On Being A Fan

Growing Older With Pavement

As the first chiming notes of Pavement’s “Grounded” rang out, I leaned into my friend. “This is my favourite.” Although a huge fan herself, with her interior décor and a large tattoo to prove it, she looked up at me, quizzically. “Really?”

Seeing red: Stephen Malkmus.

Up to that point, I was fully immersed in the music, beside myself with joy.

It’s wonderful to spend time with people who share your love for something, especially in the wake of a pandemic that made it extremely difficult to do that. And this was a lot of people, filling Seattle’s historic Paramount theatre for the latest stop on the band’s reunion tour.

Two days before, I had sadly resigned myself to the realisation that I would not be able to see any of the dates on Pavement’s North American tour, which could well be their last. So had my friend.

Then someone gave her a pair of tickets two days before the show. And even though she lives in Seattle and I live in Tucson, well over a thousand miles away, I had somehow found a way to make the trip.

It was the kind of “miracle” Deadheads were always hoping for, which explains why I had managed to turn off my inner music critic. But now, in the wake of my friend’s question, a different type of response to the music was revealing itself to me, one more detached and introspective.

When Stephen Malkmus began to sing the first verse, I looked around at the packed house. People were singing along, but not nearly as many as had been for the band’s better-known songs before the encore, like “In the Mouth a Desert”, “Stereo”, or “Cut Your Hair”.

Then came the moment I was waiting for when I would be hearing different lyrics in my head for “Grounded” than the ones Malkmus was singing. Only this time, he was singing them too. I could distinctly hear someone nearby shouting what were now the wrong words through the din, the ones found on the band’s third album Wowee Zowee, instead of the ones from the earlier version that was left off their second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

I felt a smile cross my face, my body anticipating the realisation that my mind, still sluggish from travel-weariness, was trying to formulate.

I had come for the sense of community, paying collective devotion to the music I love most. But I had also come for this, to be alone in the crowd, revelling in what Malkmus and his friend and collaborator David Berman, once invoked in a song called “The Secret Knowledge of Backroads”.

In this case, the backroads wound their way through thickets of memory and the secret knowledge unlocked the gate to an experience I had never discussed with anyone, even the three other people who were there with me.

For the remainder of “Grounded”, I was transported back to that time when I was admitted, for the first time in my life – and one of the only times, frankly – to a level of fandom defined by its exclusivity. That day remains one of my happiest cultural memories.

It was the fall of 1993. Ever since I had taken a group of friends to see Pavement perform at the Kennel Club in San Francisco the previous May, the band had been important for our graduate-school circle, centred on the Department of English at UC-Berkeley.

When some members left, deciding to halt their studies or resume them elsewhere, those of us who remained were looking for a way to sustain the magic of our exciting but fragile kinship, one that didn’t pertain to our schooling. Love of music ended up serving that function and love of Pavement in particular.

One day, after a group of us had been drinking beer and talking theory at the Bear’s Lair in Cal’s student union, a friend who was married to a film critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian showed us a cassette that her husband had lent her.

Excited, she told us it contained tracks from Pavement’s forthcoming second album. A few of us decided to listen to it immediately, while we had the chance. So we made our way to the apartment of my closest graduate-school friend.

When we got there, we passed around a pipe until our senses were sufficiently primed. Only then did we pop the cassette into my friend’s stereo and press play. Because of my altered state, every song seemed to last for twenty minutes, its most granular details magnified until they felt enormous. I was blown away.

The record was everything I’d hoped for and a whole lot more, streamlining the approach of its predecessor Slanted and Enchanted without forsaking the impression that the band’s formidable songcraft was barely able to stave off chaos.

It’s hard to remember music you’ve only heard once, even when your mind has help. But one song kept playing in my head long after I’d gone home. I loved everything about it.

