainspoken and raw (which is relatively rare for Malkmus) and articulated in that clear, rising voice: sonorous as a lullabye over the strummed fuzz. But I’d like to pinpoint two parts of the song that seem like the linchpins of its success. The first is “Wasn’t the question you asked me / It wasn’t the answer I gave / that made me feel like I was on a train.” It’s just genius, the idea that “I am on a train” could be a *feeling* in the context of a relationship-conversation, and of course the notion is couched in the double-dismissal that neither question nor its answer (neither of which the listener is privvy to) are what triggers the feeling. Then there’s the song’s refrain, which is a very hard thing said plainly and with full confidence, something we’ve all wanted to say at one time or another, but probably only ever choked out of our mouths when it wasn’t true- “I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way, And I’m afraid to say that youre not one of them.”

(3) “Summer Babe”- “I saw your girlfriend and she was eating her fingers like they’re just another meal.” Yeah, we all saw that girl, Steve. And we wondered why the fuck she wasn’t OUR girlfriend…but then we realized that we actually kind of were glad she wasn’t.

(4) “Blue Hawaiian”- the whole first verse:

“A welcome to my friends:
This house is a home and a homes where I belong
Where the feelings are warm and the foundations are strong
If my soul has a shape, well, then it is an ellipse
And this slap is a gift
cause your cheeks have lost their lustre”

Holy shit! It’s Malkmus-as-Bitch-Goddess. It’s like a glimpse into the alternate universe where he’s a tart-tongued drag queen doing piano burlesque at Marie’s Crisis in the West Village. Except, you know–literary, kind of, still.

(5) “Starlings of the Slipstream”- The whole song is a great example of his *other* compositional method, where instead of nasty emotional jabs and one-liners, he allows the sounds of words to generate the ideas and images and lines. In verse one there are the “starlings in the slipstream,” which I can only assume he made up because he liked how it sounded (or saw some news article about birds riding air currents? who knows?) but then he thinks outloud that “the language of influence is cluttered with hard c’s” which leads him to the “spycam” he claims to have put in a sorority, which leads him to the priceless second refrain: “Darlings on the split screen.” It’s a totally beautiful sentence, but also utterly bizarre, and almost totally meaningless outside of the immediate context of the song (is he thinking of the original Revenge of the Nerds here? Or is he actually just riffing on the sounds of refrain #1?). Anyway, the thought of all the naked girls on camera (this is still a pre-internet world Malk is writing in) reminds him of the myth that “there’s no women in Alaska,” which in turn suggests something even more intellectually dubious- “There’s no creoles in Vermont,” which somehow brings him around to the first unequivocally True thing he’s said since the song started: “There’s no coast of Nebraska.” This is the heart of Pavement right here, isn’t it? Brilliant nonsense smartly declaimed–and American through and through.

See?  People take this shit seriously.

Like Taylor, I’ve got my moment with “Summer Babe” and “Box Elder”, except when I hear: “Every time I turn around I find I’m shot” in S.B,  I feel like that could be my own motto for any uncomfortable moment (there are many of these).  When Stephen M. waxes about how he had to “get the fuck out of this town” in “Box Elder”, that quixotic desire to leave the hustle and bustle out of New York takes over.  Not sure if I ever will, but if a song could empower me to do it, that is the one.  In “Silent Kit” he asks us not to “listen to the grandmother’s advice about us”, and it makes me think of a cryptic take on one of the greatest rock n’ roll love songs ever: Big Star’s “Thirteen”. Alex Chilton sings: “won’t you tell your dad, get off my back”, from the perspective of a teenager who just wants his music, and his love, to be understood.  If you take the time and place of the Malkmus lyric (1994), when the band had established themselves as a weird underground phenomenon — who people either loved or hated — it sounds like Pavement saying this is the band we are, this is what we do, and we don’t care what the older punks think, or if the indie snobs call us sell-outs.

But, if I had to pick a single lyric that meant the most to me, it’s from one of the bands biggest hits, “Range Life”:

“I want a range life, if I could settle down, then I would settle down.”

Malkmus,  now in  his forties, living in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and two kids may have settled down, and is leading the ideal life.  A solo album (with a pretty solid backing band) every year, a tour here and there, and now, for whatever reason, he got the old band back together.  To me, that song, and those specific words above, are an anthem to go beyond the facade of whatever scene or sound you think you need to fit into, because at the end of the day, you probably just want to retire, and take it easy.  In the case of Pavement, they did just that, but figured one last time to let us all get our kicks couldn’t hurt anybody.

And maybe making some money while doing it isn’t so bad either…

*possibly someone who has more disdain for the reunited band, Mark E. Smith once said “It’s just like music when you reckon it up. It’s like listening to Pavement: it’s just The Fall in 1985, isn’t it? They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.”