The measured pace reminded me of “Here”, my favourite song from Slanted and Enchanted. The main guitar part recalled Pete Townsend’s one-note masterpiece on “I Can See For Miles”. The overall vibe was profoundly melancholic.

What I remembered best, predictably, was the line in which Stephen Malkmus seemed – at least to someone as high as I was – to be peering into the apartment while we listened: “They’re smoking marijuana or doing blotters I don’t know which”.

When Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was released in February of 1994, I recognised most of the material from our private listening session the previous fall. Sadly, however, the song I liked best was missing. After a while, I began to wonder whether I might have hallucinated it.

Although Pavement was known for its perverse relationship with fame, it was hard to believe that the band would have discarded a song that good. Surely it had merited a B-side?

It was a relief, then, when Pavement’s third album, Wowee Zowee, included a version of the song, which I now learned was called “Grounded”. Even though I couldn’t compare it to the one that I’d heard back in 1993, I could tell that the music had been slowed down and spruced up.

The lyrics seemed different, though. And one line had definitely been changed, with “they’re smoking marijuana” giving way – as best I could tell – to “they’re soaking up the fun”.

At first, I was disappointed. My favourite band had apparently submitted to the same soft censorship that had led Liz Phair to blunt the edge of some of her best lyrics from her Girly-Sound recordings when she made Exile in Guyville.

The more I thought about it, though, the more my disappointment turned to pride.

I had long been intimidated by friends who had an insider’s relationship with the music I loved, like the graduate-school classmate who had hung out at Fort Apache Studio in Boston when some of my favourite records were being made there or my fellow editor at Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life who had been helped by Kurt Cobain at a concert.

Now, though, I had special knowledge of my own, a secret to treasure. That helps to explain why “Grounded” has remained my favourite Pavement song, despite a wealth of likelier candidates.

Even after the first version of the song from the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain sessions was released – first on Matador Records’ tenth-anniversary compilation Everything Is Nice, then on the album’s double-CD reissue five years later – the fact that I’d carefully preserved its memory in my head for years was the perfect way to prove my dedication to the band.

There’s more to the story, though. Over time, I found new ways to reinforce my special relationship with “Grounded”. I insisted that it be on the multi-hour soundtrack for my wedding and danced along to it at the reception with one of my best friends and his partner.

As I had learned when it was officially released in 1999, the same stanza that mentioned “smoking marijuana” also name-checked Tucson, Arizona, where I had just applied for a university teaching position. After I got that job, I couldn’t help but think that I was fated to move there.

There was also a negative aspect to this relationship.

Someone at Matador Records mailed me the double-CD reissue shortly before its release in the fall of 2004. I was so delighted by this unexpected gesture that I posted a photo of the envelope on my blog. Unfortunately, in my excitement I forgot to black out my address, thereby initiating a chain reaction that would alter the course of my life.

When I had first heard “Grounded”, the melancholy I perceived in the song had cleared a space where I could put whatever I had mixed feelings about.

Years later, when I was struggling to adapt to my new life as a professor at the University of Arizona, I filled it with what I had lost in the move, cut off from my old friends and the places I loved by a distance that far exceeded the miles between Tucson and Berkeley.

By 2005, though, that space had become a repository for problems in my marriage that eventually triggered an existential crisis.

Intense expressions of emotion make me uneasy. My parents tended to defer stress and suffering and I learned to follow their lead. By listening to “Grounded”, however, I was able to access feelings that were otherwise under lock and key.

The song became an indispensable outlet, one I turned to more and more often as my domestic circumstances worsened. And it continues to serve that function to this day.

The mind moves much faster, in multiple dimensions, than any sequence of sentences can simulate. Trust me, though, when I say that everything I’ve written here – and a whole lot more  – passed through my mind before Pavement’s performance of “Grounded” at the Paramount was over.

Although I was grateful that they had decided to play it, the smile on my face reflected the complexity of my response.

More than that, though, it communicated how difficult it would be to explain why “Grounded” is my favourite Pavement song. Or at least how difficult it would be to do that without seeming hopelessly self-involved.

Revisiting my personal history with “Grounded”, surrounded by people with whom I seemingly had so much in common, made me see my relationship with the song in a new light.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so eager to celebrate that special relationship? Wasn’t the point of going to a concert like this to make connections with one’s fellow fans, rather than to isolate in their midst?

After the show, as I waited for over a half hour to buy a T-shirt, I considered these questions at greater length. It struck me, again, just how strange it was for a band like Pavement to achieve this kind of success.

Although nobody in the theatre had the same experience as I had back in 1993, I was willing to bet that many of those in attendance related to their favourite songs with an intensity and specificity similar to the one I felt for “Grounded”. But I also knew that the stories they might tell about this relationship were likely to be as idiosyncratic as my own, to the point of hermeticism.

There’s always a personal dimension to music fandom that runs counter to the solidarity of the crowd. We all want to feel special. In the case of Pavement, though, this quality was sure to be particularly pronounced, since there is so little agreement about what their songs are about.

While mainstream artists like Bruce Springsteen or U2 would go out of their way to produce songs whose message was self-evident, Pavement doggedly pursued the opposite tack.

Even a song like Wowee Zowee’s “Rattled by the Rush”, inspired by right-wing media personality Rush Limbaugh, is hard to match up with its purported subject. While “I don’t need a minister/To call me a groom” at least provides a foothold for political interpretation, lines like “I’m drowning for your thirst” are too abstract to facilitate it.

To be honest, the mere fact that Pavement’s best-known work now sets off massive sing-a-longs in countries where English is a second or third language testifies to their cultural impact. But I pity the poor souls who try to use the words they’ve memorized in practical situations. An advanced native speaker would be hard-pressed to repurpose the band’s lyrics in that manner.

Long before my daughter knew the band, long before she was paying close attention to any popular music, long before she could read, even, she knew the phrases from Pavement songs I would randomly blurt out around the house.

If I said, “lies and betrayals”, she would respond “fruit-covered nails”. Obviously, a pre-schooler wouldn’t have a context for understanding this sequence of words.

But then again, even someone who knew the songs as well as I do would be hard-pressed to conjure one, since most of the lyrics Malkmus wrote for the band – and most of the ones that his bandmate Scott Kannberg wrote as well – are so disjointed and oblique that it’s impossible to ascribe a neat-and-tidy meaning to them.

That slipperiness is also the source of their power. What distinguished Pavement from other bands of the 1990s with a broadly similar sound was the powerful tension between their music and lyrics.

The former deploys a familiar indie-rock combination of keening arpeggios, ramshackle rhythms, and random squalls of noise to convey an impression of feelings whose vagueness makes them more intense. No matter how hard Malkmus’s lead guitar tries to pin them down, they always wriggle free in the end.

That’s where lyrics would typically come in, giving definition to what would otherwise remain inchoate. But Pavement lyrics consistently do the opposite, complicating the music’s emotional puzzles. Whether they defy the mood created by the sound of a song or embrace it, their fragmented, punning quality forcefully rejects the injunction to make sense.

Like David Berman, Stephen Malkmus clearly has great respect for poetry. When the band’s fourth album Brighten the Corners came out, he casually noted that he had been reading a lot of John Ashbery.

Unlike Berman, however, who wrote powerful stand-alone poems, Malkmus is content to use words in a complementary manner, as if his voice were just another instrument. He has admitted to making lyrics up on the fly to fit the music that precedes them, not particularly worried about whether they add up. And the same holds for his bandmate Scott Kannberg, who may be less ostentatiously literary, yet achieves a similar result.

But human beings are hard-wired to make sense out of nonsense. Even if the lyrics to a song are picked at random, as some of Kurt Cobain’s were, we will struggle to perceive them that way. Whenever possible, we will fill in gaps in our understanding with content drawn from our own experiences.

In a way, what happened to me during their performance of “Grounded” at the Paramount is more rule than exception. My relationship with the song was less special than I had thought. The secret knowledge I had treasured all these years seemed like a mirage, the consequence of an aesthetic effect.

This realisation prompted me to see Pavement’s greatness in a new light. Their songs do a remarkable job of giving listeners room to manoeuvre, hearing what they want and need to hear alongside what is actually there.

That means that many of their fans at the Paramount or anywhere else on this current concert are likely to be doing exactly what I did, feeling solidarity with other members of the audience while being simultaneously aware of their unique place within it.

For politically committed individuals, the indeterminacy of Pavement songs can be frustrating. Bands like The Clash, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine are able to transform their audiences into a temporary bloc, setting differences aside in the service of a common goal. Even when Pavement has thousands of fans to work with, however, as is proving the case on their current tour, their refusal to communicate clearly defined messages deprives them of this power.

I wonder, though, whether this conception of engagement is too narrow. Because the tension between collective and individual identity is a fundamental aspect of modern society, perhaps there is value in being able to experience it aesthetically instead of sustaining the illusion that a crowd that has once been united will stay that way indefinitely.

Back when Pavement was experiencing their brief run of MTV-level fame, in the months following the release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a lot was made of the way their minor hit “Cut Your Hair” ended. After the line “tension and fame”, Malkmus clearly sings the word “career”. But as he repeats the word, his voice becoming increasingly unhinged, it starts to sound more like “Korea”.

Within the context of the song, it is obvious that “career” makes more sense than “Korea”. Yet the band was already so identified by that point with a kind of slacker surrealism that some argued convincingly that audiences were supposed to hear “Korea” and then reflect on how it might be a decent synonym for “career”.

In retrospect, this line of reasoning seems dubious, simply because the unexpected substitutions in Pavement lyrics consistently undermine the pursuit of meaning instead of inciting it. At the same time, this argument emphasizes what made the band distinctive in its era and continues to make them relevant today.

That same song “Cut Your Hair” also contains the incisive declaration that “songs mean a lot when songs are bought”, suggesting that the will to interpret is directly proportional to the financial investment in music. It’s a formulation that makes sense, in a way that Pavement lyrics rarely do.

But it also shortchanges the public. These days, almost nobody spends money on individual records. Yet interesting lyrics continue to fascinate. The fate of Pavement’s “Harness Your Hopes” is a great example.

As a B-side for the first single from their final album Terror Twilight, the song didn’t make much of an impression. Two decades later, though, it had become the band’s most streamed song on Spotify, thanks to the platform’s algorithm inserting it into a wide variety of automatically generated playlists. Indeed, it had become so popular that Matador Records produced a video for it to accompany this year’s expanded reissue of that album.

What gets left out of this explanation, however, is the Spotify users who heard it accidentally and then liked it enough to seek it out for repeat listening.

At times, the lyrics almost seem like self-parody, pushing Malkmus’s penchant for strange montage effects to the point of pure silliness. For the people who discovered Pavement through “Harness Your Hopes”, however – some of whom were clearly in the audience at the Paramount and, presumably, other stops on this tour – those lyrics represented the proverbial gateway drug, an introduction to blissfully excessive wordplay that elicits identification with the singer, not whatever he is singing about.

In a world where the relentless pressure to be pragmatic has turned higher education into vocational training, getting hundreds and hundreds of people to sing along to lyrics that are anything but has a social value that cannot be translated into numbers, even if the take from the box office and merch table assuredly can.

Perhaps the most important thing that Pavement has to offer is the opportunity to recognize that every sing-along is always already a singing-alone, just as I did when they began to play my favourite song “Grounded”. Being together doesn’t mean having to be the same. It feels good to possess secret knowledge, but even better to share in the knowledge that every one of us needs secrets.

Photograph courtesy of Shawn Anderson. Published under a Creative Commons license.